Wine Trendspotting

One of wine writing’s persistent challenges is figuring out what’s going to be worth writing about next week, next month or next year.



How do you tell the difference between a wine fad and a wine trend?

Some years ago, I gave the keynote address to the annual confab of Washington State winegrape growers. I began by asking them what business they thought they were in. “You may think you are farmers, with orchards and row crops and, oh yeah, wine grapes,” I said.

“Or you may think you are in the wine busi- ness. Some of you go so far as to make a fin- ished product in a nice package. But, in truth, your business has more in common with those who sell books and songs and movies.

“Whether you realize it or not,” I concluded with a flourish, “you are in the entertainment business.”

Wine producers—like movie studios, re- cording labels or sports leagues—are compet- ing for discretionary dollars. The customer wants to have a good time, and especially to feel that they are making a good choice.

What’s a good choice?

Well, it’s a wine that feels like a value. It’s a wine that pleases the palate. Perhaps, it’s a wine that impresses someone—a hot date, an important client, a picky friend.

In pursuit of that special wine, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of following the latest fad.

It’s not that difficult to spot a wine fad. Something gets mentioned in a song or featured in a film or TV series. Boom! Sales rocket into space.
The burgeoning popularity of unoaked white wines seems to be igniting a larger trend toward aromatic varieties. Riesling has returned to the spotlight. Pinot Gris/ Grigio is enormously popular because it’s light, lively, fruit-driven and food-friendly.

Certain marketing themes can also spark fads. “Critter” wines were all the rage for a while. Then came “lifestyle” wines, which hoped to tie into your fantasies of getting away from it all.

Now it’s all about candy and confections— wines (and booze) named for sweet treats.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. These products can be kind of fun.

But rarely are such ephemeral, marketing- inspired wines going to find a permanent place in your cellar. And though Kanye West and Drake may love a certain Italian grape, just wait till the next album comes out.

Trends take longer to arrive and generally last longer, although they can be sparked by a single media event.

“The French Paradox” story on 60 Minutes almost single-handedly launched Merlot sales. A decade later, one quick scene in the movie Sideways nearly sank them.

Generational shifts can also have a slow but powerful effect on wine drinking trends.

Baby Boomers, for whom fine wine was something stumbled upon rather than raised with, loved (and many still love) their oaky Chardonnays.

The Millennials, who design many of the most influential restaurant wine lists, prefer sleeker, racier Chardonnays with little or no butter or barrel flavors.

These are not fads. They are trends supported by rising sales over a period of years, not months.

Ultimately, that’s the difference: trajectory. A fad is like a pop fly in baseball. It comes off the bat and goes straight up into the air, only to come down just as fast. A trend is like a single lined between first and second. It may be less spectacular, but has lasting impact.

Wine itself is a home run, destined to be replayed over and over.

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