Looking Into my Crystal Ball
"So what do you see as the trends for the coming year?" someone asked me a few months ago.
I've been thinking about that question ever since.
As one who tends to take the long view, both forward and historically, I can't answer that question in a word or two. Consumers certainly will have more choices than ever for wine, spirits, cider and craft beer.
On the surface, that seems like a good thing.
But appearances can be deceiving. Suppose most of those vast selections consumers are face with are engineered for mass appeal so most of them taste alike. What if other products are so esoteric or quirky they can't find a sustainable consumer base? What if consumers' tastes are so diverse there is no single, dominating trend?
One thing for sure, mediocrity and homogeny will dominate beverage offerings in large retail outlets, and it will take more effort for discerning consumers to discover quality and individuality at all price levels. That's a trend we've had for a long while.
That's why there is an important role for independent retailers like The Wine Country. The best of us strive to deliver the exceptional, rather than the mundane, opting for the outstanding rather than settle for the merely acceptable. And that doesn't always mean spending more. Not here, anyway.
It's easy to be cynical when you consider that major corporations buy family wineries, artisan distilleries and craft beer houses, only to capitalize on the image of specialness, then turn around mass-producing products using the same brand names we once thought of as unique. It's a clever marketing strategy, but it's deceptive.
What's handmade about Tate's Handmade Vodka, now made in the millions of cases? What's craft about Blue Moon ale, owned by beer colossus In-Bev? Is it true that Moët makes over a million cases of Dom Pérignon, or that Veuve Clicquot's annual output is over 2 million cases? How do numbers like that impact quality? Is it still special?
You know the answer.
Corporate beverage marketing departments drive production formulas, which are then test-marketed and adjusted to create different flavor and sweetness profiles like so many boxes of cereal. And they want us to think it's real. And unique.
Take craft beer, for example. One of the most exciting developments in the beverage world, craft beer sales have exploded in the last two decades, as has the number of artisan breweries and the sheer numbers of creative malt beverage offerings, from IPAs to oak-aged beers, to Belgium-inspired sours and lambics to wheat beers modeled after German Weisse beers.
Being the first on your block to discover the latest craft beer offering, or getting something people can't find, gives you bragging rights among your friends.
If history is a guide, all beer used to be craft beer, back when every neighborhood had its own small brewery. Then Prohibition, followed by consolidation and mass-marketing, changed everything for beer drinkers.
Big beer companies have ruled the beverage world until relatively recently, when they observed a noticeable bite in their business by the defection of customers who became craft beer enthusiasts. Although it is a still a comparatively small market, it's enough for big companies to get into the "craft" segment. The industry is still reeling from the billion-dollar purchase of Ballast Point brewery by wine giant Constellation Brands. How crafty will Ballast Point become as Constellation pays off a return on a billion dollar investment to its shareholders?
It takes an extra effort for consumers to tell what is truly craft from a large production, consumer-engineered product posing as a "craft" beer.
For the record, the industry defines "craft" as those breweries and distilleries making 6,000,000 barrels or less per year. I'll let you decide how "crafty" 82 million cases is. (Some of our grower champagne producers make 4,000 cases per year...and that's in a good year.)
Latest figures for craft beer entrepreneurs is troubling, though. So many small breweries have crowded the market so quickly, some are dropping out because they can't sustain sales in an overcrowded market. There will be a period of adjustment ahead.
Fine Spirits Trends
Fifty years ago bartenders would make Bloody-Marys from scratch, adding each ingredient separately to achieve an individual vision for the drink. By the disco era, Bloody-Marys were made with pre-made mixes, using automated shot dispensers. Mechanization trumped craftsmanship and creativity.
In a world where efficiency has cost us so many compromises in quality, the craft cocktail boom is a welcome example of a new generation searching for its roots, desiring to create something new from authentic and natural ingredients. Gaining steam after the rise in farm-to-table cooking, the surge in craft cocktails began as a return to classics, making drinks your great-grand-daddy would recognize. Top mixologists today muddle and infuse their own herbs in numbers that haven't been seen since the golden age of cocktails in the 1930s. Sherry, one of the world's greatest and most distinctive wines (sadly out of fashion with wine drinkers), is seeing a resurgence among mixologists.
