Dan Berger: Muscat comes out from the shadows

From what I'm told, dramatic increases in the sales of muscat-based white wines over the last year, which have taken many wineries by surprise, are related to lyrics in some hip-hop songs that suggest the singers are consuming this wine.

I cannot verify this from my own music listening habits (I don't think Beethoven wrote about muscat), but I can verify that some savvy wine marketing people see this trend as very positive for the industry, and for a curious reason.

Two men who have worked in this game for decades both believe that a huge percentage of the muscat-wine buyers are from the previously non-wine community and thus are new wine consumers.

"I think most of these sales are to people who used to drink RTDs," said one, a Napa Valley executive. So-called RTDs are the pre-mixed cocktails called ready-to-drink — such as Bacardi Breezer and Smirnoff Ice.

The majority of RTD drinkers, said the other industry insider, are folks who typically didn't drink much wine and aren't bothered by muscat's connection to a lower-class wine of the past.

Muscat-based wines and RTDs have one thing in common: both are sort of sweet. The fact that the grape variety would almost overnight gain such consumer attention is a surprise, since for decades the grape has languished, the result of a misconception by wine lovers.

Decades ago a cheap, fortified wine called muscatel was made by many wine companies. It appealed mainly to problem drinkers, and its connection with derelicts and street consumption prompted many Americans to assume incorrectly that muscat and muscatel were the same. Thus did sales of the former suffer.

But the esteemed muscat grape is popular in a number of European wine regions including Alsace, where many fine dry and sweet versions are made. And the grape is the reason for the success of Moscato d'Asti, the sparkling dessert wine from Italy.

Indeed, to avoid any connection to muscatel, many wineries are using the alternative term moscato on their labels. And there are literally dozens of these wines out there today.

One of the best is the 2010 Eberle Muscat Canelli from Paso Robles. Others include wines from Mandolina (Santa Barbara County) and Martin & Weyrich Moscato Allegro Paso Robles). There are even various versions of the wine.

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