The VinePair Podcast: Why Doesn’t Anyone Drink Dessert Wine?

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On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe contemplate why no one really drinks dessert wines here in the U.S. Is it the sweetness, the confusing nature, or just the fact that we Americans tend to eat fast and move on to other things? Tune in for more.

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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.

Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.

Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

A: And it’s the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” Friday before Thanksgiving.

Z: Yeah.

A: Whoa.

J: I can’t believe it’s Thanksgiving already.

A: Yeah. At least it’s finally chilly. I don’t know if you — it’s just like, let’s go. I want cool, crisp fall. I feel like I haven’t had that yet. I’ve had more warm clammy fall.

Z: No one has ever wanted that.

J: Sounds like summer.

A: Sounds like summer.

Z: But the problem with that weather in fall is that it gets cold quicker at night and so you get that gross like, “Oh, I was hot and now I’m cold.” I don’t like that.

A: Yeah, it’s not fun. So you know what is really fun about Thanksgiving, though, is serving fun drinks. And I know we’re going to have more of a Thanksgiving episode next week, so get ready, get ready. But one thing I’d like to serve at the end of the meal is dessert wine. But I feel like this probably isn’t even a hot take. I feel like it’s just the truth. I don’t feel like dessert wine is ever going to really happen in the United States. I don’t think it’s ever going to be a thing that people get really excited about. You know what? I don’t think dessert wines are ever even going to get to the level of people’s obsession in certain markets with amaro. I think that dessert wine is doomed to be the afterthought of most everyone forever.

J: Well, where does dessert wine happen? Are there other countries where it’s really big?

Z: Yes. I mean, relative to the United States? Yes. I mean, the U.K. I think has been a big driver of the dessert wine industry historically. Port, sherry — sherry in all styles. But certainly the sweeter styles. And I mean, I think within the countries that produce a lot of it. So whether that’s some of the European wine regions and countries, France, Italy, et cetera, but also Spain obviously, Portugal, but also I think you see more of a tradition of it in places like Australia, South Africa, where settled by English colonists and they helped kind of establish the wine industry. And there’s a stronger tradition of sweet wines there. Although I think in those countries as well, they are no longer nearly as important or popular as they once were. But that’s never really been the case here. The domestic sweet wine industry, with the exception of things made from Concord grapes et cetera, has not really ever been, as far as I’m aware, any kind of — I mean, it’s a very, very, very small part of the domestic wine industry, even when compared to how popular it is as a consumer product.

A: Well, and what’s so weird about it is you’ll hear producers who have dessert wine, who make dessert wines that are like, “I don’t understand it. Americans love sweet things.” America is, that’s the reputation is we’re the country of Coca-Cola. So everyone’s like, “I don’t get it. They love sweet things. Why don’t Americans drink dessert wine?” But I think it’s one of those classic issues in America: We say we don’t like sweet, even though we like sweet. So if you tell us it’s sweet, we don’t like it. And I think that really does plague dessert wine very, very dramatically here for whatever reason.

Z: Yeah, I think there’s the talk dry drink sweet thing that you’re talking about as part of this. I also would be curious to hear from each of you. I think there’s also this unfortunate… Well, there’s these weird two things that affect dessert wine that are both totally contradictory, but I think also are true for a lot of people. One is that we think of sweet things as unsophisticated. It’s not just a matter of people thinking that, “Oh, I don’t want to drink a sweet thing, because I think it’s unhealthy.” But also that wanting sweetness in beverages in particular makes people feel like they’re unsophisticated potentially. And at the same time we also view dessert wine as a category as very, very complicated. Hard to understand maybe because it’s not a big part of the culture here. People don’t have a great understanding for even what are some of the famous wines of the world and when you might have them and how they’re different. And I have a funny anecdote about this that I will share very briefly, which is, so I was at an event a few, I guess probably a month ago now, and it was a very nice meal, a lot of interesting stuff. But there was a very curious decision to me, which was, you get to the final course, the dessert course, and of course there were wine pairings with everything and most of the pairings were well thought out, tasty, et cetera. And then they were serving a chocolate dessert with a late harvest Riesling. And I was like, what? This makes zero sense. The wine was good, the dessert was good. They did not go together at all. And I think it’s this weird point of people who just don’t really understand or are intimidated by the differences within the dessert wine category, which has a lot of different styles within it, but they’re not things that people deal with regularly. So just again, it feels like a lot to try and understand.

