The Wine Stories That Will Shape 2017

From talking truth about natural wine to California’s newest up-and-comers to worries over labor and immigration, Jon Bonné lays out the wine stories that will make a difference in 2017.

This coming era is going to be crazy and sometimes painful. I’m talking politics, but our cultural choices, including wine, are at an inflection point, too. Drinking is often a political act, even when we don’t intend it to be, and today we face more complexity than ever: How natural is natural wine? What farming is actually sustainable, and what’s just lip service? Am I giving my money to a small producer or to a big company? Are we elevating once-obscure places, or just shoving them into the crush of globalism?

Which is to say: 2017 is going to be a complicated—but potentially really great—year for wine. (Depending on your personal views, it may also be a necessary and prodigious year of drinking.) I’m convinced the wine world is going to keep shedding old thinking this year and keep evolving for the better, but not without a certain amount of soul searching.

And so, to my crystal ball, and predictions for the themes that will play out in 2017.

Who’s Really In The Vines?

The easy hook, of course, is a request from the Trump family’s winery to the State Department for H2 visas for its seasonal vineyard workers. It had a double effect, underscoring that family’s cozy relationship with hypocrisy while also framing an often ignored reality for nearly any vineyard of size in this country: The hard work in the vines is frequently being done by foreigners.

Californians know this well. Their entire wine industry would halt without Mexican labor, and for years winemakers have been cognizant of how immigration shifts could hurt them, trying things like more mechanical harvesting even for fancy wines. But the sheer irrationality of the incoming administration’s views on immigration multiply those fears exponentially, and should be of concern to anyone who likes to drink American. (At this point, the ghost of Steinbeck might suggest to coal country: If you’re seeking work, there’s plenty of it in the fields of the West.)

And, by the way, this is a worry everywhere. While more French winemakers work their own vines than those on these shores, a great many couldn’t survive without Eastern Europeans and North Africans out in the rows. Even with EU protections, they and vintners throughout Europe face constant labor worries. No different in Australia, where Cambodians and other Southeast Asians provide much valued farm help. As we worry about the resurgence of the right and their fondness for harsh immigration rules—Trump, sure, but don’t forget Australia’s appalling stance on asylum—it’s crucial to consider just how wine (especially cheap wine) gets on our tables. We can try to hide in our cosseted little wine world, but real problems are going to intrude.

Italy’s Great White Hope

I remember when Vino Italiano appeared in 2002. Every corner of Italy seemed to have untapped treasures. Even as recently as three years ago, Italian wine was the most vital section of many wine lists.

What happened? No one stopped loving Italian wine, but as a new year arrives it’s harder to find the thrill of discovery that once made Italy so irresistible. There’s undoubtedly lots of great wine to be had in Piedmont, which has grabbed the popular crown Tuscany once held—with Barolo as the new Brunello—and Sicily, specifically Etna, although nearly a decade has passed since its star rose; same with Liguria. Friuli and Alto Adige have an important place as well, but they’re largely telling the same story they were in the early 2000s. And while Italy’s natural-wine contingent has strengthened, it remains very much in France’s shadow.

So where is the excitement? I think it’s with Italy’s white wines, which seem to be evolving past their previous narratives—including the one that placed Friuli and Alto Adige in the driver’s seat. That includes Campanian whites like fiano, which is making its case as a more serious variety than happy-go-lucky falanghina; Liguria’s amazing pigatos and vermentinos; the luscious whites of Etna (Vittoria, too), which still sit just below the overall conversation about Sicily. There’s vermentino from Sardinia and also Maremma (an easier sell from Tuscany right now than Chianti), classy new verdicchio from the Marche, even skin-macerated albana from Emilia. All these stand to define the new conversation about Italian cool. For that matter, given how long it’s been since ’80s classics like Soave, Frascati and even Gavi were hot, they too are primed for a comeback.

Talking Truth About Natural

This past year was an important one for natural wine. However you define it, the category rose from plucky underdog to as close as it probably wants to be to mainstream. (When you earn a Food & Wine listicle, you know you’ve arrived.) At least three natural wine fairs debuted in New York—Vivent les Vins Libres, The Big Glou and RAW WINE. And the interest is undoubtedly going to grow this year; don’t be surprised if you see more conservative publications, like Decanter, giving these wines some serious ink.

All of which leads to a crucial next step—one the naturalistas might not love. A lot of the usual knocks on natural wine are snide and misguided, but one concern is totally legit: Too many wines being anointed as the Next Big Thing have unmistakable flaws. I don’t mean cloudiness in the glass or the quirkiness of skin maceration. I mean brettanomyces, volatile acidity and, especially, mousiness, all of which demonstrate a failure in winemaking, and often one that a bit of sulfur dioxide could have prevented. (Yes, these qualities might be enjoyed in small doses—like brett in Châteauneuf—but I’m not talking about small doses.)

Many such wines have gotten a pass because the natural wine community tends to embrace anything that repudiates the would-be mainstream. And, too often, they’re sold by (and to) people who see in these faults a sort of Adam Driver-style charm. But even some advocates are becoming fed up with defects, especially in wines that taste great in France but develop problems on the long voyage here. If the natural wine crowd can’t have a frank discussion about quality and acknowledge that not all natural wines are created equal, they’ll have succumbed to the same clubbiness that befell those whose wines they rebel against.

The New Australia (For Really Real This Time)

I floated this a year ago and my trip to Australia last summer only confirmed it: The country’s wines have found the same spirit of reinvention that catalyzed California. Yes, the New Australia is a drop in the bucket (but ever less so) versus the country’s industrial side—again, no different from California. Yet even corporate Australia has realized the limited potential of cheap wine and is struggling to attract a new generation. Meanwhile, ever more ambitious young producers have found a path to export, one that’ll grow in 2017. As in Italy, what was cool in the ‘80s is coming back, mate.

