Dry chardonnays, cabernets and merlots dominate wine sales in the United States, but experts believe sweet wine could make a comeback, creating new opportunities for farmers and vintners.

People who enjoy soda, chocolate and candy are stepping up to the bar and ordering expensive sweet cocktails. Flavored martinis, spirits mixed with soft drinks or energy drinks, and fruit juice blends have become popular cocktail choices. California wine producers are beginning to realize consumers’ desire for refreshing, easy-to-drink libations isn’t being met by their wine.

“We haven’t been having an honest conversation about sweetness and what people like,” says master sommelier, wine consultant and author Doug Frost. “We’ve acted like sweet wine is what a beginner starts with and then you graduate to dry wines.”

Frost spoke at a conference sponsored by the University of California to explore new production and marketing options for sweet dessert and dried fruit wines.

Sommelier Tim Hanni, another conference speaker, has studied consumers’ beverage preferences, attitudes and behavior. Some people, he said, simply prefer sweet tastes, but the wine industry has disenfranchised these consumers.

“Go into a white tablecloth restaurant and order white zinfandel and see how you are treated,” Hanni said. “We are killing that potential market, calling them stupid, uneducated and immature.”

In fact, sweet wines have traditionally been considered the finest wines in the world, according to Darrel Corti, a wine and food expert who was inducted into the “Vintners Hall of Fame” in 2008. In antiquity, all the famous wines were sweet, he said.  Sweet wines are more difficult to produce, but because of the higher sugar content, are more stable than table wine.

“In Lachish, in Israel, a pottery container bearing an inscription from the Iron Age (1800 BC) actually says, ‘wine made with dried black grapes,’” Corti said.

Sweet wine has a distinguished history in the United States. Around the time the country was founded, sweet Madeira wine was imported by the barrel from Madeira, a Portuguese island 350 miles west of Morocco. Madeira wine was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, and it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, said wine importer Bartholomew Broadbent. It’s said that George Washington drank a pint a day and Betsy Ross sipped Madeira as she stitched the first American flag.

Since America was the primary market for Madeira, U.S. Prohibition nearly destroyed the country’s wine industry in 1920; it was never able to recover fully.  Sweet wines – such as port, Sherry and sauternes – dominated U.S. wine consumption for 20 years after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, according to historian James Lapsley of the UC Agricultural Issues Center and UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. Its popularity peaked with 70 percent of the market share in 1952. But in the 1970s, table wine quality improved and sweet wine came to be perceived as old fashioned or “skid row,” Lapsley said. Since then, its popularity rode a downward slope, going as low as 2 percent of the wine market share in 2000. Lapsley, a former commercial winemaker, however, has high hopes for the future of sweet wine.

“There is a market for sweet wine,” he said. “But the wine must be high quality, needs to display personality, it needs to have soul.”

UC Cooperative Extension viticulture farm advisor in Mendocino County, Glenn McGourty, believes a small glass of good dessert wine is the best way to end a meal.

“I always encourage people to try it,” McGourty said. “A lot of people say they don’t like sweet wine. Then they try it and realize they do. People are usually pleasantly surprised.”