English wine writer Jamie Goode, whose progression from online wine forum bomb-thrower, through webby groundbreaker (albeit with dodgy site design), to authoritative and respected author is surely some sort of sign of the apocalypse1, has published a list of predictions for 2009 (short version here, longer version here. Since this is something I’ve done in other venues and years, I figure: why not? I couldn’t possibly be more wrong than everyone else trying their hand at a game of oenological prescience, could I?
Don’t answer that.
1) The number one story will be, as everyone knows, the economy. The dominoes have already started to fall, with some wineries going out of business, others on the block, and many, many others in the production and trade realms poised on the brink of disaster. According to friends who watch such things, however, the real carnage is going to be in the restaurant world…not just closings, but people scaling back on their extravagance when they do go out to eat. And what will be the first thing these customers drop? Wine, of course. It’s going to be bad for restaurants (who make most, and sometimes all, of their profit from beverages), it’s going to be really bad for sommeliers, but it’s also going to affect that previously choosy set of wineries who’ve demanded that their wines be represented only on the best wine lists. Some of them will just shift the product onto their mailing lists, if they can, but there’s not a market for all of those wines.
2) Diversity is in danger. Some wineries will just go out of business, but others will be gobbled up by avaricious giants. Perhaps more importantly, the same will be true for vineyards, which will start falling under the umbrella of the megacorps, permanently lost to the artisan farmers and winemakers who’ve previously shepherded their grapes. Small, philosophy-based importers will struggle to get their wines recognized in an increasingly price-oriented market, especially because the small, alternative-minded retailers who’ve supported their products will not have an easy time of it. Again, the purveyors of mass-market plonk gobbling up the spoils will benefit. It’s a vicious circle, and it’s hard to say when it will stop.
3) As Jamie notes, this is indeed South Africa’s golden opportunity, but one that might very well slip through their fingers. What they’ve got: a) a very wide range of quality wines…certainly one much more diverse than New Zealand, whose arduous agricultural quarantines and tiny size make for an exceedingly un-diverse vinous output, b) neither an impending agricultural disaster (see Australia) or an oversaturated market of identical-looking and identical-tasting wines (again, see Australia and its ubiquitous “cute animal” labels), and, c) their own form of an economic disaster – a currency that’s absolutely crippled (even against even the dollar) – which could potentially make for some rather spectacular bargains. That is, if they can get their wines to export markets. And then, sell them.
What South Africa most obviously lacks is a coordinated marketing effort. There’s no will (or money) on the part of the government, so the producers will have to do it themselves. That costs a lot of money, especially given the essential task of being physically present in any target market, and the very thing that makes South African wines especially attractive on the world stage – low cost – means lowered profits for the wineries, and thus tight marketing budgets.
4) There will be no closure on closures. The studies will take many more years, but even the research that we are doing doesn’t answer the most crucial question: how much oxygen does a wine require to age in the way to which we’ve become accustomed? Without knowing that, we can’t know what effect the alternatives to cork will have over the long term. That said, for the vast majority of wine that’s meant for near-term drinking, there’s very little reason to even consider using a bark cork.
5) Whither wine writing? A very good question. As advertiser-supported print publications continue their long-predicted drift into oblivion, the opportunities for aspiring young writers to hone their craft are growing thin on the ground. It’s not that higher-end wine-specialist publications will cease to exist, though some of them will, it’s that Jane Doe isn’t going to be able to step into Jancis Robinson’s shoes without a little preparatory work at the Smalltown Pike & Gazette. But the few such publications left to us aren’t much interested in wine coverage. So, the blogs, then? So far, they’ve been tough to monetize. A few will make it big, a few will struggle through, but most will simply not be able to support a serious self-education in the art and practice of wine writing unless there’s a serious shift in the willingness of advertisers – and maybe even readers – to support high-quality content. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
6) Despite the economy, entire wine regions and styles are, essentially, permanently out of reach to all but the mega-wealthy. Individual bottles here and there will continue to be enjoyed, whether through the generosity of another or as the result of an occasional splurge, and no wine lover should rigidly eschew the necessary expense, once in a while. But the days of being able to build a broad and deep appreciation for the top classed-growth Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundy, and many other ultra-luxury producers, appellations, and cuvées has probably come to an end for most people. If there weren’t so many interesting alternatives, it would be a wine-lovers’ tragedy. As it is, it’s a great shame. These wines carry their reputations for a reason, after all.
7) More than the current handful of nuts and cranks will finally get serious about alternative grapes in California…grapes that are better-suited to the various vineyard climes than the famous but ubiquitous stuff now planted…but of course it’ll take years before the results are available. What will drive this shift? An economy where the permanence of demand for ultra-pricey wines from just a few grapes no longer seems assured.
8) Posts at oenoLogic will grow longer and more intricately-argued, but even less comprehensible to the passing reader. Of all these predictions, this is the one I’m most sure about.
1Just kidding, Jamie.