The UK trade sees Californian wine as something of a Polo mint: big brands at the bottom end, ultra-premium fine wines at the top - and a big hole in the middle.
That's not to say there aren't great wines in that middle ground - the California Wine Institute's benchmark selection of £7-£12 wines proves that every year. But buyers say it's hard for Californian wines to stand up against products from countries such as Chile and Argentina at similar price points - and like many other wine-producing regions, California's wineries are finding the UK an increasingly tough market.
"The UK is the most difficult wine market in the world," says Jeff Hanson of Jewel Winery. "The price expectations of the trade, specifically the retailers, are completely unrealistic based on the cost of producing wine. I maintain that the only reason producers do business in the UK is because of the volume opportunities, which helps to reduce their overall production costs."
"It's incredibly price and price promotion driven in multiple retail and it's difficult to build customer loyalty to anything other than the promotional item of the day," says James Tookey at Fells, which imports premium wines from Jackson Family Vintners . "The growth of the premium Californian category is promising, but as a category we can do more to show the value and quality of Californian wines compared to other regions and countries at these price points."
Neil Barker, UK commercial director at Foster's EMEA, says: " California has been dominated in the consumer's mind by major brands, and there is evidence that the consumer doesn't associate all of these brands with California uniquely. In turn, the great diversity and heritage of California has, perhaps, been diluted.
"We believe retailers and consumers are looking for new stories and wines from the real California, and we are seeing this trend with the support we have seen for the new Beringer ranges."
Bob Torkelson, president of Sutter Home producer Trinchero Family Estates, says the UK is so challenging that some producers are making unsustainable losses: "You see people saying they've had enough and they walk away from the marketplace," he says. He thinks California should take a leaf out of New Zealand's book when it comes to marketing its higher -priced wines in the UK.
California is doing pretty well in terms of sales, with value up 6%, volume up 4% and an average bottle price of £4.15.
"Obviously the drivers of that growth to quite a large extent are the brands," says John McLaren of the California Wine Institute. "The challenge for any country or region that has strong brands is to be seen as a family of brands and wines within a region, because a lot of people will buy a brand regardless of its region.
"The drawback there is that the power of the brands gives them good merchandised coverage exposure in the multiples, but it makes the multiples a bit lazy about exploring other options to put beside them. I would like to see more diversity of exposure - we have more diversity than anybody else in the New World."
The other driving factor in California's success is rosé. Sales grew 19% by value and 17% by volume in the past year, passing red wine and almost equal to white.
Mark Tinsley, UK off-trade sales director for Gallo, says: "Having seen growth of 23% in the past 12 months, rosé now holds 11% of all wine sales in the off-trade. There is a growing trend for a drier style of rosé wine, so it is important for retailers to cater for all preferences."
Spotlight on the regions
Coming from a small island it's hard to comprehend the sheer scale of the US - California alone is nearly twice as big as the UK. It can be hard to get a handle on how the geography works, because its
climate is determined by cool marine breezes being sucked up long valleys towards a hot interior and rolling morning fogs. To make it even more confusing, you can turn a corner and find yourself in a completely different climate zone, with completely different grape varieties.
There is also a lot of blending across regions and most wineries buy grapes
in to supplement their own estates, so
it is harder to link wines to soils than
it is in numerous European countries.
Many UK consumers have little idea of California's regions, but awareness is growing: most people have heard of Napa, even though it only produces around 5% of the state's output, but places like Lodi, Sonoma and Monterey are also beginning to make a name for themselves.
Majestic buyer Camilla Bordewich says: " Customers are always looking for some sense of region. Our Ravenswood sales increased by going from a generic Californian Zinfandel to a specific Lodi Zin, even though it was more expensive."
McLaren says: "There are two different things - there are wine regions and there are areas of California that people understand because of the history and tourism. That means at least they have some familiarity with names - so if we look at wine from the Sierra foothills, we can tell them it is from Lake Tahoe, which they know. That is a familiarity they are not likely to have with Chile or Argentina.
"That is the benefit we have - nobody else has California as a backdrop. We are doing more and more lifestyle stuff: ultimately we want to get the customer to identify with the product and if the provenance makes statements about the wine and about you as a consumer of the wine, that works in its favour."
US wine in figures
Value sales year to Oct 4 2008:
Value sales year to Oct 6 2007:
Volume sales year to Oct 4 2008:
15.7 million 9-litre cases
Volume sales year to Oct 6 2007:
15.1 million 9-litre cases
Average bottle price 2008: £4.15
Average bottle price 2007: £4.09