The Top Wine Stories of 2011
What an interesting year in wine. Legal battles, political battles, movements rising, technology, new markets, and changes in the media led the news. Here are my top wine stories for 2011
A SMALL CRACK IN THE WALL: Initiative 1183 Takes Washington Out of the Booze Business and Into the 21st Century
It has been a long time since a state abandoned its control of the alcohol marketplace and turned it over to the private sector. Initiative 1183 in Washington State did just this, taking the responsibility for distribution and sales of spirits from the Washington Liquor Control Commission and putting in private hands. For many, this event was as much of symbolic importance as it was substantive, though Costco, the backer of the Initiative, and others who will now be able to sell spirit will eventually turn a profit fit for a capitalist. Initiative 1183 was opposed largely by national, not state-based, wholesaler associations who viewed this kind of high profile and significant change to a distribution system as a threat to the three tier system itself, which remains the foundation upon which wholesalers still control the marketplace for beer, wine and spirits in America. Whether the success of Initiative 1183 motivates similar changes in other control states or simply makes tweaks to the three-tier system more likely is yet to be seen. However, this small crack in the ancient and archaic wall of alcohol control systems marks an important moment.
THE FAILURE OF CYNICISM: House Resolution 1161 Goes Nowhere in 2011
House Resolution 1161 ("The Care Act"), the son of 2010's H.R. 5034, never even got a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee in 2011. The highly partisan and gridlocked nature of Washington politics surely had much to do with the bill going nowhere.. But so too did the near universally negative response to the bill by the entire American alcohol industry, save the beer and wine wholesales that wrote it and pushed for it. The negative response to H.R. 1161 by producers, retailers, public policy institutions and the media was driven largely by the hugely negative effect the bill would have on commerce in wine, beer and spirits. The Bill would give the states the the right to discriminate against goods outside their borders and would completely strip American wine retailers of all their protections under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. But also, the cynicism behind H.R. 1161 is so thick and undisguised that it has repulsed policymakers, pundits, and policy analysts on both sides of the aisle. The hope is the this bill will continue to go nowhere in 2012
GOD BLESS THE 1%: The Return of the High End of the Marketplace
Buyers of America's expensive wines and collectible imports are back in the marketplace. 2011 confirmed the recovery of this small, but important sector of the wine market as producers of small production, super-duper premium wines saw their inventories depleted at rates approaching that of 2005 and 2006. The return of the 1% to the fine wine marketplace was confirmed in surveys of national retail sales as well as in the ShipCompliant/Wines&Vines report on direct shipping. The return from the collapse that came in 2008 and 2009 matches reports of sturdy sales in other luxury goods sectors. Again, while this is good news, it is best seen as a sign of hope for the rest of the marketplace and recovery of the economy as a whole.
THE MAINSTREAMING OF NATURAL WINE: New Books Bring a Movement Front and Center
The natural wine movment along with the rise of Biodynamic wines has progressed, if not under the radar, then on the fringe of polite wine society for a few years. 2011 was the year the back-to-nature movement in wine and its corresponding reaction against "man-made wine" came out in the open with the publishing of Alice Fierings "Naked Wine", Katherine Cole's "Voodoo Vintners" , Michael Veseth's "Wine Wars", Jamie Goode's "Authentic Wine", and David Darliington's "An Ideal Wine". The natural movment always has always seemed like a dialectical response to globalism and the internationalizng of wine brands. It's fascinating to watch and likely to play a larger role in marketing of high end wines. Most important, the work of these authors and the supporters of the movement have brought the idea of natural and biodynamic out into the open.
THE END OF AN ERA: Robert Parker Decides to Leave California Alone
When last February Robert Parker announced he was turning over responsibility for reviewing California wines to Antonio Galloni, the San Francisco Chronicle's Wine Editor Jon Bonne called the announcement "stunning news". If not "stunning", the news of Robert Parker's retreat from California is at least the end of an important era. For more than two decades, Parker has been critical in shaping the landscape for very high end California wine, identifying and promoting wineries that are today the state's iconic producers. How or if Galloni will take a different approach to his review of California wines is not yet clear. What is clear is that ther are many wine producers looking closely to see what this new era entails.
NO FLASH IN THE PAN: The Institutionalization of On-line Marketing Agents
For those who thought the Wine Flash Site, selling a wine a day or a few wines per week, were a reaction to the economic downturn and would disappear when wine inventories were reduced, 2011 saw their predictions go down in flames. On-line marketing agents, unlicensed advertisers for all intents and purposes, have demonstrated they can do more than sell a discounted wine. Most importantly, they have demonstrated they can gather a loyal audience that looks to them to present them with interesting products. Lot 18, Gilt Taste, Woot.Wine, Cinderella Wine, WineTilSoldOut, Cellar Angels….these and other marketing agents are creating a new sales channel in the wine industry and their success is confirming its utility. Though seemingly retailers, they don't adhere to a traditional retail model. And the release of an Advisory by the California ABC on how licensed wineries and importers need to structure their dealings with these marketing agents confirmed the viability of this model. I expect more and bigger players to enter the game in 2012.
A SAVIOR FROM THE EAST: The Rise of the Chinese Wine Buyer
This year saw the rise and influence of the Chinese and East Asian wine market explode. As capital rushes into China, disposable income increases and a nascent middle class forms under China's managed capitalism, more and more wine is being consumed in that culture. The world's great wine auction houses have all set up shop in Hong Kong to take advantage of the newly found taste for collectible Burgundy and Bordeaux. More wineries are exporting wines to China and the east. It's not far fetched to suggest that 2011 was the year when China's great influence over wine markets began to take hold.
WEATHERING THE WEATHER: West Coast Wineries Struggle With A Tough Vintage
It's fair to say that the West Coast of the United States, but particularly California, is blessed with such favorable grape growing conditions that every year is a vintage year. This year, however, proved that great vintages are not a given. A cold spring and wet harvest season left many growers with late-ripening grapes in funk. By many accounts, 2011 will be a very dicey year for California wine. Rot in the vineyards, under-ripe grapes and the loss of substantial amounts of grape crops will have a variety of effects. Many are suggesting that lots of sugar and concentrate will be dumped into wines to bring alcohol levels up. Others are suggesting that the lower alcohols that we will see with the 2011 vintage will produce age-worthy and charming wines. Much will depend on how the media evaluates the 2011 wines. No matter how it gets spun, 2011 will go down as one of the most challenging (and potentially disappointing) vintages California has seen in many years.
THOSE POWERFUL 140 CHARACTERS HIT WINE: Twitter Impacting Wine Communications
Twitter has had a huge cultural impact, rising to iconic status with new verbs to prove it. Yet there has always been some doubt in the wine community of its relevance and utility. In July, the power of Twitter was put on display by wine bloggers when, over a 4 day period, 15,000 tweets carrying the #wbc11 hashtag were pushed out in conjunction with the Wine Bloggers Conference in Virginia. Those 15,000 tweets represented a potential 43,000,000 impressions. Tourist organizations in Virginia, Oregon and British Columbia have noted the positive impact hostng the bloggers conference would have for regions by noting, among other things, their tweet production in association with the Bloggers Conference. In 2011 Twitter and Wine cemented a strong relationship. Wineries, retailers, promoters, wholesalers and wine associations have all jumped on board and are building twitter communities to help them tell their story and sell their goods. If you were paying attention in 2011, you noted that 147 characters was just enough to make a wine, winemaking, and wine selling very sexy.