To understand the place wine finds itself in right now, let’s take a quick trip to the Bordeaux town of Pomerol, where on a quiet side road you’ll find Château Gombaude-Guillot. Now, Pomerol sounds like a fancy place, but in fact it’s not at all that, just 630 people in a village with a few mildly tony buildings and a lot of plain ones—including Gombaude-Guillot, which isn’t much more than a farmhouse down the road from the local church.
The same family has controlled the property since 1868, and today Olivier Techer and his family live there modestly, working the vines and tending their vegetable garden on what has become improbably expensive land. Whatever it lacks in glamour, the winery makes up in location: across the road from the famous Château Trotanoy, and just 700 meters from Petrus, the most famous wine in Bordeaux and one of the world’s most expensive. No, they don’t have exactly the same dirt, but it’s still a pretty great neighborhood.
The Gombaude-Guillot wines are always interesting, if a bit ripe, and for what they are, they’re relatively affordable at around $60 on U.S. shelves. Why, then, does, their neighbor Trotanoy cost more than five times that, and Petrus more than 50? Wonky types could wax on about why it isn’t an equivalency, because drainage and soil and the lack of a type of blue clay. I myself could go on about how Gombaude-Guillot’s relative ranking, once nearly on par with those neighbors, seemed to tumble during the late 19th century as Bordeaux traded out farmers for gentleman farmers. In the end, to nearly everyone outside our little circle, this would all sound like doublespeak—the sorts of things wine people say to justify our weird hierarchies of taste. It would be shrugged off by those folks who pen stories about how wine tasting is bullshit, and how no one can tell the difference anyway.
Wine has had a weird few years, and if it’s going to thrive in the coming years, we need to put aside the hero worship, and get better at explaining why wine matters.
I mention this not because those weird hierarchies aren’t valid—although some could certainly be thrown onto a raging trash fire—but because the discrepancy is one of those things that underscores how much wine remains illogical, and thus intimidating, to most people. Candidly, we’ve done a really bad job in recent years explaining why our thing is special, why it matters and why we spend late nights arguing about its esoterica.
What’s my proof? I have two words for you: White Claw. Not just White Claw, but the entire category of hard seltzers and ready-to-drink booze in cans, things that much of the beverage industry laughed at less than five years ago. Laugh on, my wine dudes: One recent market study claimed that 55 percent of American adults drink hard seltzer at least once a week; that seems insanely high, but if even at a fraction of that, wine should probably pack up its dominoes and go home.
I’m being dramatic, obviously. But I also couldn’t have predicted that this is where wine would find itself at the end of the 2010s. A decade ago, my crystal ball showed faint signs that the old hegemonies of Big Scores and Big Flavor were fading, and that a new era was creeping up. And it did—not just in California, but in France and Italy and Australia and nearly everywhere. Five years ago, we trumpeted the arrival of the New Mainstream.
So how, five years later, are we cowed in the shadow of Big Seltzer?
Honestly, I think we all get to share some blame. There’s always upheaval when the old transitions to the new, but looking back, I’m not sure any of us handled the power vacuum so well. OK, true, we didn’t like the snobbery of the old expertise. But the fetishism of new expert worship that seemed to govern the late 2010s—Somms! They’re just like us!—went way past the point of good taste, to the point that a lot of sommeliers actually began to feel disillusioned with the actual everyday reality of the job. And considering how uncomfortable the sheer waterfall of hero worship and clubby, ego-driven bantering about “unicorn wines” made me feel, I can only imagine how it played on the outside, with the vast majority of people who aren’t deeply ensorcelled by wine. It got even worse when that hero worship mutated into a kind of high-low thing (I chase my Burgundy with Tecate!). After all that, Elizabeth Warren is still up on stage making jabs about billionaires in wine caves, and wine is still seen as elitist.
This extends even to natural wine, one of the things that putatively was supposed to bring a great democratization. Yes, the frenzy surrounding it ignited a fervor within the wine world. But I think at times we all can forget how the whole idea played outside our little playground: namely, as a bit of a fad. It’s not, of course—it’s an essential concept, if an imperfect one—but the current round of “Is natural wine dead?” pieces didn’t just materialize out of thin air. They are the inevitable snapback to anything that comes across as a fad. Nor was the category helped by the frequent insistence by natty partisans that taste—or the old hallmarks of taste—didn’t matter anymore. The notion that virtue might fully trump quality, which really has become the essence of the debate these days, demands a Victorian sort of perversity. Bram Stoker would be down.
Meanwhile, everyone else is just chilling with their White Claw.
