“There’s a saying in our industry that ‘folks like to talk dry but drink sweet,’” says Julie Adams, CEO of Oliver Winery. “But at Oliver, we’ve embraced the approachability of sweeter wines. It’s a special niche that supports our values of inviting everyone to the table.”
It’s late fall 2021, and we’re chatting over the phone. Oliver Winery is about to launch another of its sweeter vinos: the then-still-new Lemon Moscato. The flavor will hit the national market in spring 2022 and become the third installment in Oliver’s esteemed flavored Moscato series. At the time, the series already included the original Cherry Moscato and Blueberry Moscato. Like clockwork, the brand has shepherded out a new flavored Moscato almost every spring since April 2017. In fact, cut to April 2023, and the brand’s at it again, debuting the quirky and layered Watermelon Mint
The repeated rollouts speak to the popularity of flavored Moscato. And back in 2021, the local buzz surrounding Lemon Moscato had been very strong. In the winery’s tasting rooms in Bloomington, Ind., the flavor samples sold out in mere weeks. And to be honest, it’s part of why I was eager to hop on a call with Adams. The other reason was that I wanted to know why, of all places, a winery situated in southern Indiana had kicked off the flavored Moscato trend.
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To dismiss Oliver out of hand (or any Midwestern winery for that matter) is to ignore a growing industry of winemakers in the heartland. “Indiana is home to over 116 wineries and has over 600 grape-bearing acres,” according to the Purdue University Wine and Grape team, Back in 1989, there were only nine wineries in the whole state. When Country Heritage Winery & Vineyard, which has 101 acres of planted vines, opened its doors 13 years ago, “most of the people in our area thought it was crazy to open a winery in our small town,” says Ashlee Baumgartner, director of marketing. But there was a demand for sweeter bottlings. “This past year about 83 percent of our customers purchased sweet wine.”
Meanwhile, Oliver Winery has become the 28th-largest winery in the U.S. “Our expansion has largely been fueled by the growth in interest of these sweeter wines,” Adams says, “because they appeal so broadly to most folks.”
Oliver’s beverages are sold in grocery and independent stores in 42 states (and expanding). The brand’s Sweet Red ranks fourth in the nation within the sweet red category from a value sales perspective; its Blueberry Moscato comes in second within flavored Moscato, behind Barefoot’s Fruitscato Peach. And, between 2018 and 2022, Oliver Winery actually doubled in size. This past year alone, Oliver Winery produced 700,000 cases of wine. Indiana and Ohio buy the most, but states outside the Midwest are catching on. Texas is the brand’s third-largest state by volume of sales, while Florida and Arizona are closing in. “Sure, we have a main stake at the heart of the country,” Adams says, “but we are resonating with the rest of the U.S.”
Once upon a time, sweeter wines had been deemed blasé or unsophisticated. Today, lovers of the style are everywhere. And Oliver Winery started leading the charge in flavored Moscato wines. So much so that competitors took notice and have started making their own.
Oliver Winery Creates a Trend
Oliver Winery has dominated the sweet wine category for decades. “Our Sweet Red has been a best-seller since the 1980s when founder Bill Oliver first developed a sweet red, white, and rosé wine,” Adams says. But over the past five years, the flavored Moscato has eclipsed Sweet Red.
Moscato itself isn’t particularly newfangled. But in the 2000s, it entered the mainstream when Drake nonchalantly rapped about ordering “lobster and shrimp and a glass of Moscato” in 2009. Then, others like Lil’ Kim and Kanye West followed, literally singing its praises before celebs like Nicki Minaj and NeNe Leakes, of “Real Housewives of Atlanta” fame, came out with their own Moscato wines. And so, a whole new younger generation of drinkers became acquainted with Moscato. Younger folks are less afraid to blur traditional alcohol categories, first wanting hard seltzer and then trying hard cider or sweeter wines, Adams says.
While seasoned wine drinkers and industry pros often look down on (non-dessert) sweet wines, one-third of consumers enter the wine category through the style, which has become a $2 billion industry, according to Adams. Beyond its approachable profile, there’s a practical consideration that’s led millennials and other younger crowds to turn to Moscato: It’s affordable.
“We can create quality wine at a price point that a lot of people can purchase. It’s worked really well for us,” Adams says. Moscato already leans fruity and floral, and by 2015 Oliver Winery’s winemaking team started experimenting in the brand’s tasting rooms by adding cherry to the mix to create in small, experimental batches what would become its Cherry Moscato.
“It might be seen as an odd choice — reducing the alcohol content to mix wine with fruit flavors — but it was really a new concept and preceded the seltzer movement,” Adams says. “We were pleasantly surprised by the results.”
Oliver did some analysis of its sales, and Cherry Moscato was equally popular with shoppers who had also purchased a sweet red or Cabernet Sauvignon. Rob Warren, director of winemaking, joined Oliver Winery in 2022. With 20 years of experience, he points to an additional difference in Oliver’s flavored Moscatos. “All the fruit-flavored Moscatos at Oliver are not cloying sweet,” he says. “We make sure that customers are comfortable drinking the wine without having to set it down because it’s too sweet.”
A New Category
By 2017, it was clear that the flavored Moscato series was taking off. Oliver then launched its Blueberry Moscato. And all this work concocting new mixes in the tasting rooms began to dovetail with movements in the larger culture, Adams says, as more adventurous consumers were looking for flavored wine options, a category Oliver anticipates will continue to grow, expecting it to double in size by 2025.
Even back in 2021, flavored wines as a category were trending, with double-digit category growth. Flavored wines were up 34 percent in sales year-over-year, according to Nielsen data for the 52-week period ending May 22, 2021. The Oliver team says their Moscato series sales increased 89 percent in 2020 and another 26 percent in 2021.
Both the cherry and blueberry flavors performed so well that Oliver started selling them nationally. “Then these were so well received in the national marketplace that competitors ended up jumping on the flavored Moscato bandwagon,” Adams says. Gallo launched three flavored Moscatos via its Barefoot brand in 2019. There’s also Tropical Moscato, Arbor Mist Moscato fruit wines, and Franzia’s peach-flavored, boxed “Refreshers” Moscato, to name but a few. “Flavored Moscatos have become their own category in the grocery store at this point. But we’re the ones that started that trend,” Adams says.
Over 100,000 visitors wander through Oliver’s tasting rooms every year. There, the brand samples its latest creations. “We really like to think about making wine approachable,” Adams says. “Our roots are in our hospitality and our tasting rooms.”
Building the business in the Midwest also set Oliver above the pack. The brand had to consider the preferred tastes and palates of the region. “The wine industry is quite consolidated,” Adams says. “Most of what you find on grocery shelves comes from the top three winemakers in the U.S., and our geography has allowed us to think outside the box in ways that some of our peers in more traditional wine regions might not have the freedom to do.”
There probably hasn’t been enough cachet in the sweeter wine world, but Oliver doesn’t think of wine in strict, highbrow terms. “We always want to surprise and delight when someone walks into the tasting room,” Adams says. “We want to help people find things that they enjoy, and for many, that’s sweeter flavors.”
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