The Future of Wine

How America became a wine culture, and where we go from here

By Harvey Steiman
The future of wine
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Illustration by Tracy Debarko
Gauging the changing tastes and emerging trends that may chart new paths of discovery. (Click/tap the image to see a larger version.)

Every plunge into the future begins with a moment of discovery. Exploring the vast world of wine is no different.

My discovery moment occurred 48 years ago, on a beach in The Netherlands. My wife, Carol, and I were on our honeymoon. As the midsummer sun sank over the North Sea, we dined in a restaurant we could barely afford. We ate whole Dover sole sautéed in butter and accompanied it with a bottle of Riesling Kabinett Piesporter Goldtröpfchen.

We had never had fish quite that good, and the wine, light and delicately sweet, played off the succulent flesh beautifully. We said to each other, simultaneously, "We need to do this more often."

At about the same time, many other Americans were having similar moments of revelation. By the 1970s, a wine culture was blossoming, in tandem with a food revolution nurtured by Julia Child on television. Thanks to advances in viticulture and enology, better wines flowed from almost every region, including some that were far from the wine mainstream. And more people knew about them, thanks, at least in part, to Wine Spectator, which was founded in 1976.

The landscape for wine has changed dramatically in the years since Carol and I were struck by our dinner of sole with German Riesling. Riesling itself boomed briefly during the 1980s, then fell out of fashion, and is now re-emerging as a trendy alternative to popular Chardonnay. Excellent versions are coming not only from Germany but also from Alsace, Austria, Italy and Australia, and from Washington and New York.

What does the future hold for this grape? Will new culinary movements raise it even higher in popularity, or push it once again to the side? Will climate change affect where or how it is grown? Will new styles emerge from regions as yet unexplored?

Trendy though it might be, Riesling represents only 5.2 million cases out of the 321 million cases of wine Americans consumed in 2014 (according to Impact Databank, a sister publication to Wine Spectator). And that wider wine world has changed significantly too. Back in 1975, Americans drank more red than white (36 million cases versus 27 million). Today the tables are turned. In 2014, we consumed 125 million cases of red wine, compared with 142 million of white—not counting rosé, sparkling and dessert wines.

What lies in store? Although global weather patterns, technical innovations and cultural shifts can change expectations, we can make some educated projections. Before we venture into the future, though, let's trace how we got here.

America Learns To Love Wine

When I started writing about food and wine in 1973 at The Miami Herald, it was almost entirely about food; in four years, I was allowed to write just four stories on wine.

Baby Boomers came of age along with wine in the U.S., driving America’s growing interest and consumption the 1970s and ’80s.
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Illustration by Traci Daberko
Baby Boomers came of age along with wine in the U.S., driving America’s growing interest and consumption the 1970s and ’80s.

But I socialized with a group of wine collectors who included me in their tastings. Often their focus was Bordeaux. If you were serious about wine in the 1970s, all you needed to know was that the great classics came from France; specifically, Bordeaux for red and Burgundy for white.

A transplanted Californian, I usually brought something I had discovered or read about from Napa Valley. Most of the group scorned my wines until the most experienced collector agreed to surreptitiously switch the contents of his bottle with mine. Everyone loved his Château Latour 1970 and was shocked when it turned out to be my Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Georges de Latour 1970 instead. But they got it. There were new wine worlds to explore.

Vintners everywhere, not only in California, adopted good grapegrowing and winemaking practices, and they challenged the monopoly long held by established regions. Gradually, the wine world grew in scope and diversity as, one by one, underperforming vineyard areas came into their own.

It took a while for that to sink in with the wider wine-conscious public. In 1976, Americans drank more Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a blend that included some Pinot Noir along with Petite Sirah and other grapes, than they did Cabernet Sauvignon. But in the intervening years, the United States has become a wine-drinking nation and buys more wine than any other country: Though Europe is still ahead in per capita consumption, even as consumption there continues to decline, as a nation the U.S. consumes more wine and spends more on it.

