Now that we've passed through our store's 25th holiday season, we've observed numerous changes in products, pricing, fads, consumer preferences and trending enthusiasms. We know predictions are nearly worthless in the long run, but they are always fun to contemplate.
Unbelievably, the 2019 holidays have come and gone at The Wine Country, the 25th year we've served our community, providing worlds of terrific wine, spirits, craft beer and gourmet gift baskets.
As for the latter, we figured that Dale alone has made over 15,000 gift baskets during that time, for clients large and small. That's 15,000 bows, mounds of shred and sizzle, yards and yards of shrink-wrap and cellophane, and now heavy duty boxes that look exactly like they were made of wood.
Every year our staff has been on hand to help select gifts, make menu recommendations, introduce customers to new and different wine experiences and solve last minute issues with thoughtful and appropriate suggestions.
The holiday season was also when we wrapped up the year with tastings of our finest wines, and hosted a flurry of bubbly tastings at the end of the year, just in time for New Year's Eve celebrations.
With all of that in mind, what's next for the new year, with threatened tariffs, a presidential election, a leap year and a stock market that's anybody's guess. One thing's for sure, you'll need your wine merchant to tell you what's going on in the world of wine, so here goes.
What Has Happened to Chardonnay?
Chardonnay has been bagged on for more than 20 years. "Anything but Chardonnay" became as much of a cliché as the lakes of formula Chardonnays offered at every banquet, chain restaurant glass pour and supermarket shelf. I suspect some of the motivation for this slander is simple jealousy; Chardonnay has been the most popular varietal in the world, and it makes a big, ripe, oaky target.
The more salient point, in my view, is that Chardonnay is simply a victim of its own success. From its nearly non-existent presence with wine consumers (only about 200 acres were planted in California in the 1960s) to producing a wine in 1973 that won the Judgment of Paris, the oceans of cheap, manufactured, overcropped Chardonnays wanting to capitalize on the reputation of white Burgundy and our early successes produced vapid, formulaic wines that were the epitome of boredom.
Since we have no government quality panels requiring stylistic integrity like there are in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Portugal, the only requirement to be called "Chardonnay" is that the bottle contain 75% Chardonnay. No tons per acre limitations, no restrictions on fake oak or fake acid or watering down. The other 25% could be made up of cheap Thompson Seedless table grape juice and as long as it meets minimum alcohol standards, it's Chardonnay.
It's no wonder young wine enthusiasts are stand-offish. The younger generation seems to have internalized this. There are so many crisp, fresh, exciting, vibrant white wines available now that were unknown to their parents and grandparents, Chardonnay is to them an old folk's drink, like a gimlet or a champagne cocktail.
Indeed, at our annual end-of-the-year "Best Chardonnays of the Year" tasting, the turnout was abysmal, mostly male, and overwhelmingly populated by senior citizens. Thanksgiving weekend may have contributed to the paltry attendance with the center of commercial gravity either traveling or jammed in shopping malls, but one look at our tasting room prompted one customer to crack, "It looks like God's Waiting Room in there."
The tragic fact is that there are some great tasting Chardonnays, very classy white wines, still being produced in California, and increasingly in Oregon, and their reputations have been sullied by this hostile ABC attitude. It isn't fair. It's true many of them are more expensive that a young adult wants to pay, but that shouldn't make all Chardonnays dinosaurs just because they are called Chardonnay.
The trend that is getting the most ink nowadays is so-called "natural" wine. I say so-called because the word "natural" is a loaded word, all warm and fuzzy. Who wouldn't prefer a "natural" wine to an "unnatural wine?"
Or for that matter, all things being equal, wouldn't you prefer putting wine into your body made from grapes without poison sprays, or are you OK with just the right amount of herbicides and pesticides in your wine?
I have a personal view, and I'll share it later, but there is a lot of interest in "non-interventionist" wines. These are wines grown organically and biodynamically, crushed and fermented using native yeast, have extended skin contact, and bottling the resulting wine without filtration, making it a product as close to natural processes as winemaking can get.
Just as there are a lot of people who seek out organic foods for the health of their families (and their planet), a lot of young adults--and a few older ones--are drawn to wines they perceive to be non-manipulated and true.
Now for my view. I'm thrilled that people are curious about these wines, but I'm also concerned that many of them come with odd flavors and aromas attached. In her book The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization by Alice Feiring, the cheerleader of the natural wine movement says that peculiar tasting wine is O.K. with her. She described a favored Loire Valley Gamay thus: "it is famous for a funkiness that some have likened to pondscum but in time deepens into crushed roses."
In fact she goes further by declaring that she would rather drink a flawed wine that is natural than a wine that has been manipulated.
That is where I part company with dear Alice. I don't want to drink pondscum, and I don't want funkiness in my wine. B.O. is natural, too, and for some it is an aphrodisiac. I like to keep B.O. way in the background, and I want scents of dead animals in my wine likewise.
As for what this means on the "natural wine" spectrum, I believe a winemaker's duty is to make good wine, whether that means using non interventionist methods or making judicious use of more established technique to reach that goal.
But I am the first to acknowledge that "good wines" is wholly dependent on who is drinking it, and what their perceptions are. Hipster sommeliers appear to love these wines and I am happy for them. They may change the way an entire generation appreciates wine.
After all, a few decades ago, American wine consumers were drinking as much sweet wine as dry, so tastes can and will change. But for now, our goal remains the same for natural wines as it is for all our wines--select the finest wines available and let our customers select what they want.
All I demand of my buyers is that any "natural wine" we carry is good wine first and last. If it's naturally made, all the better.
One of my projects for the first part of 2020 is to dedicate a rack or two just for these wines so consumers looking for them won't have to shuffle all over the store to find what they are looking for. In the meantime, our French, Italian and domestic wine buyers know which of their wines fit the "natural" and "orange wine" criteria.
Wine in a Can
Wine in a can is different than boxed wine, which some view the same. You can drink a wine directly from a can, but rarely drink a wine directly from a 5 liter box.
How, then, can one fully enjoy a wine that one cannot smell, unless the goal is not exploring the joys of that wine, but getting buzzed using wine as the vehicle?
Maybe I just answered my own question. I asked the staff if wine in a can is just a fad, or whether it was here to stay. The consensus was the former.
Remember when whipped cream-flavored vodka was all the rage? For that matter, does anyone do Fireballs anymore? I could sure see the end of that fad coming. Sugary-sweet, high alcohol drinks have a way of coming up, no matter what generation innovated it.
Collecting and Cellaring Classic Wines for the Long Haul
This may be the most troubling of all the current trends. Le's put aside the observation that for the past two decades winemakers around the world have been picking riper grapes and adjusting their formulas in an effort to garner big scores from the wine press, making them unrecognizable in comparison to the classic wines of previous decades. The warming planet is now forcing the world's winemakers to change their variety makeup in famous regions like Bordeaux and Chateauneuf-du-Pape due to naturally changing ripening patterns. The result will be wines we don't recognize anymore. We still may be able to enjoy their wine for their primary qualities, but everything you learned about cellaring wine is out the window.
It's a new day.