The changing face of the U.S. wine market and wine consumption is a topic I've long wanted to delve into, so I'm diverting from my usual French/Spanish themes here. On the other hand I kept putting this off because I feared the laboriousness of the task. However, after having been involved with the wine industry (in various forms) for over 38 years now, I seem to often have the urge to share with other oenophiles the significant transformations in wine availability, drinking preferences etc. which I've observed during this time.
I suppose the most obvious change in the U.S. market from my early days in the trade - late 70's - is the huge increase in the availability of wines from lesser known regions,
along with the improvement in quality of these wines (largely related to a reduction in crop levels = better ripening and concentration). While living in St. Louis in this earlier era, wine
afficianados (with some disposable income) focused primarily on the well-known names from Bordeaux & Burgundy - with a gradual interest in the new boutique cabs & merlots from N.
California. This of course made for a somewhat predictable, and sometimes uninspiring wine market - especially coupled with the fact that the 70's was a time in which there were numerous
uninteresting and over-priced reds being pumped out in Burgundy. But it was at the beginning of the next decade that a revolution in small production and higher quality emerged in virtually every
viable wine region on the planet, and as can be withessed today, it is still happening. On the positive side, many of the renowned estates' wines were considerably more affordable back then, but
personally, this is not of consequence to me, as my interests and taste have changed so dramatically over the years, that I find myself much more intrigued and fascinated by these new and
esoteric entries into the market - often from varieties that were shunned in the past. I think it's safe to say that, in addition to the vintner's attention to a vineyard's site, crop level etc.,
their focus on the authenticity of the wine (for its variety & region) has lead them to low-tech production techniques which eschew over-manipulating a wine. i.e. employing as natural an
approach as possible (preferrably either organic or bio-dynamic). I would argue that this "movement" has single-handedly defined (and above all, improved) the diversity, quality and authenticity
of wines available in the wine market today.
There is of course still no shortage of bulk-produced wine, which can be pleasant while usually a bit one-dimensional - and sadly, many of these producers have tried to steal the marketing pitch of the smaller, craft wineries - but this is where, I believe, the usefulness of the numerous (and often specialized) wine blogs come in. There are many wine-bloggers out there, who have no interest in promoting a wine just because its owners have sent them free samples, or due to a pricey ad placed in their glossy publication. And happily, many of the newer winebloggers specialize in a partiular region or varietal, which affords them more time to thoroughly research current wine offerings and provide (more often) reliable information to their readers. I realize it can be a jungle out there in the oenoblogosphere, but once one finds a writer whose palate is in accord with his/her own, it is easier to cut through the BS of much of these estates' propaganda who tend to place more emphasis on marketing than on the quality and individuality of their wine.
And this is where the new breed of consumer enters. Armed with facts and information about the wines they're seeking, they are naturally more inquisitive, astute and well-equipped to separate the chaff from the wheat - and with the huge diversity of wine & wine prices in the market today, this helps immensely in dealing with the subjective nature of wine. It's a much more user-friendly environment in which to buy wine today for consumers -even those with more limited means. Of course it's very helpful to have a seasoned palate, but again, the most important aspect is knowing the style of wine one prefers and using the available data to locate these wines. Besides, regardless of the "natural" sensitivity and accuracy of one's palate, I'm still convinced that it's the knowledge and experience acquired from researching and tasting wine regularly that is most useful in choosing the "appropriate" wine (especially comparative tastings and the exchange of ideas in a group setting etc.).
Granted, the prices for all (even lesser known) wine categories have climbed over the last 25 years, but there are still so many good value wines to be found in the market today - and this is precisely what provided me the incentive to write the occasional blog. i.e. like many other bloggers, I very much want to make the case for value in honest wine for "every day consumption", and not simply mimic the big publications with their oft meaningless 100 pt. rating systems and annual praise of the renowned estates - along with the trendy new boutiques on the block. I guess I wouldn't mind being labeled a "democratic wine populist" because of my desire to connect those consumers of limited means to decent and authentic wines in the market. On the other hand, that label also applies to my attitude towards fair compensation to small artisanal winemakers (who are often working with limited means as well). This is to say that there is a fine line in this equation - whereby both consumer and producer can be accommodated fairly.
This new set of consumers should be largely credited for giving a nice boost to the "artisinal" wine producers - and when I use the term artisinal, I would essentially include all of the (most often smaller) "craft" vintners who, if not certified organic or bio-dynamic, are at least following a *"non-manipulative" regime, as regards vineyard and wine-making technique. With the plethora of new small wineries over the globe, there's an increased need for "being unique" and setting one's image apart from the others (while at the same time striving for typicality for the vineyard's region & terroir). Of course like any other consumer niche, the"genu-winists" or "oenauthentists" (or whatever term suits you) have their shortcomings like anyone. e.g. Many often tend towards trendy movements, even when this or that new winemaking trend may not have much basis in increased authenticity or quality - or be easily swayed by clever marketing campaigns designed to portray hipness or the "rebel image". Once again though, the bottom line is simply accumulating enough research and wine tasting experience to decide for oneself how much interest, authenticity, quality & value is in the glass. So here's to a new wine year 2014! And may it yield ever more good-value, unmanipulated and highly quaffable wine!
* Note that I'm hesitant to use the term "natural", due to its controversial perception. Unfortunately the term has been abused by many wineries & consumers alike - and co-opted by some "not-so-natural" larger wineries for marketing purposes. I think it's definitely time for the term "natural" to be more rigidly defined before use in publicity and on labels.