Over the years, preferences waxed and waned. It wasn't until the 1980s that Chardonnay became California's go-to white wine. In the late 1990s, Shiraz from Australia was all the rage, though demand has since waned significantly. Merlot was the hot item in 2004, but then the movie Sideways rhapsodized about Pinot Noir, thus enhancing the red Burgundy grape's popularity.

The long-term trend lines testify that we are constantly exploring, willing to try new grapes and new regions so long as they deliver value. Over time, we tire of the familiar and get excited about the obscure and indigenous.

Italy is a good example. It has been the leading wine exporter to the U.S. every year since 1975, and currently holds about 30 percent of the U.S. market for imports. But the pattern of which Italian wines Americans drink has shifted significantly over time.

Once, we enjoyed Chianti in a straw-covered bottle, and white wines marketed in bottles shaped like fish. In the 1970s and 1980s Italian vintners shifted up-scale, and planted Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties associated with France to prove that the country could compete on the world stage. Recently, it has made a strong shift back to its own indigenous varieties. And not just popular grapes such as Chianti's Sangiovese or Pinot Grigio from the northeast, but also the likes of Greco di Tufo, Aglianico, Nero d'Avola and Montepulciano.

But even as vintners in Italy and elsewhere looked to tradition to recover autochthonous grapes and authentic styles, they continued to move forward in the vineyards and winery.

Technology allowed growers around the world to monitor key aspects of their vineyards and adjust with more precision, while greater understanding of viticulture let winegrowers back away from excessive intervention. Many went organic and adopted sustainable farming practices. Others, including some of the most famous names in Europe and the New World, turned to the tenets of biodynamic farming.

Largely as a result of these advances, wine styles underwent their own revolution. In broad terms, winemakers aimed for riper flavors and more supple texture. Much of the credit goes to Émile Peynaud, a professor at the University of Bordeaux. Beginning in the 1960s, he consulted for many top-tier estates in Bordeaux and beyond. Peynaud advocated later grape-picking for softer tannins and more generous flavors. He touted temperature-controlled fermentation to preserve fruit flavors, careful management of malolactic fermentations, and spotlessly clean wineries to prevent off flavors. He recommended sorting lines to ensure that only the best grapes got into the wines, and rigorous selection of vats and barrels in which to make and age them.

Peynaud's clients found an enthusiastic audience for wines that sang more full-throatily of fruit. California vintners too won commercial success with flavors that centered on fruit. That became the focus everywhere-in the New World, in Bordeaux, in Burgundy, in Piedmont, in Tuscany, in Rioja, in Ribera del Duero. Germany was already there with its Rieslings and Sylvaners.

Some critics complained that these wines were too "clean," that they lacked the character that previously distinguished each producer's bottlings. In truth, modern winemaking erased flavors that were easy to grasp but were actually due to faults. With faults under control, the true character of the vineyard, the subtleties that distinguish one wine from another, can come through more clearly. Peynaud's approach has become the lingua franca of modern winemaking.

We can drink better wines today than ever, and more of them.

The Search For Character And Value

In the 1970s, anyone with a decent job could afford to buy a great wine. It may have been a splurge in 1975 to pay $65 for a case of Château Pichon-Lalande, but by 1980 that case had jumped to $160, and today it's $1,000. The most highly prized wines from France, Italy and Napa Valley have priced themselves out of most wine lovers' budgets, with new releases from the stars of those categories approaching $1,000 a bottle.

Generation X explored emerging winegrowing regions such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, Oregon and Washington.
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Illustration by Traci Daberko
Generation X explored emerging winegrowing regions such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, Oregon and Washington.

But as the classics spiral out of fiscal reach, new wine regions can fill the affordability gap, and adventurous Americans have shown themselves willing to experiment in their search for value. It started with California. In 1980, when Bordeaux second-growths were $15, Cabernets such as Jordan and Phelps won friends at $11 a bottle. Since then, Aussie Shiraz, Malbec from Argentina and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc have all vied for the spotlight. What did these all have in common? They overdelivered on quality at $8 to $15, the sweet spot of the U.S. market, using newfound winemaking know-how combined with vast vineyard resources.