Creativity is a noble instinct, but doesn't always bring good results. There is good art and there is bad art. The temptation to create an original concoction using a dozen steeped, infused, obscure ingredients often results in forgettable drinks with no compelling reason to go back and try them again.
Craft distilleries are exploding on the scene. Whiskies, gins, vodkas, rums, brandies, aquavits, bitters, amaros and liqueurs are being made all over the U.S. at a pace that is mind boggling. There are now more than 1,300 craft distillers in the U.S., all vying for shelf space in specialty stores like ours, some dreaming for a big score with a corporate acquisition.
There is a little disagreement on what constitutes a "craft distillery", annual output for some organizations stating they should be under 40,000 cases, others define craft at under 300,000 cases, according to Market Watch, an industry magazine. Just by sheer numbers, craft distillery performance grew nearly 28% between 2010 and 2015, reaching 5 million cases last year.
The danger is not in the products; it is misgauging the market's capacity to absorb so many labels so quickly.
Just as in cooking, where great ingredients cooked respectfully and classically will eventually reappear long after trendy foams come and go, classic cocktails are classics for a reason. Don't look for a well executed, clean dry Martini to fade away anytime soon
That doesn't mean we can't have fun trying new things or recycling old things. Will the Harvey Wallbanger find an audience with a new generation? Will Sex-on-the-Beach make a comeback? Long Island Iced Tea? Zombies? Grasshoppers and Brandy Alexanders? Is the world ready to rediscover Crème de Menthe?
What will be the successor to shooting Fireballs at the local dance club?
Predicting wine trends is the most confounding of all. The incredible and unprecedented success of premium wine during the Baby Boom era created a world-wide market for fine wine where there previously was none.
There is good wine coming from everywhere, so much of it, in fact, that it is nearly impossible to keep up. Italian white wine and south-of-France rosés are now popular year-round, although in summer they roar.
More women are drinking red wine than ever in my memory. Big red wine, in fact, turning dainty feminine stereotypes on their heads. Men, historically adventurous in their wine searches, are relying less on wine publications, and more on their evolving tastes, discovering classic white wines from Chablis, the Loire, Germany and Austria, seeking crisper, less-alcoholic wines they can enjoy more often. It's a one-eighty from twenty years ago, when (mostly) male consumers marched in our doors with their Wine Spectator Top100 lists in hand searching for tokens of prestige they could buy for $25 or $50.
One trend that is nearly universal it to discover something good that nobody in your circle knows about. It could be a new Paso Robles or Lodi winery, or it could be an Old World varietal newly planted in California.
West Coast craft vintners are making Fiano, Charbono, Tempranillo, Albariño, Cabernet Franc, Ugni Blanc and Graciano, all illustrating courageous (Quixotic?) and costly gambles that there will be enough consumers willing to give up Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay for at least one night in the hopes they may return to buy a second bottle.
And that doesn't even take into consideration the great strides vintners have made in New York, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Baja California in recent years.
Will you be the first on your block to discover Chardonel, Traminet, Vignoles or Chambourcin? I haven't seen those exported to California, yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them here in the next few years.
Sparkling wine has never been more popular, including Prosecco, Cava, Sekt and Cremant, while the champion of them all, Champagne, may have reached its peak.
In 2017, affordability will still dominate all markets. Baby Boomers will phase out of the fine wine market as they retire, Gen Xers, Gen Yers and Millennials will be spending all their money on house payments, and youngsters will be doing shots of the latest sweet libation on half-price night. That never changes.
But there will be a select few who buck the system, who strive for quality and individuality, who embrace change instead of resist it. The curious, the fearless and the confident. They are called wine drinkers.
Wherever there are people who don't settle for what big companies are shoveling our way, who seek out beauty and quality, there will be a demand for stores like The Wine Country.
And fun. Let's not forget about fun. Visiting a good wine store is fun. Enjoying what you buy there is even more fun. Sharing wine with others is the most fun of all.
That's one trend I can confidently predict.