In Defense of Moscato

Moscato has had a meteoric rise: why the love-hate relationship with the varietal?

Why is there a love-hate relationship with moscato?

You know moscato is becoming a big thing among young people when there's an Instagram hashtag for it — and it's sort of hilarious. If you browse the current 259,037 photos on Instagram, you'll find everything from simple bottle shots (the more reserved photos) to 20-something girls posing with glasses, bottle shots in every social situation (from writing papers to lounging at the beach), lots and lots of "selfies," and other (more questionable) shots. 

And maybe it should come as no surprise that moscato is grabbing all the #love. Just over the last three years, sales of moscato have exploded into something of a sugary sweet bomb. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reports, sales grew 78 percent; in 2012, moscato overtook sauvignon blanc as the second most-popular white varietal (chardonnay still holding onto its number one spot), with sales of 2.8 million, reports the Napa Valley Register. And sales of moscato grew again by 25 percent in 2012. "In the U.S., moscato’s popularity has exploded over the past three years, with sales growing faster than any other wine varietal," Stephanie Gallo, the vice president of marketing for Gallo Family Vineyards, told us, referring to the most recent numbers from SymphonyIRI reports. And obviously, everyone is trying to get a bite of the moscato market; heck, SKYY Vodka even launched a moscato grape vodka just to keep up with it. And Gallo Family Vineyards is behind one of the newest wine holidays on the calendar, National Moscato Day, complete with Tweet-ups on May 9 and plenty of moscato recipes to keep everyone happy.

But despite the clear demand for moscato, why are wine snobs turning their noses up at it? Sure, it might be the fan favorite of college girls and rappers (re: the "Moscato Love" single by Bigg Robb), but it's become almost vilified by the wine community. Said one Napa Valley wine expert to the Wall Street Journal,"The moscato movement feels more like the wine-cooler movement today." Sure, if you love wine coolers, you will probably also love moscato. Or, writes Willy Staley in New York magazine, "For wine snobs, moscato is the new white zin, the varietal used as a knowing punch line on Frasier and, more recently, as the tongue-in-cheek name of a highbrow-meets-lowbrow arts-and-food magazine. It’s a signifier for plonk at which the enlightened turn up their well-trained noses." Or, one last turn to hate on what moscato has become, from The New York Times' Eric Pfanner:

While it is pleasing to see an underappreciated wine style get a deserved bit of attention, the response of the global wine trade to the moscato phenomenon has been less commendable. While moscato used to be made mostly in the hills around Asti [in Italy], sources proliferated as the industry scrambled to capitalize on the new interest. Suddenly there was moscato from California, from Australia, from Argentina, from South Africa — you name it.

A lot of the new moscato tastes nothing like the original. Indeed, it tastes the way you might expect a sweet, slightly fizzy wine that’s low in alcohol — and usually cheap — to taste.

Well then. Why the love-hate relationship? 

Well, it's definitely love for Gallo and other brands that decided to jump on board the moscato bandwagon — and they're laughing all the way to the bank. But it's clear who's buying the most moscato: the (often dreaded term with so many connotations) "millennials." "We’re seeing a new generation enjoying sweet wines outside of traditional occasions, particularly with millennials," says Gallo. "They are taking a greater interest in wine than ever before, and moscato is at the forefront of why they’re choosing wine." Gallo continues, "In the past, it was customary to pour moscato after dinner or with dessert. Now, we’re seeing a younger, more adventurous generation of wine drinkers who aren’t adhering to conventional wine traditions." (Also notable: the price of moscato, Gallo says. A "quality but affordable" moscato from Gallo costs on average $5, while sauvignon prices in 2012 hit about $8.)

So can we really hate on millennials for choosing a moscato? After all, we're a generation that grew up on Coke and sugary sweet drinks, so it should be no surprise that our wine palates lean toward something sweet over something acidic or tannic. Tim Elliot writes on his blog Winecast that this isn't that surprising that the wine market is meeting the demand: "A decade ago tankers of Australian shriaz with a slight addition of concentrate to add residual sugar weaned Americans off Coke and into wine. If you browse your local wine store or supermarket you will also notice more 'sweet red' blends on the shelf than ever. And I’ve seen a rise in sweet riesling lately as well."

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So, let's leave the judgment and snootiness aside; even Pfanner notes that not every moscato is "a glass of sugar." As much as some people might enjoy wines that taste like "firm skeleton" or "wet stone," sometimes we'd rather have a wine that's slightly sweet, slightly fruity, and lightly bodied. After all, isn't a wine to be enjoyed, not judged?