What's the next great wine value? It's doubtful one region or grape variety will ever again have the kind of impact Shiraz or Malbec did. Few regions have such vast supplies of grapes waiting to be tapped.

Spain, with the most land under vine in the world, seems primed to find the spotlight. It has white wines with acidity, minerality and minimal or no oak influence, such as Albariño and Godello from the country's northwest, Verdejo and Viura from the middle of the country, and Xarel-lo from the northeast. Old-vine Garnacha (known as Grenache elsewhere) makes expressive reds at both high and low ends of the price scale. Cava, Spain's inexpensive sparkling wine, could regain the value mantle from Italy's recently trendy Prosecco. Spain's neighbor Portugal is also fine-tuning its winemaking skills and can call on a host of native grape varieties that are only now starting to be exploited for quality bottlings.

In the popular categories of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, imports probably can't threaten California's dominance among U.S. consumers, but other states and wine regions around the world are currently jockeying for attention.

For Cabernet Sauvignon and blends, Sonoma and Central Coast appellations are chipping away at Napa Valley's preeminence in California, often at lower prices. Chile, Australia, Italy, South Africa and Washington are establishing strong reputations. These are not copycat wines, either. Each has its own distinctive profile, from Chile's sleekness to Washington's richness and taut balance.

New Zealand has earned a share of the Pinot Noir spotlight in recent years. In the next few years, expect cooler regions of Australia to make a splash. Patagonia, in Argentina, and southern districts in Chile are seeing increased plantings of cool-climate varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Cool-climate Oregon is succeeding with Chardonnay, which may one-day match the state's reputation for Pinot Noir.

Grape varieties that were not discussed much in the past have found their way into some of today's most intriguing wines. In Italy, for example, recent generations in Campania resurrected ancient varieties such as Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, which now appear on wine lists everywhere. Vintners in northeast Italy are shining light on obscure grapes such as Ribolla Gialla and Picolit.

As winegrowing competence improves wine quality across the board, local bottlings are gaining greater acceptance in America, where "drink local" could become a sidebar to "eat local." All 50 states now have wineries. Although few, so far, challenge established winegrowing regions, overall quality is good enough to instill local pride.

Some states on the upswing include Arizona, New Mexico, Michigan, Texas and most especially Virginia and Idaho, all of which can pour examples of local wines that please neighbors and sophisticated visitors alike. In Canada, enclaves in Ontario and, especially, British Columbia, likewise show every sign of improving year by year.

Wine drinkers can choose from an expanding universe not only of regions but also of styles within those regions. Anywhere an established model exists, from Australia to Italy, alternates exist for those whose preferences go in a different direction. In California, where the prevailing style has favored ripeness and generous proportions, a niche movement aims to pick grapes earlier for less alcohol, crisper fruit flavors and more savory aspects.

We have so many options available to us today from so many places, and so many winemakers with different ideas of what they want their wines to be, that any of us can probably find kindred souls whatever our tastes may be.

The question hovering over all this is value. Unfamiliar regions and grape varieties need to prove to wine drinkers that they're worth it. Collectors willing to pay upwards of $100 a bottle will still exist, but most wine consumers will gravitate to the increasing number of excellent wines at $20 to $50.

New Drinkers Will Push The Market Forward

If what's happening with the generation of newest wine drinkers is any indication, more consumers are already open to less-celebrated wines. My generation, the Baby Boomers, born mostly in the 1940s and 1950s, came of age along with wine in the U.S. We took the lead in the wine boom of the 1970s and 1980s, and discovered that California and Italy could compete with Bordeaux and Burgundy.

No generation of American wine drinkers has embraced diversity more than Millennials, who reject a closely defined wine world.
Click/tap image to enlarge
Illustration by Traci Daberko
No generation of American wine drinkers has embraced diversity more than Millennials, who reject a closely defined wine world.

