Editor's Note: This is the first column we're publishing at Houstonia from noted sommelier Justin Vann (Public Services Wine & Whisky, Theodore Rex, etc.). He'll check in monthly with thoughts, observations, and knowledge from the other side of the bar.
The world of wine is constantly changing, but it has been happening at an exponentially faster rate during the duress of a global catastrophe. The COVID-19 global pandemic may be the most powerful accelerant of change the industry has seen in a very long time. Right now we’re moving at light speed (hard to picture for those of us loafing around our houses all day), and while it’s hard to say where the rocket ship is taking us, I have a few predictions about where we’re going to end up.
High on the cheap stuff
Cheaper wine will surge in sales by volume, while high-end wine sales growth will slow down. There will always be a global cabal of robber barons who are good to find a home for, at least per a 2017 Christie’s auction, $51,450 Jeroboams of 1990 DRC La Tache, but for pricey bottles that aren’t listed on the Liv-Ex 100—essentially an industrial average for collectible wines—demand is falling.
In the fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis, consumers with lower average disposable income turned away from the idea of wines judged on the platonic ideal of a numeric 100-point score and started scouting wines that were unique and interesting. The difference between 2008 and today should be obvious: Then, consumers were allowed to enter buildings without fear of contracting a deadly virus. This, combined with a surplus of domestic over international bottles and an increase on prices of Austrian, French, and German bottles (because of a tacked-on 25-percent tariff issued by the federal government), means consumers will receive a glut of affordable wine this year.
Natural wine will gain more traction in the marketplace. There isn’t great data to support this claim because many studies don’t track sales of natural wine (it’s not exactly easy to define, no matter what your natty friends tell you). But anecdotes hint at a major shift to natural, especially with younger alcohol consumers.
David Mayfield, who distributes wine under his eponymous company based in Waco, says there has been unprecedented demand for his "most natural" wines during the pandemic.
“Pretty much all of our inventory is in the spectrum of natural wine, but we have definitely seen an increase in sales of the more natural wines in our book,” he says. “In some cases we’ve had demand exceed our allocation by as much as 40 cases for some of the small production stuff. We’ve never had something oversell quite as bad as that prior to the pandemic.”
While natural is doing well, analysts have been throwing their hands up, asking why millennials aren’t drinking as much wine overall. The Silicon Valley Bank’s annual report on the U.S. wine industry earlier this year contains some clues:
“We have been too slow in adapting to this consumer change,” reads the report. “We aren’t yet effectively marketing to young consumers and creating resonance with their values. We aren’t doing a good enough job of giving them a reason to buy wine.”
SVB’s admission worded another way might read, “Strangely, the marketing techniques developed on boomers don’t work on millennials.” There isn’t much marketing oomph behind natural, either. In my view, those in the old guard of the wine world commonly have cynicism for the concept of natural wine and have called it a fad as it has steadily grown in America for almost two decades now. Understandable, as it seems to pose an existential threat to the wine world built around boomers.
Natural wine is one of the keys to engaging younger wine consumers. It’s a gross generalization to say that natural wine is cheaper than classically vinified wine, but as a buyer currently aware of what is in the market, I believe it. While natural wine doesn’t represent anything close to a majority of wine consumed in the states, its market share is growing faster under our current pandemic, as it grew in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. I look forward to natural wine taking up more space in the mainstream.
While this is not strictly pandemic related, the Black Lives Matter movement will continue to prove instrumental in forcing the wine industry to examine itself.
Three master sommeliers resigned from the international organization Court of Master Sommeliers last month in response to the court’s sluggish endorsement of Black Lives Matter. BLM has also asked a lot of hard questions about the wine industry, namely, why it is still driven largely by white men? The Court of Master Sommeliers has been a massive influence on popular wine culture and education over the past decade, and its mishandling of BLM messaging undermines its political capital.
This comes on the heels of the 2018 cheating scandal that dealt the first major blow to the Court’s reputation. In response to the criticism, the Court appointed a diversity board, and it’s currently looking to strengthen its relationship with organizations like Wine Empowered and the Hue Society, which provide tuition-free wine education and scholarships for women and BIPOC industry members.
Time will tell if these changes are just cosmetic or truly meaningful. I am a product of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and while my desire to re-attempt the final exam waxes and wanes, there is no question that the education I received from preparing for its tests was instrumental in my career. It is more than a little uncomfortable to think about how white privilege played a role in my early access to these tools. I am sincerely rooting for the court to overhaul its accessibility to those that have been shut out. It is good to know that whatever happens, organizations like the Hue Society are not content to wait for change to happen on someone else’s timeline.
Justin Vann is a sommelier who’s foremost the owner and beverage director for Public Services Wine & Whisky. He also serves as wine buyer for Theodore Rex, Mala Sichuan Bistro, and Okra Charity Saloon. His message to you: It has never been more urgent to give support to bars, restaurants, and wine shops as the food-and-beverage industry is being crushed by COVID-19. Your dollars going toward a local, independently owned business in lieu of a national chain can be the difference between life and death for that business.