The Year Behind, the Year Ahead, and Everything "In Between"
Would you like a sustainable, non-alcoholic, cannabis-infused espresso martini made by artificial intelligence? According to trend spotters, you might in 2024.
It’s that time of year when everyone in drinks media puts out their “trends to watch in 2024” listicles. This year I’m noticing even more sameness than usual, lots of obvious and established “trends” that have been years in the making. Have you heard about the rise of non-alcoholic beverages? Did you know there’s a trend toward more ‘sustainable’ beverages? Did you know cannabis is legal in a lot of states and some people are choosing weed over booze? Do you know about Portuguese wines? How about South African chenin blanc? How about the espresso martini? How about sparkling wines that aren’t Champagne? Have you heard of this thing called artificial intelligence…robot bartenders, amirite? Come to think of it, maybe even the trend spotting has been farmed out to AI this year. In any case, my god, I wish I had the confidence of these agencies that bill their clients top dollar for passing off this level of insight.
I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, along with the available data and tea leaves to read. For instance, last February I reported on the Chartreuse shortage, caused by the Carthusian monks' decision to limit production of their famed liqueur. This was my most-read post of the year. In my piece, I supported the monks’ decision:
First of all, allow me to applaud this stance by the Carthusian monks. I deeply admire their willingness to say “enough” to the relentless market forces pushing them to produce more, more, more, at all costs. It’s honestly inspiring that the monks refuse to see their earthly purpose as satisfying the demands of some knucklehead mixologist doing his little riff on the Last Word at some lame speakeasy in some third-tier city.
As 2023 rolled forward, the Chartreuse “crisis” became go-to editorial fodder. Some observers sprained their ankles to suggest alternative herbal liqueurs Strega? Genepí? Jagermeister? (My suggestion was Faccio Brutto Centerbe, which I later found out was…oh-so-Brooklyn). Then, in November, Chartreuse opened a fancy new boutique near the Luxembourg Garden in Paris. For the monks, I guess opening a Paris boutique helps “protect their monastic life and devote their time to solitude and prayer”? Several industry people messaged me, asking: Was this whole Chartreuse shortage a marketing scheme? I sincerely don’t know. But maybe a good trend for 2024 is more skepticism?
Amid all the prognosticating, I did see one trend that I completely agree with. It comes from Hannah Staab at VinePair, who suggests that the embrace of “in-between” wines will spread in the new year:
Rosé, orange, amber, light red—it feels like we’ve encountered a dazzling spectrum of wine over the past few years. But in 2024, expect to see a lot more wines eschewing color-categorization altogether. We bet that innovative producers will continue to push the boundaries of winemaking by experimenting with co-ferments and varying levels of skin contact, resulting in vibrant wines that are somewhat pink or kind of orange (or both, or neither!) Skin-contact Pinot Gris could be your new light-pink summer drink, and bright fuschia co-ferments of red and white grapes will end up on more dinner tables.
I would expand the definition of “in-between” wines to include wines that fall somewhere along the natural-wine spectrum in between zero-zero and conventional winemaking. I believe the wave of zealous natural wine advocacy has finally crashed at its high-water mark and is the tide is receding. People don’t seem to be as cranked up over a tiny bit of SO2 as they used to be. I wrote about this in another of the year’s popular pieces, “Revolution Is Not a Wine Tasting.”
“Spend enough time with natural wine people, and you’re eventually going to be called out for sinning against some principle of the natural wine doctrine,” I wrote:
I should stop here and say that I believe in the tenets of what has come to be called natural wine. Wine should be terroir-driven with little intervention. Grapes should be grown organically without chemical herbicides and pesticides, and they should be harvested by hand, not machine. Vineyards should be living, vibrant places with vegetation growing between the rows. There should be biodiversity of many grapes and not just a monoculture of market-friendly varieties. Wine should not be made by adding commercial yeasts, sugar, or any number of other additives that are allowed. Still, I’ve always thought of natural wine as more of a spectrum than a dogma. Some of my favorite winemakers are “natural” but reserve the right to intervene if a harvest goes sideways. For me, a tiny bit of SO2—just before bottling—is not worth getting cranked up about.
Still, I appreciate that plenty of natural wine people do not share my point of view. They believe in zero-zero, and that means no sulfites. This is a totally fine stance. I get it, respect it. In the face of relentlessly marketed, late-capitalist garbage, radical cultural movements need manifestos, hard-line arguments, fealty tests. As Mao once said: “Revolution is not a dinner party.”
“In between” might be a great thing to keep in mind as we think about wine generally in 2024. This past year, I wrote at length about the “problems”—at both the low and top ends—which the wine industry is wringing its hands about. I actually don’t see them as problems, but rather one of changing consumer tastes, which are shifting whether the industry likes it or not. (I also wrote about this in Wine Enthusiast back in August).
