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.”

Producing sweet wine in central California

Many sweet and dessert wines are made from grape juice with sugar concentrated by partial drying, freezing, botrytis infection and late harvesting, according to UC viticulture specialist Matthew Fidelibus, a conference organizer.

Fidelibus researches winegrape cultivars best suited for the San Joaquin Valley of California at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Parlier, where the weather is quite different from the storied wine production locales in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Fidelibus’ interest in sweet wine was piqued in 2008 by an unplanned, but fortuitous experiment with Diamond muscat raisin grapes. Fidelibus was researching a labor-saving process for drying raisins, called dried-on-the-vine.  Instead of putting grapes on paper trays between vineyard rows, the producer cuts the grapes’ stems and leaves the clusters to dry in the canopy, where they can later be harvested mechanically.

Sometimes, however, cool temperatures early in the fall prevent the grapes from drying adequately. Such was the case with the Diamond muscat grapes. The weather that year left Fidelibus with a supply of partially dried, withered grapes. Fidelibus shipped them to enologists in Davis to be made into wine.

“It was really delicious sweet wine,” Fidelibus said. “It started me thinking, maybe we should be studying grapes intended be dried and made into wine to offer another opportunity for smaller local vintners to produce a product with a higher value than the products we have now.”

There is still a great deal of experimentation necessary to expand the valley sweet wine industry, such as which grapes are ideal, under what conditions should they be grown and how to treat those grapes after they have been dried. Fidelibus hopes to add ancient Greek winegrape varieties – such as Assyrtiko and Athiri –  to the collection of fruit he is growing for observation at Kearney.

“I think the Greek wines are very interesting,” Fidelibus said. “The way the grapes are dried is similar to the way raisins are dried here. Farmers are familiar with that kind of process. And the wines are very distinctive. “

Among the participants at the sweet wine seminar were Dinuba farmer Tory Torosian and his sons Tory Jr. and Sarkis. The Torosians cultivate a diversity of specialty fruit on an 80-acre farm at the foot of Smith Mountain. They sell their produce directly to consumers at San Francisco and Fresno farmers markets. Sarkis, currently a junior at Dinuba High School, is planning to major in enology at Fresno State or UC Davis and dreams of eventually producing a special sweet wine from grapes grown on the family farm.

“Those are the kind of people who would be able to do something like this,” Fidelibus said. “It wouldn’t make sense for them to make regular table wine. That’s readily available. These would be handmade, top quality wines that demand a premium price.”

Such a specialty product corresponds with the Old World custom of sharing an exquisite sweet wine with guests, a practice described by Wine Hall of Famer Darrell Corti at the sweet wine seminar.

“They are used as welcome drinks,” he said. “They indicate your standing in the household when they are served to you. The glass is always small, but it may be refilled often. They show the esteem the producer has for you. Table wine is for consumption. Sweet wines, especially the natural sweet ones, are for celebration. We should look at them in that light.”