Writing the History of Wine in 2020

No one knows the future, so it’s impossible to say what will result as a consequence of 2020. However, we can look back. In doing so, it’s neither historically reckless nor an improbable conceit to suggest that 2020 is the most consequential year of the past 10 decades. How, I wonder, will the wine industry be remembered when the incalculable chronicles and novels and histories of this moment are composed?

Consider first the milieu. The greatest pandemic to hit America’s shores in 100 years. A political moment of true import and uniqueness that culminates with the second most controversial president in American history being ousted after one term (Lincoln gets the nod for most controversial—his election did, after all, lead to the secession of half the states). A racially-charged upheaval the likes of which has not been seen in 50 years. And for the West Coast winemaking meccas, a collection of fires that ravaged its most important and most iconic regions. Finally, there is the impact of the imposition of tariffs and how they not only galvanized every sector of the wine industry to work together (a first?), but also led to the devastation of both jobs and companies in their wake.

In many tellings of 2020, the American wine industry will be a footnote. While an important industry, wine is hardly an essential industry. Surely “Napa Burns” will find a chapter here and there in histories and documentaries on the year. Perhaps the wine stores being deemed “essential business” will be noted, likely in service of irony. Wine and alcohol will be mentioned when the story of how Americans dealt with lockdowns is told. Wine may be mentioned when the terrible fate of restaurants is recalled. Perhaps mention will be made of how American wineries responded when the story of the pause in travel is chronicled.

But the question I’m interested in is this: What Did 2020 Do to the Wine Industry?

Is it a story of resilience in the face of social upheaval? Will it be characterized as a turning point for the industry that was not noticed in the moment? Is the story of wine in 2020 one of backsliding toward mediocrity? Perhaps fire will serve as a metaphor for the way the wine industry was engulfed by the impact of pandemic and politics?

I don’t know the answer despite being in the middle of it. This suggests that the best history and chronicles of wine’s 2020 will likely be told by a curious futurian or by one who is just now starting out in the industry but in 20 or 30 years will have the perspective to understand what this year really means.

In college, I studied history. My BA and MA were both granted in that field of study. The key challenge in writing history, I found, was in locating primary sources—the kind of evidence produced by the subjects of the story you were telling: diaries, documents, artifacts, photos. The farther back in time one goes, the fewer primary sources are available. This shouldn’t be a problem for future historians and storytellers of wine’s confrontations with 2020.

Social media sources alone should be a deep trough filled with primary material. The various types of media from written news accounts to television to radio to podcasts will be rich sources of primary material for historians. The point is that we wine industry professionals who are currently living through this are leaving it all out there for the future to interpret.

I came upon this post while sitting quietly in my front room in Salem, Oregon, reflecting on this past year and staring out the window at the holiday lights. I found my assessment of 2020 a very pessimistic encounter. Too many friends and colleagues have been hurt, even devastated, by the pandemic. Despite my presidential candidate winning, I can’t bring myself to cheer due to too many ominous signs warning of dangerous American politics ahead. And even with the vaccines seemingly on their way, the sheer heaviness of this year gives me too much trepidation to look forward with any real confidence.

The best I’m hoping for is that this feeling of pessimism will be identified by future historians as a condition felt by many who found ourselves sitting at the bottom of the emotional dip, right before things started to turn quite bright.

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