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Doug Bell oversees all of the wine, beer and spirits buying for Whole Foods. Here are his thoughts on what 2016 will bring for wine in the U.S.
Doug Bell oversees all of Whole Foods' wine, beer and spirits buying from his home base in Georgia—for wine alone, that means about three and a half million cases each year. I talked to him recently about what he sees as the coming trends for wine (and craft beer) in 2016.
You've predicted that $15 to $25 wines are going to be big in 2016—why that price zone?
Look, when you spend about $15 to $25 dollars, especially for imported wines, the quality is miraculously higher than you get for $8 to $10. And if you look at sales data, those wines at the $7 or $8 price, their sales are all down. The market is really feeling right now like it was before the recession. People are trading up, which is great to see.
What are your favorite regions right now around that price?
The Rhône. Wines from the Loire. Spain. The Chianti area. We're looking all over, really, but those are some that come to mind. And good sparkling wines from $15 to $25. We can't get enough of those.
You also think that sparkling wines are going to keep rocketing up in popularity, right?
They're right back in the game, particularly the $15 to $30 range. You can thank Prosecco for that. But our Cava sales are up, there's crémant from the Loire or Burgundy, even some of the best US sparkling wines are in that zone.
Wine in cans. I think the time is here. If you think about a can, it's the perfect delivery system for a liquid. It's light to ship, you can get more in a shipping container, they're recyclable, the consumer can take them hiking, or on the golf course, or at a swimming pool. And now that wine is getting up there as beverage of choice for the American drinker...well, put it this way. We're working with one of our Italian sparkling producers on a can project; we're rolling that out in about eight weeks. We're also working on a project for a California Cabernet and a Chardonnay in a can. We're gung ho for the can. It really makes sense.
Is dry rosé going to become a year-round drink?
Yes. We sell more and more every year. And our customers, they want to spend $20 to $25, and they want it to be from France. From Provence, or Bandol. It was slow to take on, but it's now the expectation for what to drink in the summer for a lot of wine drinkers, and they've also realized that it's pretty good all year round. You don't have to stop drinking it after Labor Day. Hey, I had a glass of French rosé yesterday afternoon, and we've got snow on the ground.
What other trends for 2016 do you see?
Sustainable wines. I think we as Americans have embraced sustainable and organically produced foodstuff, but those attributes haven't been that important for wine until relatively recently. But now customers come in looking for it. Look at the success of Bonterra. That was this weird niche item produced by Fetzer for, what, twenty years now? But it's up to seven or eight hundred thousand cases per year. The whole move or trend towards sustainability—and authenticity, knowing where your food comes from—I think that with the U.S. wine consumer, now those things really do matter to them.
To me the next big thing is going to be when you can walk into a store in Georgia and buy a wine from Virginia. Or Texas. Or New York. We had a conference in Virginia, and my regional wine coordinator, by surprise, had coordinated a tasting of 25 Virginia wine producers. And it was eye-opening. I was like, damn. These wines are world class! Same thing with Texas. I'm there every three weeks, and the wines I'm tasting there are amazing. We're making good wine now everywhere that we can grow grapes. And people are going to realize that.
How about beer in 2016?
The whole craft beer industry is keeping that category alive. Partly because that whole locavore idea, eat locally, drink locally, is officially here to stay. All the hyper-local craft brewers fit right into that. But it's actually coming to a point of complete saturation in terms of numbers of breweries. The town I live in, in North Georgia, we have 1,200 people. And we've got three breweries! There's just so many in every market—it's crazy. We try to be proactive in terms of special or seasonal brews, from neighborhood or regional brewers, but where do they all live on our shelf? The number of skus has grown exponentially. There's something like 350 breweries within 50 miles of San Francisco. It's good and healthy for the local economies and the U.S. economy, but I just don't know how long you can continue this explosive growth before you plateau out.