A: So you think they just thought sweet and sweet, so that’s it.

Z: I guess. I was not really trying to be a jerk, so I didn’t go ask the people who put the dinner on what the thought behind it was. But my table and I were speculating that someone just was like, well here’s a sweet wine and here’s a sweet thing, so they go together, right?

J: Oh see, I think that’s why dessert wines aren’t really big in the United States because I feel like we have a very strong dessert culture and that’s a sweet thing. We don’t have a cheese course after the meal like you would find in some places in Europe. And I feel like sweet wine with a sweet dessert really just doesn’t make sense. And so when would you have dessert wine otherwise? I suppose you have it in place of a dessert, but we do have…

Z: Well I don’t know if I agree with that. I think there are a lot of great pairings. I mean, you can absolutely pair sweet wine with less, with savory things like said cheese course. But I think there are times and places where a dessert wine — and again, to be clear too, dessert wines can range pretty widely in actual sweetness.

J: Yep, yep.

Z: I mean, from something like a Tokaji Essencia, which is essentially a syrup to the aforementioned late harvest Riesling, which is sweet but not incredibly blow-your-mind sweet. Which is actually part of the reason why it was bad pairing because the dessert was sweeter than it, so it made the sort of wine taste weird and not as sweet and indulgent as you might want it to otherwise. So I think you can go sweet on sweet. But I do agree that for some people too, that feels like overkill, right?

J: Yeah. I think it’s just a matter of not really understanding when to have them or the right occasion for them or how to pair them properly.

A: Yeah, I mean I think what you’re also getting at Joanna is that we don’t have this tradition of things at the end of the meal in the same way of, oh, the entrees are over, let’s have a cheese course. We should have cheese to settle the stomach or whatever. Why would we ever have cheese? That’s why the amaro movement has blown up in the way that it has in cities like New York because it’s very easy for the beverage team to explain what amaro’s use is, which is like this is the drink at the end of the meal that helps settle your tummy. And everyone’s like, oh my tummy’s a little upset. I over-ate all that rich red meat. I could totally use a little amaro. And so it’s something that’s really easy to understand, whereas we’re bad at explaining why you would have the dessert wine besides the fact that, oh, it’s kind of like the liquid dessert. It’s the sweet ending to your meal. It’s a nice pairing with certain other desserts. It also could be the dessert with cheese as opposed to you then having something ridiculously sweet. Everyone in America doesn’t need to have a molten chocolate cake or brownie batter or whatever the hell people are eating for dessert at the end of every meal. You can have a nice little glass of dessert wine instead. But we’re just not used to that. So I think because we don’t have that often, it’s just something that feels very foreign. And really honestly only gets poured in the American dining experience at really, really high-end restaurants. And I would say often only gets poured at really high-end restaurants to the majority of people who don’t have a passion for them. When you elected to do wine pairings.

J: You did a pairing.

A: Exactly. And you’re like, “Oh, okay, cool. Never thought to get this. This is interesting.” But for the most part, no one’s thinking about dessert wine in the general American dining experience. And I don’t really think they ever will be.

J: Well, I think I have another two ideas here. I think one is also in the States, we don’t have a very strong post-meal drinking tradition.

A: No.

J: We don’t have one specific one that is kind of accepted. People will do different things. You can have another cocktail, you can have a spirit, but you could have dessert wine if you want, but it’s not — or amaro, like you said, Adam — but I don’t think we’re loyal to any one thing, whereas in other places they might be. And I also think that dessert wine is a tough value proposition to people too because I think sometimes they’re expensive and the better ones probably are more expensive. And I think that might be just a hard justification to add onto a meal.

A: That’s true.