So, if you ask what I see in my crystal ball for 2020, and for much of the coming decade, I’d say: The Actual End of Pretense. Wine has had a weird few years, and if it’s going to thrive in the coming years, we need to put aside the hero worship, and get better at explaining why wine matters. Being a true believer in terroir is great; being a pedantic asshole is not. (Worse yet is being a pedantic asshole dressed as a populist.) So yes, it’s literally just fermented grape juice that comes from a place. And yes, it should taste a certain way because it’s from there, and because someone made it a certain way. The rest? The inner-circle chatter and covetousness over green-wax bottles of Overnoy? Buh-bye. Now’s the time for all of us to try a little harder, get out of that sandbox and play nice with the other kids. That’s our charge for the 2020s.
And, while I am at it, here are a few other stories that will shape the conversation in the coming year.
Tariffs Will Change the Way We Drink (But Hopefully Not)
The 25 percent tariffs on some European wines that took effect in October, but moreso the possible 100 percent tariffs now being considered by the Trump administration, are seemingly all anyone can talk about in wine right now. We’ll know before long how this trade war shakes out, but make no mistake: 100 percent tariffs will be utterly devastating to the wine industry, and not necessarily in ways people realize. Yes, prices would soar on everything from cru Beaujolais to Santa Margherita pinot grigio. That will hurt American consumers, and not the Europeans who made the wine. (The tariffs are charged once wine hits these shores.) And yes, it’s obvious political football for the MAGA crowd, who still think there’s cause to pull Hillary’s chardonnay out of her hand and lock her up.
But, symbolism aside, the idea that flushing some fancy foreign goods out of the country will somehow benefit Americans is both misguided and wrong. Wine distribution is an important industry in every state in the country, and most wine distributors sell both American and foreign wine. Killing a large part of their business won’t exactly leave them in a good place to conduct the rest, which means small businesses closing and people out of work. And the knock-on effects are profound: Fewer choices and less inventory mean less wine sales at restaurants and retailers, which in turn forces cutbacks and layoffs of a lot of other jobs, from forklift operators and warehouse managers to bartenders and servers.
Wine in a Can Is the New Normal
Technically, this is simply resurfacing a prediction from 2018. But that was before White Claw took over the universe. So again, if wine wants to stay in the picture, it needs to figure out how to meet this insane demand—for seltzers, spritzers, whatever—at least halfway. (Disclosure: My wife recently left her wine job to sell wine spritzers, so I’m obviously not disinterested in this trend. But if I weren’t already convinced, the fact she was willing to walk away from fine wine put the exclamation point on this fact.) To be fair, this isn’t entirely about the cans themselves: The prospect of lower-alcohol drinks has growing appeal to younger drinkers, which is how “wellness” somehow entered the conversation around booze. But if you still don’t believe this is a thing, believe it now. We live in a world where such a thing as “nonalcoholic grape water” exists—wine-ish things in cans should hardly seem weird anymore.
The Climate Change Conversation Goes on Fast-Forward
Did this past year not make it totally clear, Greta and all, that no one is fucking around anymore? Of course, wine is a very insignificant thing in the larger scope of climate change, and alarms have been sounded for years on the subject, many of them more about fearmongering than actual serious concern. No, Champagne is not going to start being grown in Belgium. No, Napa Valley is not going to become a desert.
But we’ve seen indicators in the past year that significant change is coming quicker than anyone expected. Ever-conservative Bordeaux approved seven new grape varieties, including touriga nacional and albariño, in small quantities as a modest hedge on climate change. Skeptics freaked out, but in fact this was a prudent step based on deep expert study about the grapes that can likely thrive as the region’s ripening windows narrow and shift. (Hint: Merlot is not among them.) Nearly every wine region is facing something similar, which is why most regions in France are now reconsidering old varieties they once discarded, or reproducing old mass-selection vines previously dismissed as unproductive. This all is about tempering ripeness and high alcohol. It’s why some growers in Spain and France’s Roussillon are moving to higher altitudes and shifting farming practices to slow the growing process. And we haven’t even gotten to the really scary stuff surrounding climate instability, in which a region like Burgundy risks killer late frosts nearly every year by 2050. Or, hey, go ask the Australians how things are going amid those massive wildfires.
Every corner of wine is going to face this on fast-forward, and the conversation is going to speed up in tandem. Just because wine is niche compared to larger climate concerns doesn’t mean climate isn’t an existential issue for those who make and drink wine.
All Sparkling, All the Time
Some of this is the knock-on effect of all that hard seltzer. But beyond that, trade data are now very clear that sparkling wine has become a year-round thing, especially for younger drinkers. Is it a prosecco thing? A pét-nat thing? Maybe. Whatever it is, here’s to no more holiday hegemony!
Cool-Hunting, 2020 Edition
The next big spot for the cool kids? Argentina, for one, which has lagged behind Chile in welcoming a new breed of young, independent-minded winemakers, but is breeding its own avant-garde cohort, like Fabian Salese and the Michelini brothers. Much the same is happening in Israel, with wineries like Jezreel, Sphera, Shvo and Lewinsohn. Keep an eye out.