I’m not big on New Year resolutions or predictions, but I think many people are thinking about 2009 and beyond in a more intense way than they may have in the past. A new and seemingly different administration will be occupying the White House and congress, and we’re wondering what changes they might engender. We’re also focused on 2009 because we’re hoping that the recession will bottom-out, and the economy will stabilize and begin to improve. Finally, we will hopefully see the end of at least one war that has riveted our attention and emotions.
But apart from specific expectations for 2009, we share a consciousness that a new era is truly beginning. In the year 2000, we focused on the march of time, and mostly looked back at the past. Almost ten years later, we see the future, because change, driven largely by technology, has altered our world to the extent that we can see what might be ahead. New ways of communicating are pervasive. We now depend on mobile phones, email, instant messaging, and online social networking. As we attempt to free ourselves from the combustion engine, different transportation technologies are competing for realization both public and private, including electric and biofueled cars. All of the major systems that frame our lives, from food production to housing to health care are being re-thought and are seemingly on the brink of dramatic innovation. The list goes on.
New trends in the wine business are related to these larger themes. The first trend that comes to mind is that the corner store is no longer the only place where you can buy wine or any other product. You purchase wine from Celebrations Wine Club because you can browse the internet. You might order a random wine in a restaurant and decide that you want more. So you contact the winery directly, because its email address in on the back label. And if it isn’t, no worries. You Google the winery name and ask them to send you a few bottles, by-passing both the corner store and the wholesaler who sells wine to the owner. The same situation occurs in the music business when you download a CD. If the store is out of your shoe size, you go to the producer’s website and order the shoe there. In other words, the way goods are distributed is changing. And buying direct from producers of many different products will probably accelerate once cheaper and more efficient transportation technologies develop. The corner store will remain with an altered product line, but the current owners could also decide to move their business online.
Winegrape farming is undergoing transition as it always does. I found it interesting to see how many selections in Wine Spectator’s and San Francisco Chronicle’s top 100 wines were farmed organically or biodynamically. I didn’t take the time to count, but biodynamic vineyards had a new and conspicuous presence. This is the ultimate system of sustainable agriculture because literally everything that grows on the property is recycled in the same location. Each farm, like the globe itself, nurtures diverse plants and animals and is self-contained albeit with much scientific help in the form of monitoring plant and soil health. This farming movement is diametrically opposite to giant, centralized, chemically-dependent, mono-culture farms that represented innovation in the past. Such mega farms depended on crude oil prices around $15 a barrel so that transporting crops from huge farms across the country was economically viable. And the far-reaching consequences of chemical contamination and exhausted soil were unknown. Redeveloping local agriculture is once again a viable model. And incidentally, almost every state in the U.S. now makes wine. While California has been doing it the longest, all the others are finding their way toward competence and excellence.
So which new grape varieties will we likely see in the near future, even though winemakers don’t actually have a “near future.” From the time that the new plant grips the soil, grows up, relinquishes its first viable crop that is then fermented into wine and placed on a table, time passes, five years at the very least. Twenty years ago, the French varieties Pinot Noir and Syrah were the new enthusiasms of winemakers. Today, they are mainstream as are Italian winegrapes like Pinot Grigio and to a lesser extent Sangiovese and Barbera. Now the talk is about Spanish varieties, especially the noble Tempranillo. But one thing is certain. It won’t be wine that will be making our heads spin in the future. It’ll be the pace of change itself. Happy New Year and keep your balance!