Trying to predict the future is always a fool’s errand, because there’s sure to be something totally unexpected that will change everything. Imagine, for example, trying to explain the internet to a winery owner in 1990.
And, unfortunately, the world has become an increasingly unpredictable place, where previously unthinkable scenarios – like nuclear tensions – are raising their ugly heads. It’s quite possible that either geopolitical turbulence will disrupt global trade within the next few years, or there will be an anti-globalisation backlash that will send people back to drinking wine that’s produced locally.
But those are the bleakest scenarios. Assuming that life carries on peacefully, what are the factors most likely to impact the wine trade? Well, it’s clear that some long-term trends are already in play.
Fruit-flavoured wines have been around for a long time, but a decade ago they were so poorly made that nobody took them seriously. Today, wines infused with fruit have proved so popular that producers who make them are reporting pre-release orders of tens of thousands of cases at a time. At the same time, the wine cocktail has become a European summertime staple, thanks to the habit of adding syrups, juices and spirits to Prosecco. These kinds of wine-based drinks are likely to proliferate in the near future, as you would expect in a world where the humble potato chip come in 20 different flavours.
Likewise, non-alcoholic wines were always stuck on the lowest shelf of the supermarket – an odd category that nobody took any notice of. Given the intense interest in health, however, coupled with new and better technology for extracting alcohol, it’s possible that this category will become important within the next decade. At the same time, the quest for authenticity will turn natural wine from a niche to a mainstream category.
Climate change is already making it possible to produce high-quality grapes in countries such as England, Poland and Canada. Vines will keep migrating upwards to mountain slopes and further into cool climate areas, with these grapes commanding a premium.
Water has become a major issue in parts of California, Australia, and Chile, to name only a few places, and the problem will only get worse. It makes no sense for dry parts of the world to be exporting their precious water via low-value bottles of wine, and so vineyards in warm regions that rely on irrigation will probably begin to disappear.
The conversion of the world’s vineyards to sustainable and organic methods of farming will continue apace. Systembolaget, Sweden’s monopoly, is leading the way in environmental stewardship, prioritising wines that are produced sustainably, and that will have a major impact across the whole production chain. When even bulk wine producers are turning organic, you know that the days of conventional pesticide- and herbicide-heavy farming are numbered.
The biggest change to hit the wine world in 30 years has already begun, yet almost nobody has noticed: The baby boomers are exiting the wine trade. The importance of this can’t be overstated, because there is a massive transfer of property and resources from one generation to another beginning to happen. And the new generation is like nothing the wine trade has ever seen before: They’re the best-educated group of people in history, they’re well-travelled, they speak multiple languages, and their outlook is global. While this is happening everywhere, it’s likely to infuse great dynamism into the wine businesses of Europe, as the new owners bring not just youth and energy, but professionalism with them. Another interesting demographic change is that – again, for the first time in history – many of these businesses will pass to daughters, not sons. In 10 years’ time, the wine business as a whole will look a lot more female than it does at the moment.
The rising number of wine business postgraduate degrees is also likely to bring a new level of competence to the trade, as more people become better at finance, sales and logistics.
The bad news is that the wine trade will need as many new skills and ideas as it can get, because it’s only going to get harder to turn a profit. The baby boomers, whether in the US, the UK, or large swathes of Europe, left the work force with well-stocked pension pots. That means they have money to spend on wine and leisure that the generations behind them won’t have. Not only that, but both the Millennials and Generation Z are showing signs of embracing health and wellness in a way that previous generations never did. Their levels of smoking and promiscuity are much lower than their parents, and they’re likely to consume less alcohol as well.
While the wine trade will become more professional, wine writing will become less so. Newspaper and magazine columns continue to close, with no signs of ever re-opening. Robert Parker has already retired, and many of the great wine critics, from Australia to France to the UK, will follow him within the next 10 years. Writers who don’t find employment on the remaining magazines will need to split their time between consumer events and consulting, and will be publishing more on websites that have lower readership numbers than the old newspaper columns. New entrants to wine writing are more likely to be enthusiasts who are squeezing their wine work around their day jobs.
However, some things will never change. New businesses promising to ‘take the snobbery out of wine’ will keep appearing. Independent wine merchants will still be with us, regardless of how powerful the internet gets. And the wine trade will continue to attract passionate people, who will keep doing what they do, no matter how paltry the financial rewards.
This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2016 of Meininger’s Wine Business International, as part of a debate with Robert Joseph.