Michael McCaulley, part owner of the wine bar Tria, said he started seeing sales of dessert wines spike about three years ago. Before that, a bottle of Madeira might last two or three weeks. "Now, we might buy two bottles a week," he said. Sherry sales are no different.
Derek Davis, of Derek's in Manayunk, noticed the same trend. "We would have parties where suddenly there'd be a run on moscato or riesling," he said. "One night we had a group, the people came in and bought out every bottle of riesling and moscato in the house."
At Derek's, cocktails get taken off the list if they drop below 2 percent of sales. The three sweet-wine-based cocktails, out of a list of 15, haven't budged.
For the last five or so years, the semisweet Steuben rosé has been the most popular sipping wine at the Kreutz Creek Winery Tasting Room in West Chester, says owner Carole Kirkpatrick. "Since 2007, the sales continue to increase every year."
Tria's McCaulley thinks the trend will continue. "We have some young bartenders who are super into dessert wines; they will be the ones buying and spreading the word."
But Catherine Manning, bartender at a. kitchen, and Colleen Tyrrell, of William Penn Inn, want to be clear on the definition of sweet wines. The wines that are gaining popularity are not cloyingly sweet, but balanced, both of them said.
And different food pairings can bring out different aspects. "Everything is affected, you can affect the whole palate by what you are eating," Tyrrell said. "You can have sweet wine with cheese or chocolate, like two different bottles of wine."
Tim Kweeder, a. kitchen's wine director, believes that "every little ingredient adds a different element to the final product to create that perfect Frankenstein monster." Moscato d'Asti, a sweeter wine, can add such a floral note, he says.
Manning thinks what turned people off years ago were treacly syrups like grenadine; today she uses fresh pomegranates instead.
The appeal of these sweet wines appears not to be limited to local palates. In fact, said Manning, Philadelphia was likely a little late coming to the dessert wine scene. "The liquor control system just started coming to this. Five years ago, you would have never seen this [dessert] wine list."
Not long ago, people who drank sweet wines - fruit wines, white zinfandel, rieslings - were considered naive babes in the oenophilic woods. That stigma, said Tim Hanni, who has earned master-of-wine status, was fostered long ago by the wine industry. Wines were generally imported until the 1960s, and sweets didn't survive the transatlantic trip because of refermentation issues. So, said Hanni, the dry-is-better myth took hold, cemented further when pairing food with wine became the rage, then de rigueur.
But technology has since improved, and millennials don't care what their dry-only-sipping parents think. At Tria's University City location, college students drink sweet wine at the beginning of the meal; at its 18th Street location, the older patrons tend to drink it at the end of the meal.
Mixologist Joe Gray, who loves this sweet-wine trend, said there is another reason dessert wines "stayed buried."
Before "there were really cheap bad versions. Now people see there are good dessert wines. When you taste good dessert wines, you just have that for dessert. If you have a good Sauternes, it's slap-your-mother good."
At Chaddsford Winery, national sales manager Joe Spurlock's team is creating a variety of wine-based drinks, such as a spiced apple martini made from spiced apple wine, vanilla vodka, and triple sec. They introduce these drinks in State Stores, at their winery, wherever they can.
Spurlock says his patrons don't care what the wine industry bible, the Wine Spectator, says.
"If traditional wines, like cabernet, if that's classical music, then the wines that we are promoting are rock-and-roll," he says. "It's about fun."