All of this overheated talk is somewhat “sky is falling.” For U.S. wine consumers, there’s essentially a line in the sand: 15 bucks. Above that is what the industry calls “premium wines,” and those sales are relatively robust. Below that price point is a vast ocean of American mass-market wines—and sales of these lousy wines are in decline. That’s apparently the worry. But why? Why is the industry so worried about the decline of garbage wines? I mean, boohoo, right?
Now, I know certain industry people will cry, “But those are…starter wines!” I addressed this point back in October when I questioned the industry’s use of “starter” or “entry-level” as euphemisms for garbage wine. The false idea being that younger drinkers with less developed palates will begin drinking these bad wines and then evolve, as they get older, to consuming more sophisticated, higher-end beverages. This is a “truthy” but ultimately bogus concept. There is no conclusive marketing study that backs up any of this. The same percentage of people would be just as likely to move to high-end Burgundy from kombucha or juice boxes or frappuccinos. If wine has an “old people problem” it’s simply because old people still buy the industry’s starter wines.
But it’s not just low-end wines that the industry is fretting about. We’re hearing more and more anecdotes from insiders about the slowdown on sales of premium bottles from the classic, legacy, prestige regions. There are two issues driving this. The first is an overall correction from the wild spending on wine and spirits that happened during the Covid pandemic. I touched on this last week in my Wine Enthusiast column.
For starters, by all indications, 2023 is a down year across the board in the spirits industry, whiplash from the boom of the pandemic years. This has been especially felt at the premium and super-premium levels. According to the Financial Times, many consumers who traded up to more expensive premium booze during the pandemic are now starting to trade down. Americans spent nearly a third more on spirits in 2022 than they did pre-pandemic, but key indicators suggest that 2023 will be a serious correction. Sales of spirits costing more than $100 were down 14% in the 12 months leading up to August.
This doesn’t mean that consumers who once paid $100 per bottle from Burgundy, Barolo, Bordeaux, Brunello, or Napa are trading down to $11.99 wines. They are looking somewhere “in between.” I’m not even talking about $20 “value” wines. Value can mean different things at different price points. If $55.99 is the midpoint between $100 and $11.99, think about how many amazing, ageworthy, brag-worthy, collectable wines can be had at that price. But here’s the thing: we will be looking in new places for new things at that price. The question for trend spotters is which grapes, styles, or regions—Mountain Wines? “New” Spain? “New” Australia? Loire? Native Piedmont varieties? Eastern Europe? Where?
If you had $55.99 in your pocket, tell me what bottle would you spent it. Drop it in the comments, I would love to get a discussion going about this.
Anyone who goes to wine bars and restaurants understands how wine lists are changing. It’s so obvious to anyone paying attention that we’re in the middle of a huge tide change, a paradigm shift in how wine is presented and consumed in America. These are the wines that wine drinkers under the age of 55 are curious about. They’re the prestige wines for people under the age of 40. Over the next decade, the super premium wine buyer (who spends over $20 a bottle) and the ultra premium wine buyer (who spends over $30 a bottle) will move further and further away from the wines they learn about in conventional wine education…
The old guard of wine educators and wine influencers still tries to dismiss the point I’m making with this facile argument: “Well, maybe that works at hipster bars in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. But everywhere else, people want traditional wines.” Maybe that was true a decade ago, back when I started the research and writing for Godforsaken Grapes. But it’s definitely not true anymore. Maple Shade, New Jersey, may only be 90 miles from Bushwick, but it may as well be another planet. Yet I can still find similar wines like Chilean pais, Canary Islands listan negro, Loire grolleau noir, and plenty of others on the wine list at Versi Vino.
What I don’t understand is why wine media, professional training certifications, and wine education in general still follows the same curriculum. In every other realm of culture, the canon has been questioned and often blown up. Visual art has not been governed by The Academy for more than a century. We don’t read solely the Dead White Males in lit class anymore.
Maybe to put this in more simple pop-culture terms. I’m old enough to remember that, in the 1990s, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and their ilk were considered “alternative” rock. They were the alternative to “classic” rock like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Bad Company, Boston…whatever 1970s bands my generation was force fed on the era’s classic-rock radio. Eventually, the tide turned, and now what once was alternative has become mainstream and old hat. I think we all understand how this happened. The same thing is happening now in wine.
Finally, I want to address an elephant in the trend-spotting room. In January, I declared 2023 to the year of light reds. Reds like grignolino from Piedmont or Canary Islands listán negro. How do you think that prediction went? I saw a lot of talk in wine media about light and chilled reds all year (like here and here) but I could be very wrong. Maybe next year, I will just leave the trend spotting to AI.