"Why is it that these wines seem to come out of nowhere?" asked a friend while perusing the list at a wine-hip San Francisco restaurant. "I mean, I've never heard of most of these wines," he said. "It's like mushrooms after a rain. They weren't here yesterday. Now they're everywhere. How does this happen?"
It's a good question. I've sometimes wondered the same thing. My reply was that there are multiple forces at work, each one more or less powerful or influential with one or another wine category. They are:
Structural. I was a history major in college, and I still read more history than anything else. I've long been a "structuralist" in my understanding of what moves a lot of events, including wine sales.
Economics is arguably the most powerful single structural force. With wine, when one nation’s currency has dramatically more buying power than another’s, you can be sure that you're going to see a lot of wine imported from the weak-currency country.
This happened, for example, back in the mid-1980s when the U.S. dollar was unusually strong against the French franc. In February 1985, the dollar peaked at 10.6 francs, which was phenomenal considering that in 1980 you got just 4 French francs for a buck. Need I tell you the effect on French wine imports, especially high-end red Bordeaux? I didn't think so.
One of the explanations for the falloff in Australian wines in the U.S. market is currency-exchange rates. In late 2008, 1 U.S. dollar bought you 1.63 Australian dollars. By mid-2011 a buck got you just 90 cents Australian. Would you care to trace the rise and fall of Australian wines against a chart of the two currencies? (It's never exact, by the way, as there's always a lag between when wines are bought and when they arrive and are sold, and also it can take as much as a year or more before currency differences catch up to purchases, both wholesale and retail.)
Of course there are yet other structural forces, such as the granddaddy of them all, supply and demand. This explains, for example, Burgundy prices. Or Napa Valley cult Cabernet prices. Obviously, the vitality of a local economy matters mightily as well (see China). Not least is the extensive and persuasive presence of restaurants that by virtue of the cuisine they serve seek certain sorts of wines over others. Think Italian restaurants, which have been a massive boon worldwide to the Italian wine industry. (France once enjoyed a similar advantage.)
Demographics matter as well, which helps explain America's status as the world's largest wine market. Between the bulge (including wallet and waistline) of the Baby Boomers and the blockbuster numbers of the Millennial generation, the wine market in America now exceeds that of any other country.
Fashion and Culture. These are two forces that, unlike economics, do not lend themselves to metrics. But they are no less influential for that. Witness the meteoric rise in sales of Moscato wines. Now, where the hell did that come from? I have no idea. It's one of those "lightning in a bottle" things that admits no apparent structural explanation.
After all, Moscato wines have been around for decades, especially in the form of Asti sparkling wine. Yet in the past couple of years, Moscato wine, still and sparkling, has suddenly become fashion's favorite. Go figure.
Other fashions are likely more long-term. Right now there's a fashion among many sommeliers and restaurant owners for unconventional wines, either from lesser-known or utterly unknown grape varieties or for wines made differently from the norm (see "natural"). This was the case with the list my friend and I were perusing in San Francisco.
Chances are that this fashion (unlike that for Moscato) will persist. Partly it's a reaction to boredom with the Cabernet/Chardonnay/Merlot drumbeat of the mainstream market. Partly it appears to be a cultural element of wine-interested Millennials, a disproportionate number of whom are engaged in restaurant wine sales as sommeliers or servers. It appears that these younger wine enthusiasts like the thrill of the unknown, the unheralded, the off-the-beaten vineyard row. And why not? Also, such wines tend to be less expensive—a solid structural reason.
The Unseen Hand. This is a "dark matter" force that some observers see in movements in the wine market that are not obviously structural or fashion-driven. The Unseen Hand is not that of critics and writers. After all, their effect, if any, is very plainly to be seen.
Rather, the Unseen Hand is the effect of powerful importing and distribution agencies whose efforts are out of view from consumers. Sheer distribution muscle can push wines to the forefront, especially if those wines are, in turn, aided by large promotional budgets from wine-exporting nations, regions within nations, or large wineries. Often, the Unseen Hand is a likely answer to why one particular brand can seem so ubiquitous.
Of course, you've still got to be selling something that people—a lot of people—want to buy. So the Unseen Hand isn't as all-powerful as conspiracists like to imagine.
So what's coming in the next year or two, you ask? Good question. I'd propose the following possibilities, in varying degrees of prominence and distribution:
Portugal: Regular readers of this column know that I've devoted time and attention to Portugal in the past year. But no need to take my forecasting word for it. Here's a part of the just-out report on Portugal's prospects from Impact Databank, a sister publication of Wine Spectator:
"While table wines from Portugal have long been overshadowed in the U.S. market by Old World rivals like Italy, France and Spain, the category is now enjoying an uptick in interest. Last year, bottled table wine shipments from Portugal crossed the 1 million–case mark on 7 percent growth. … The pace quickened through the first half of 2014, with trade group Wines of Portugal reporting an overall 21 percent jump in exports to the U.S. to about 725,000 cases."
I think you'll be seeing a lot more interest in Portuguese table wines in 2015. The prices can be startlingly good. Ditto for the wines.
Northern Piedmont: Slowly, slowly, slowly the red wines of northern Piedmont are gaining attention. Wines such as Gattinara, Lessona, Ghemme, Bramaterra and Boca, among others, are getting recognition for their Nebbiolo-based red wine blends.
This will never be a big category, as production remains tiny. But when these wines are good, they are really terrific. Ironically, their success will be a boon to Barolo and Barbaresco to the south, further confirming those two locales as majestically supreme for Nebbiolo.
Oregon Pinot Noir: The 2012 and 2014 vintages in Oregon's Willamette Valley saw exceptional sunshine, creating ripe-tasting, rich Pinot Noirs that will be crowd-pleasers. (The potentially good, but rain-afflicted-at-harvest 2013 vintage sandwiched between will be more variable.) What's more, production keeps increasing, and producers are ever more savvy at marketing. In short, there's both a lot of Oregon wine and marketing savvy coming your way.
New Zealand: Here, it appears to be a combination of brute-force economics allied with increasing quality and quantity. The Kiwis are terrific marketers, and their wines—Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet blends—are really fine and getting better every year. But their dollar didn't help. Now it's finally declining in value against the U.S. dollar (it's now as low as it's been in the past two years) and I think we'll be seeing New Zealand wines popping up as never before.
Those are four possibilities coming our way, I believe. Other possibilities include southern Italian wines (the variety of choice from Campania and Sicily is stunning); grower Champagnes (the hits just keep on coming); and Greek wines (wonderful individuality). Nominations anyone?