Generation X, which followed, was introduced to wine in the 1980s and 1990s, and in its search for value, explored emerging growing regions such as Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, New Zealand, Oregon and Washington.

But no generation of American wine drinkers has embraced diversity more enthusiastically than the one most recently reaching drinking age: Millennials. They grew up with wine on the family table, or on tables in the restaurants they frequented, so they are not intimidated. They reject a closely defined wine world. They question received wisdom. They shrug off distinctions among wine, beer and cocktails, folding them interchangeably into their lifestyle.

Fundamentally, we've all become more wine-savvy, including chefs, who are often becoming as knowledgeable about wine as their serving staffs. As formal restaurants became rarer, the more casual bistros, cafés and trattorias that rose in their place are getting more adventurous about wine, just as they are with their food, which often from borrows from several cuisines at once.

As wine percolates through American culture it is showing up in unexpected settings, even alongside cuisines lacking their own wine culture. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, southeast Asian, Indian and Latino restaurants seldom offered serious wine lists in the past. They often do today, because Americans expect to drink wine at mealtime.

At a Chinese restaurant, Millennials have no problem with Prosecco instead of beer or tea with xia long bao. Why should the rest of us? Sipping a gin cocktail instead of Champagne with light bites, then following with red Burgundy or Pinot Noir with a salmon main course? Works just fine.

Non-mainstream wines often best suit cuisines with spicy elements and other strong flavors. That dovetails neatly with today's wine diversity. A rapidly expanding array of wines from grape varieties and locations, made in a wider range of styles, should continue to find a larger and more diverse audience.

Then too, things don't taste exactly the same to everyone. We all have individual tolerances for alcohol, oak, gaminess, smokiness or peppery notes. This accounts for much of the give-and-take discussion, sometimes intensely combative, on style. One can only hope that we can simply home in on the wines we like and not disparage others who have different tolerances.

A wine world of greater and greater diversity is a trend that's virtually certain to continue. In other words, expect more surprises. Grenache, best known for its starring role in Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteaneuf-du-Pape, and long a supporting player in the New World, bridges the divide between the firmness and power of Cabernet Sauvignon and the relative lightness and deftness of Pinot Noir, just as Malbec does. It brings velvety texture and high-toned fruit to many of the red blends that have gained in popularity recently.

As Garnacha, it's widely planted in Spain, responsible for some of the country's greatest wines and oceans of highly drinkable, plush-textured everyday wines. Old vines exist in Australia, South Africa and California.

Also waiting in the wings is the Spanish variety Tempranillo. Widely planted in Spain, it has also adapted well to warmer climates around the globe. All it needs is a few New World labels with enough production to make an impact.

On the white side, Chenin Blanc might be ready for a comeback. It's a chameleon in the Loire, making charming wines that run from bone dry to lightly sweet to unctuous dessert styles. It also finds its way into some lovely sparkling wines. South Africa, which makes stunning examples, has plenty of acreage to convince the world, much as New Zealand did with Sauvignon Blanc.

If I had to bet on what white grape variety might be next, I'd keep a close eye on Vermentino. An unsung staple all around the Mediterranean, in Italy's Liguria and Sardinia, France's Côte d'Azur and Corsica, Vermentino is already taking hold in Australia, especially in the nation's warmer areas.

Any of these categories could become breakout winners, but the more likely scenario is for these grape varieties to play together with others in tasty blends. That's already happening. Washington's fastest-growing brand, 14 Hands, specializes in blends that use a lot of Syrah, even though the grape encounters market resistance on its own.

Expect big changes in how we buy wine, too. House brands already proliferate in retail stores and restaurants, blurring the line with traditional négociant wines. Well-known wineries increasingly sell direct to consumers over the Internet. Websites that already consolidate information from wine writers and social media could and should morph into some other, less cumbersome way to expose us to wines we might want to know and acquire.

That's a long way from a beach on the North Sea, where I discovered the first of myriad ways that wine could enhance my own life. Those discovering the possibilities of wine just now are in for a great future.

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