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Christopher S. Miller

The wine industry has been around for several thousand years, evolving significantly in that time. However, the last fifty years have seen the most dynamic changes. A few innovations impacting the wines we consume are: refrigeration, oak barrels, oak chips/staves/ dust, corks, screw-caps, electricity, vineyard management, flying winemakers, the internet…and so on. Now that we are firmly into the 21st Century, let me do the typical January thing and take some stabs at what the future holds for the wine industry (good and bad).

Historically, France has been the most important wine country in the world. However, this is changing very quickly. Yes, Bordeaux and Burgundy are still important, but the consumers who twenty years ago drank only wines from those areas have expanded their palates to include wines from places as diverse as Portugal, New Zealand and tons of regions in between. This trend will only gain speed as America’s appetite for wine continues to grow and other countries begin to “switch” to wine (China, India, etc.). Winemakers and viticulturists (vineyard managers) will continue to search out new regions with the right climates and soils that will produce the next greatest wines. With this “exploration” will come many new wine regions and wine styles (I hope) for us to discover and debate over the next few decades, Portugal and New Zealand are just the tip of the iceberg.

But how will the wine industry change philosophically and legally in the next few decades? We have seen movement in the archaic laws that govern the wine and spirit industry and this is just the beginning. Inter-state shipping has begun and once it takes hold, it will be difficult for the politicians, corporate monopolies and lobbyists to stop without public backlash. For those of you unaware, find out how free-trade in this country is limited when it comes to wine. Also, some states allow grocery stores to sell wine and liquor stores to have multiple locations. New York does not allow either of these, but I expect one or both of these barriers to change and the way we buy and market wine to change with it. Whether this is good or bad depends on the approach. I think this is a minor change that will affect how wines are sold and marketed, but should force the industry to become more friendly and informative to the consumer. Small stores will have to work harder, but the finest will remain and flourish. The bigger issue is the wine critics, actually there is only one, and wines are marketed and produced to please his vision of wine. Yes, I am talking about Robert Parker.

Robert Parker started his wine career as a consumer advocate, a “Ralph Nader” for wine, but in my opinion he has become the exact opposite. He could be the most influential person in any industry, perhaps the wine equivalent of Allen Greenspan. Wines are produced today with his palate in mind. Wine is too individual of a product for one person to have such sway. Winemakers should concentrate on planting grapes and making wines that are best suited to the “terrior” (the combination of climate, soil, and sun exposure in a site) to develop more individually flavored wines. That is, rather than producing whatever the market is fancying at the moment (used to be Merlot, now it’s Pinot Noir) or what an influential critic is expecting, but what makes the most sense for the who and where of the wine.
For years, I have claimed the wine regions such as Napa in California or Barossa in Australia will become so connected to one type of wine that they will eventually follow the European model of wine labeling. In France, we talk about red Bordeaux or red Burgundy and not about what the grapes are, while in “new world” wine regions we first talk about the grapes, then about where they are grown. My opinion is as new wine regions evolve (as Napa and Barossa have) they will find THE grape and wine style best suited to the “terrior.” Years ago, a wine from Napa Valley could be any style or variety. Today, with a few exceptions, a great Napa Valley wine will most likely be red and either Cabernet or Merlot-based or a blend of the two. Also, Napa Valley has been further defined with more sub-regions, such as Stag’s Leap District, Diamond Mountain, Carneros and Spring Mountain (to name only a few). This is the same with other “new world” regions; Barossa, for instance, is associated with big, lush Shiraz. My long-term vision is that some day (50 – 100 years) we will see wines labeled as Stag’s Leap District Red and the varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon) will be in smaller print below or maybe on the back label. Speaking of back labels, they need to get better. The consumer needs and deserves more information. Some innovative producers put the name of the grapes and percentages on the back label, information about the location, climate and soils of the vineyards and some have a small map showing where their wine comes from. I love that because a sense of place is the key ingredient of wine that keeps me fascinated with it.
Another trend is wine consumers learning to enjoy wine at a younger age. I read that 25% of wine buyers are between 21 and 35 years old. This group is very excited and interested in learning about the subject of wine Readers who fall into that “wanting to learn” about wine category (even those of you not in the 21 – 35 year old market), should contact me for wine education seminars and other wine consulting, e.g. buying strategies, cellar development, when to drink certain wines in your cellar, food and wine matching.
What will our local wine region look like in another 10, 20 or 50 years? I have always been a proponent of a region developing an identity and style they are best suited to. Once that identity is clear, master it and try not to muddy it with too many styles. Unlike the success of New Zealand (which started its planting of Sauvignon Blanc the same year that the Hargraves planted Long Island’s first vinifera vines), Long Island has yet to solidly claim a wine style and grape as their own. My bet is on Cabernet Franc as the red, also blends based on Cabernet Franc with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. My verdict is out on white; Sauvignon Blanc seems to have shown potential. I like all the experimentation that Channing Daughter’s Winery is doing and hope that once Chris Tracy (the winemaker) is finished experimenting, he will settle on or three “go to” white varietals. If this happens, other wineries may follow their lead. Another important issue with the Long Island wine scene is more communication, education and cooperation in the local vineyards and wineries. I distinctly remember when New Zealand wines started exporting to the U.S. and being surprised at how happy the winemakers were to promote each other’s products. Once Long Island wines find an identity and master it, they will become a strong region, one that will get lots of attention as a wine tourist destination only 80 miles from Manhattan, home to the most diverse wine consumers in the world.