A Rhône Reckoning

The Rhône Valley has always been French wine’s loyal opposition, a third path beyond Bordeaux and Burgundy. Its rise to prominence in the ’80s and ‘90s gave it worthwhile attention, and the recent success of meticulous Northern Rhône producers, especially in the Cornas appellation, created a new band of connoisseurship.

Now what? Prices for wines like Cornas are spiraling toward those charged for the region’s most famous appellation, Hermitage. The once hallowed area of Côte-Rotie has fallen into a holding pattern dominated by the same stylish producers that brought it fame two decades ago.

It’s even more unsettled in the south, in places like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where darlings of critic Robert Parker are discovering their big, lush style of wine has fewer takers. Once-inexpensive villages like Gigondas are no longer bargains. And inexpensive Côtes-du-Rhône wines have lost much of their luster.

None of this is curtains for the Rhône. But the region faces tough choices ahead—and a need for the same reinvention that has taken place in Beaujolais and the Loire. This year, that process is likely to start in earnest.

California’s New New Guard

If the New California had a breakneck half-decade, there’s been a subtle slowing in the past two years; still lots of great wines, but just not as many newcomers. This year, though, I think we’ll see another round of talent break through, many of them assistant winemakers who have been honing their work. Importantly, that includes several talented women, who stand to add gender diversity to the dudes in the cellar, like Erin Pooley of Wei Chi and Martha Stoumen of Elizia.

The broader question, for all of California’s up-and-comers, is: Can they stay in California? The state’s high costs of land, labor and production make it increasingly difficult for a young winemaker, especially when compared to migrating to Oregon or Virginia—even Australia. New talent is appearing again; can California sort out how to keep them there?

Wine Sustainability Grows Teeth

Sustainability is as tricky in wine as anything else. Many of the would-be sustainable movements have been good (organic and biodynamic farming, less pesticide use, movements like Ampelos in Champagne or Salmon-Safe in Oregon). But there have also been plenty that flirt with greenwashing—programs that sound virtuous but are strikingly vague on details. These have largely escaped scrutiny because wine is already confusing enough for most consumers.

But the signs have been growing that real backbone is coming to wine sustainability. Bordeaux, historically one of the most chemical-loving regions of France, has announced its intention to target pesticide use; Champagne, which once spread Paris’ garbage on its fields, is similarly pushing to raise farming standards. The current political climate—especially where climate change is concerned—has sensitized more people to claims of scientific virtue.

So this year we’ll see closer looks at those claims. Groups that insist on firm standards, like the German-led Fair ‘n Green, are likely to make headway, and with developments like the EU edging toward a ban on the weedkiller often known as Roundup, it will be harder for less-stringent organizations to maintain the loopholes they’ve used to keep farming conventionally.

The Great Divide

The American divide is no longer red state v. blue state; it’s urban v. rural. Wine faces something similar. It’s no longer true that all the interesting wines gravitate to the coasts. Hard work by diligent, independent distributors in nearly every state has ensured that you can drink Frank Cornelissen in Portland, Maine, and Patrick Piuze Chablis in Omaha, Neb. Forward-thinking wine lovers reside today in any city of even modest size.

At the same time, a storm of consolidation among big wine distributors means that the sort of white-bread wine brands that once made America a boring place to drink will have even more market power. Wine lists in less-inspired corners—hotel bars, chain steakhouses—are going to get even snoozier. And those who promote such wines are going to beat drums even harder about how it’s what “the consumer” wants. This year, it’s up to the little guys out in the heartland to keep it real.

Other Notes From Here and There:

Each year someone thinks Bordeaux is going to finally stage a broad comeback, and each year it’s elusive. But let’s believe that 2017 is when it does. I’m not talking about the big names, which are evidently back in force, so much as the hundreds of small properties that form the region’s backbone, and that once dominated U.S. shelves.

Similarly, I’m hoping that the small band of progressive producers from South America—including Chile’s De Martino, Pedro Parra and Louis-Antoine Luyt, and Argentina’s Cecchin (and Chacra, in a posher way)—make progress in redefining what’s possible from that continent. It’s understandable why these wines struggle to get more attention (where Australia had a shiraz problem, Argentina has a malbec problem), but it’s certainly possible.

Also, the push to quit appellations—in France, primarily, but elsewhere in Europe—is going to quicken. For years, important producers have been giving up official appellations for once-lowly designations like “Vin de France,” mostly because the syndicates in charge of many wine regions are beset by cronyism and outmoded thinking. In 2017, that trend will catch fire. Although it’s been led by naturalist producers, it’s actually not that different from the rise of Super Tuscans in the ’70s, when ambitious producers there decided the rules no longer worked. Now, a new generation of renegades is following a similar path.

And since the whole West Coast can now provide legal marijuana, it’s almost obvious that we’ll finally see a daylighting of pot wine, which is exactly what you think. It’s been around forever; now everyone at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass can stop with those knowing winks about what’s in their canteen.

Finally, one thing we were wrong about last year: more serious coverage of wine lists. It’s hardly that sommeliers have been left in the shadows, but too often the coverage gravitates to personalities, rather than describing the important work they do on the restaurant floor. There’s still lots of room for improvement (by PUNCH, too) in covering wine in restaurants. We’ll tentatively hope this one takes hold in 2017.

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Jon Bonné is senior contributing editor for PUNCH, the former wine editor of The San Francisco Chronicle and author of The New California Wine and The New Wine Rules. He is currently working on his next book, The New French Wine. He lives in New York City.