Wine Writing In the Age of COVID

Thinking about my 16th anniversary at the helm of FERMENTATION, it is the uniqueness of the current moment rather than the longevity of my efforts that strikes me today. I don’t think I am alone among those that write about wine and the wine industry in noticing that the wine writing space has been enveloped by a filter colored by COVID’s impact and the adjacent influences particular to the moment.

The analytical effort of describing and commenting on this industry and its culture has never been more challenging.

From its beginning, the goal of FERMENTATION has been to deliver insider commentary on the business and culture of wine, the wine media, and the politics of wine. This kind of aim could never escape the impact of a moment’s zeitgeist. That is to say, anything I chose to write about and illuminate and the way I do it would be impacted by the way social and cultural movement impacted me personally.

When I launched FERMENTATION in 2004 the primary delivery system for wine news and commentary came with the risk of paper cuts. Today, it’s unclear if the younger physicians have ever seen a paper cut.

In 2004, America’s military and security response to the 9/11 attacks dominated American politics but had little impact on the concerns of the wine industry and how it operated. Moreover, the economy was humming along.

All in all, it was easy enough to filter out the dominant strands of American social change in an attempt to understand and communicate the state of the wine industry and wine media.

Today, it’s challenging to take a whack at nearly any wine-related issue without calculating the impact of the COVID pandemic on the health of the wine industry, the business of wine, and on the ways by which wine consumers are reacting to the crisis.

Today a wine writer is forever conscious of the impact of their language and ideas on the question of social justice in wine, which has also become an overriding theme in the wine industry. Add to this the notion that “silence is complicity” and the wine writer becomes well aware of the broken glass that is laid out in front of them as they chase words and ideas.

Perhaps the only thing that has not changed since my beginning in 2004 is the predictable position of the middle tier of the wine industry when it comes to consumer access to wine. Wholesalers today, just as they did in 2004 prior to the Granholm v Heald Supreme Court decision, insist that expanding the ways by which consumers access and take delivery of wine is fraught with world-ending consequences. The predictability of the anti-consumer wholesale tier is oddly comforting in this age of disruption.

What remains stable and the same over the past 16 years? It’s the fact that wine remains wet, remains a delivery vehicle for alcohol, and continues to be a product of the land that fascinates consumers more than most agricultural products. This is not to say that significant changes have not impacted the object of FERMENTATION’s coverage. Wines from what in 2004 would have been unusual or new homes are now common topics of interest. Wines from Georgia and Uruguay and New Jersey are not unusual topics for coverage among American wine writers. Natural, “Orange”, and PetNat wines would have needed considerable explanation in 2004. Today they are legitimate categories of wine.

Despite publishing my observations about the wine industry and wine for sixteen years now and despite working in the wine industry for 30 years, I am in no position to predict what trends, economic factors or cultural changes might color how I write about wine ten years from now. This year, this pandemic, this moment of cultural swirl has taught me that change can happen far more swiftly than any of us ever imagined.

Yet, as it has been for 30 years, an important part of my job and position today is to interpret and analyze the impact of society, politics, and culture on the business of wine. This effort to read the moment determines how I serve my clients, how I advocate on their behalf, and also how I write for the amazing audience that continues to grow read FERMENTATION.


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  1. Jim Bernau - November 17, 2020

    Happy Anniversary Tom! Your insights are appreciated.

  2. Don Rickel - November 17, 2020

    Great job of coverage and keeping us informed. Congrats on doing outstanding in providing wine information. Oh yes, long overdue is thanks from coming to the Pacific Northwest. Still great country, people and wine. Keep up the good work.

  3. Clark Smith - November 17, 2020

    Well said, Tom. You are still very much the real deal.

    I would only submit that I didn’t get into the industry to make a delivery system for alcohol, and neither did most of the small winemakers I know. Though we don’t always succeed, we aspire to offer something that speaks profoundly to the human soul, and the buzz is sort of annoying.

    Happy sixteen candles.

  4. Blake Gray - November 18, 2020

    This post made me realize that as much as I loved wine in 2004, which was a lot, wine is better now. There are more great and interesting (and sometimes both) wines to drink. The profusion of styles and approaches with a concurrent rise in competence has put the whole world in our glasses.

  5. Tom Wark - November 18, 2020

    Blake,

    No doubt about it. The expansion of wine over the past 20 or so years has been remarkable for consumers.

    Tom…


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