dave byrne talking heads

“And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here? …

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was”

Once In a Lifetime, Talking Heads/David Byrne

The State of the Wine Industry

A lot has changed since I first got into the wine business. I’ll use 1990 as the continental calendar divide to mark the time. Before then, I was a bartender while trying to eke out a living as a freelance classical trumpet player in San Francisco. Several years before, on finishing grad school, I was bitten by the wine bug while bartending at the Earle Restaurant, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, Steve Goldberg, the wine director, had created a list with over a thousand selections. And we poured over two dozen wines by the glass at the bar. The restaurant’s menu was historically-researched regional French and Italian cuisine that changed with the seasons. Mind you this was the spring of 1983. Needless to say, the Earle was slightly ahead of its time.

For me, learning about wine was similar to music, at least the history part of it. I’d spent a good deal of seven years of college down the drain studying Medieval and Renaissance music history. Pause to consider that for a second. Wine theory then wasn’t nearly as obscure or obtuse. But there was still so much to learn in the form of different styles, countries, and grape varieties. And you could actually drink it. What a concept.

Things changed in 1989 in more ways than one. First, our daughter Maria was born, which completely reshuffled Carla’s and my priorities. Second, a good friend asked me to help run the wine program at his new restaurant to be called the Cypress Club. I joined his team, and along with good friends and fellow sommeliers, Michael Bugella and the late Randy Goodman, we built a successful beverage program. The three of us were also in the MS program. I was fortunate enough to pass the final exam in March of 1992.

It goes without saying that the wine world at the time was different; less complex but still complicated. However, being in California, we at least had the good fortune of favorable state laws and could access multiple channels to purchase wine and spirits, including producer-direct. This unlike other states with draconian shipping laws or state-controlled liquor boards, both tragic remnants from the end of Prohibition.

Then and now, becoming a wine professional comprised three parts: reading about it, tasting it, and then doing something with the previous. The latter could be growing grapes, making wine, selling/marketing wine, writing about it, or serving it in a restaurant. The grunt work, so to speak, had to do with reading and tasting. In the way back machine, that meant hunting down the right books, going to trade tastings, and working with a good tasting group. All of which still holds true today. However, with theory, there’s more sources online than you can possibly believe. The pitfalls being unreliable information and too much drivel posted by consumers and self-anointed experts. As for tasting, Zoom allows us to take part, at least virtually, in tastings with a group both near or far. However, some state alcohol laws remain in the dark ages. For example, here behind the adobe curtain (New Mexico), one can’t purchase alcohol on Sunday until after 11:00 AM. I guess the powers that be must think we should all be in church.

My point with all the previous, and hopefully it wasn’t impossibly tedious to read, is that as much as the wine world has changed, a good deal of it is the same. And most of the changes that have taken place over the last several decades have to do with increasing scale, more access, and hopefully more opportunities. Then there is climate change, which continues to impact everything. But many aspects of the biz are still the same, including some less-than-stellar details. Here are a few thoughts about the state of the state.   

Need for a good retailer. Unless you were in the business and could get wine at cost, which was one of my life goals at one point, having ready access to a good retailer was critical. Someone knowledgeable who acted as a sieve to filter out all the dreck and only offer wines they could guarantee without hesitation. It was true back in the day and even more so now, despite the ease of online ordering.

The best wines are expensive. True with a caveat. Thirty-five years ago, the best wines weren’t impossibly expensive. In a pinch, one could afford to splurge on First Growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, or prestige cuvée Champagne. It goes without saying that the rest of the vinous landscape was affordable. Today, not true at all. The top wines are luxury goods affordable only to the one-percent. I point to the 2000 vintage in Bordeaux as a watershed moment when the top chateaux viewed the buying power of the Chinese market and opted for a dramatic price increase from the previous vintage. Afterwards, the trend continued. Today, the average bottle cost for one of the First Growth wines ranges between $500 and $2,000, depending on the vintage. Do the math in terms of tens of thousands of cases produced annually, and the presence of corporate entities in Bordeaux is not a mystery. Also not a mystery is how other top collectible wines followed suit becoming astronomically expensive.  

New regions coming online. Thirty-five years ago, places like Argentina, Greece, and Australia were barely blips on anyone’s wine radar. Now all three are mainstream with places like Uruguay and China getting traction in the market.