Z: This brings me to something I wanted to throw out here as a possibility too. I think one of the reasons why dessert wine as a category has struggled is that especially when dining out, but frankly even when entertaining or dining at home, we as Americans eat so much faster than Europeans. The amount of time that you spend on a meal is so much shorter and that only — that compresses a lot of things into that short period of time. And I think part of the reason we don’t have a strong after-dinner drink culture in the same way that you see in Europe is because — I’m sure you have both experienced this when dining in Europe compared to dining in New York or other places — a lot of places you go out in Europe, there’s not another turn on that table. You are there and if you then order another drink, that’s great, that’s more revenue. That table is not going to be reset and re-sat. A restaurant in the United States, in most places a lot of the time, is looking to get you up and out as soon as you’ve finished the bulk of your ordering and your two top ordering, two whatever, $17 glasses of port or something isn’t really going to make a big difference to them. Especially if you’re going to sit there for another half hour when they could perhaps turn that into a whole new dinner service for another two top or whatever. And I think in Europe you just don’t see that as much. And so I think it allows for more of that sitting after you’ve finished your meal, after you’ve finished eating, you might as well sit there for another hour. And the same is true — Adam, you mentioned at the beginning that you like to serve dessert wine at Thanksgiving. Well, Thanksgiving is one of the few meals we have in this country where most people, the sort of process of the meal, the time from when you sit to start eating to when you consider it over might span multiple hours, it might span three or four hours depending on your family or group of friends or whatever. So there you’ve probably eaten, you might have taken a little walk, you’ve come back, maybe you’ve had your pumpkin pie or whatever you choose to have for dessert. And then it’s like, you know what sounds nice is a little something.

A: Pumpkin pie is garbage.

Z: Okay, well fine. Your pecan pie, whatever the thing you have is. Wasn’t meaning to get into that.

A: We’ll get there. We’ll go there next week.

Z: Yep, yep.

A: We’ll go there next week. But it’s trash. It’s trash.

Z: Okay. Well, the point is whatever the thing you might be having to finish your meal. Perhaps you are a family that has a cheese course after your Thanksgiving meal. I don’t know. Point is…

A: I want to be in that family.

Z: Well that may be what my family does. I’m not going to get there yet, but.

A: Oh f*ck, did I just say I want to be a Geballe?

Z: Well everyone does, deep down. It’s like the Tenenbaums, you just want to be one of us. Anyhow, the point I was trying to make was that it’s one of those few meals that we have on the calendar for most of us that we do take a lot of time over. And it’s not surprising to me that that’s an opportunity. I think the other thing about dessert wines at home in particular is like — and this is a problem we have, we have a few bottles of dessert wine in our cellar that are from a few places we’ve been or special things. Caitlin and I have at least one birth year bottle of port, but even a half-bottle, those are like 375 bottles. You only drink a couple ounces at a time, even if you’re really enjoying it for the most part. And it’s really hard to, or it’s harder to find the occasions where opening a bottle like that, even though dessert wines have a decent shelf life, they’re certainly longer shelf life than a table wine. It’s kind of hard to be like, okay, I’m going to really do this. And especially as we’ve been alluding to, we have more options than ever as far as if you do want that after dinner something, right?

J: Yeah.

Z: I’ve got lots of amaro at home, I’ve got other sorts of liqueurs. I could make myself a cocktail. There are a lot of possibilities for a drink that might finish my evening or feel like the thing that kind of comes as a punctuation mark. And unfortunately, I think dessert wine gets squeezed out a lot there because it just doesn’t quite hit the way that maybe it used to. Maybe there were fewer options. And I think the last piece of it is, I think sweetness used to be more special. I think we’ve talked about this on the pod before, but historically a sweet thing was really a treat. People were not awash in really sweet items. Refined sugar was not widely available. High fructose corn syrup didn’t exist. And so I was thinking about this earlier today as I raided my son’s Halloween candy stash because it was just that kind of moment and I needed some Reese’s pieces and I was like, a hundred years ago if I needed something sweet, I probably would’ve had to turn to a sweet wine and I probably would’ve been glad to do so.

A: I mean, look, I think if you have a very special dessert wine, it will convince you as to why they are really cool. The problem is we don’t often find ourselves in situations where we’re having those. And then even in that case, when we do have one, I find that it’s very rare for us to remember them in the future. Or you know what? I should stock some dessert wines. I think for all the reasons we’ve all said, right? Whereas again, having a really nice glass of amaro once and then saying that I should have a few bottles of amaro around. It feels much more approachable for whatever reason to most of us. Amaro, even given the herbs, is probably just as sweet as just as much sugar.

J: Oh yeah.

A: So anyways, but if you have a dessert wine that you love, let us know at [email protected]. If you make a dessert wine, think we should try it, hit us up at [email protected]. And Zach and Joanna, I’ll talk to you on Monday. Have a great weekend.

J: Have a great weekend.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.