The past year was one of change for many in the wine industry, though not so much for true visionaries who could read grape leaves and who made key decisions years ago that paid dividends in 2016.
Many of these were savvy marketing people who read sales figures and market analytical reports carefully and who saw trends before they developed.
Not everyone can react as quickly as they might like to developing trends in this business, of course, since converting vineyards over from one grape to another, to accommodate for a shift in consumer demand, usually takes several years before you get a full crop.
Moreover, changing grapes in mid-stream can be costly and not always a great idea.
It’s difficult for even sharp-eyed, in-the-industry people to be accurate about wine-buying trends. And the stories that impacted the industry most in 2016 were mostly as hard to see as in any year.
One trend that wasn’t hard to see coming was the statewide shortage of pinot noir grapes in 2016 and the consequent rise in prices of any pinot noir grapes growing almost anywhere.
Consumer interest in pinot noir has been increasing steadily for a decade, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 that Constellation Brands, one of the world’s largest wine companies, leaped feet first into the game by paying Joe Wagner a reported $315 million for his wine brand Meiomi, which had garnered inside-the-industry disdain for making a sweet albeit successful pinot noir.
Constellation’s huge financial commitment for a brand that reportedly sold more than 600,000 cases of wine in 2015 (suggested retail price: $25) surely represented what the company saw as an accurate forecast of where the marketplace would be within the next few years for mid- priced pinot noir.
This year, the company’s aggressive pinot noir grape-buying went into high gear. Industry-wide, the one major comment I heard most often was that there was almost no pinot noir for sale on the open market, such was the demand by larger wine companies to compete in this segment.
If a winery had no contract to buy pinot noir grapes, but only a handshake agreement with a grower, it probably paid more for those grapes than ever; some wineries were told there was no pinot noir for sale.
Those who typically got pinot noir from formerly friendly growers heard early-on that their usual allotment would be smaller.
One result was an increase in retail prices for the best California’s pinot noirs. Just two years ago, $50 was considered a lot for a bottle of quality pinot noir. Today, it’s seen as a moderate price.
Another trend foreshadowed in 2015, which came roaring to the front this year, was higher acid levels in chardonnay and other dry white wines.
Many consumers still prefer chardonnay to be soft, with actual residual sugar. It is still a popular style of wine in the $5-$15 range. But at higher prices, sugar must be matched with higher acid levels to allow the wine to work better with food.
I suspect that consumers voted with their wallets and demanded this style of chardonnay, which prompted many wineries to respond.
Similarly, another trend that was initially seen in 2014 and 2015 was the attention wine makers are paying to higher alcohol levels.
Almost every red wine you can find that sells for $15 a bottle or more says its alcohol is 14.5 percent. In the recent past that meant something closer to 17 percent.
Yes, the government has a regulation that says a 14 percent-plus wine can only be 1 percent higher in alcohol than the label states, but the government also has an outrageously flawed system that simply cannot detect the alcohol in most pricier wines. Nor is there any penalty for violators.
And wine makers know of these flaws in the regulatory system.
Consumers also voted in this alcohol matter in recent years, ignoring wines they detected to be too alcoholic. Many wine makers eventually took notice and responded by reducing alcohols to levels consumers prefer.
Another trend that continued in 2016 was consumer awakening to the greatness of barbera, a red wine of moderate weight that has sensational flavors when paired with Italian food.
The variety flourishes in the Sierra Foothills and a Barbera Festival there (next year, it’s Sept. 16) sells out every year.
A final trend that I saw develop several years ago continued in 2016: a consumer backlash against ludicrously overpriced cabernets, most of them from the Napa Valley.
This is evident when you see wines that are supposed to be selling for $90 a bottle being discounted to less than $60!
This trend was evident to me a decade ago when prices became absurd for many cabs, but it took some consumers longer than that to realize that the emperor’s wardrobe wasn’t fabric, but was composed of plastic wrap.
Wine Book of the Year (any year): Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2016, ($16.99, Mitchell Beazley).
One extremely welcome trend of 2016 that became visible this year is in the preface to this, one of the wine world’s best books every year. This 39th edition is the best version Johnson has ever done.
Early in the preface, Johnson talks about wine diversity, which is getting more diverse than ever. He asks (then answers) why wine makers feel free to be “oblivious to convention: Because their market is all ears; drinkers are getting tired of scores; what poetry is there in 92/100?”
As simple as that, Johnson trashes numerical ratings of wines. This slim book carries many important messages, all of them well worth reading. It’s hard to do justice in print to a master such as Johnson. Suffice it to say that this book outdoes all that the Internet has to offer on wine, and in a readable, compact format. Never to be missed.