The challenge of market presence: True now more than ever. There is so much wine being produced—and the wine space is so crowded and noisy—that it’s challenging for a winery, even with an established track record, to make themselves heard above the din. And with the wine press running non-stop 24/7 and constantly seeking the next new thing, getting the attention of consumers or the media for a small established winery is more challenging than ever. Unless one of their wines is anointed with a high score. More on that in a moment.

Keeping current with industry changes. Thirty-five years ago, it was almost doable. Now it’s impossible. Hence the need to specialize in one or a handful of regions/styles or other aspects of the business.

The 100-point scoring system: has always been the industry’s true unicorn. I’d like to think Parker had noble intentions in creating the 100-point scoring system decades ago. It’s inherently flawed at best. The precision presupposed to use a hundred-point system to rate wine in a meaningful way has never existed.

The allure of starting a winery: has always been true. If you made a pile of cash in another unrelated pursuit, starting a winery seemed like a prestigious thing to do. Hopefully, you listened to people who’d already done it and how they spent a massive pile of cash to get their winery up and running much less ten years to break even. There’s also the shipping laws and other regulatory BS to deal with.

Influence of medical studies on consumption: The pendulum here continues to swing between the extremes. In the early 90s, the 60 Minutes segment on the French Paradox increased consumption of red wine overnight. However, recent studies have taken a different stance in regard to health and alcohol consumption. Some in the medical industry are now calling for zero-consumption. Note to anyone that prohibition of alcohol has always failed. Case in point, Prohibition, one of this country’s most spectacular political failures. Perhaps counselling the population at large on moderate consumption along with other strategies of a healthy lifestyle might be a more effective strategy. That and more studies showing how the various forms of alcoholic beverages—fermented vs. distilled—impact our health in different ways.

State shipping laws: arguably still the most regrettable residue of Prohibition. Each state having the right to set its own alcoholic beverage laws makes for a Byzantine nightmare for retailers and consumers alike. The Supreme Court could have—and should have—solved the shipping dilemma by now but chose to punt it back to the states. Not exactly a strong move.

Place matters: the best vineyards have always tended to make the best wines. However, I can think of a few exceptions in the form of less-than-capable winemakers who screw up good fruit. That said, some of the best vineyards have been cultivated for the better part of two thousand years. In a sense, they are sacred spaces.

Talented winemakers made good wines: will always be true. A skilled winemaker can make a good bottle from decent fruit. The same winemaker can make a cosmic bottle from great fruit. There will always be two parts to the wine equation and finding the right combination is worth the search.

Average wine quality: was decent in the early 90s. You could still come across poorly-made commercial dreck. Now, given improvements in winemaking technology and winery hygiene, your average bottle tends to be well-made. It may not change your life, but who’s keeping score.

Box wine is relevant: true in 1992 and more so now. However, it could be significantly better. I’ve said for years that a major player in California needs to step up and put good quality wine in a box. It doesn’t have to be a pricey change-my-life expensive red, but a quality vino that people could pay $25-$30 for a three-liter box and then have a good glass of wine whenever over the course of several months.

Screwcaps: in the world of closures, screwcaps have always been the most effective at preventing oxidation and TCA. When I first entered the business, the domain of screwcaps was mass-produced plonk. It took the Kiwi’s and Aussies to realize that their cork supply had far higher incidence of TCA, making the move to screwcaps a necessity. Initially, the public, at least in the U.S. and Europe, was slow to accept the change. Now screwcaps are part of the wine packaging landscape, as they should be. I think a good deal of all wine produced should be packaged with screwcaps, especially rosés and whites meant to be consumed within a year. As a winemaker or winery owner, if you can’t bring yourself to use screwcaps, do your fan base a favor and use DIAM or another form of agglomerate cork. There’s really no excuse for TCA-tainted corks at this point.

Sommeliers: In 1990 practically no one knew what a sommelier was, including most people in the restaurant industry. The same goes for the Master Sommelier title and program. It was a little-known certification germane only to those who worked the floor of high-level restaurants. Now thanks to the blessing—or curse—of the Somm movies, the entire planet knows what a sommelier is and supposedly does, at least according to reality TV gestalt. Which is far from the truth. In reality, a sommelier is someone who leads a service team in a restaurant and spends most of their time dealing with inventory and shagging cases of wine. In other words, anything but a rock star.

It takes all types to fill up the freeways: finally, one of my mom’s favorite sayings. In this context, it means there has always been a place for well-made wines at any quality level and in any format. With that, White Zinfandel matters. Box wine and jug wine matter. And no doubt bottlings from small domains and artisanal wineries will always be important. It takes all types…