Even with the ongoing pandemic, for winemakers and winegrowers in the Napa Valley the year 2021 was a welcome relief. Although severe drought brought plenty of consternation, the year was near textbook-perfect for producing high-quality fruit — a long dry summer with no major rain to cause mildew or mold issues.
Perhaps the biggest relief in 2021 was the lack of any smoke taint — that nasty smell and aroma that plagues wines made from grapes harvested after a wildfire has swept through nearby. Yes, tragically there were plenty of fires throughout California this past year, but none near enough to blanket the valley with the density of smoke seen in recent years.
“2021 is the year that we all get back on track after years of smoke-taint concern!” Joel Gott, owner of Gott Wines and Gott’s Roadside eatery said in an email.
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The relief of no smoke taint combined with a long, dry summer means that the 2021 vintage is poised to produce some of the finest wines in the last decade.
Still, not everything is rosy for Napa Valley winemakers. The weather was favorable for quality, but the lack of rains resulted in lower-than-normal crop loads with many growers reporting 20% to 30% fewer grapes harvested in 2021 when compared to a “normal” year.
Maybe lower volume is a blessing in disguise, however. Supply-chain constraints caused by the pandemic have made purchasing glass bottles, corks, caps, labels (and the glue to adhere them) and cardboard boxes nearly impossible to find.
“We are figuring out what to do with our rosé,” said one local winemaker who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s ready to bottle but our bottle shipment has been delayed for months, and now they are telling us that it might not come in until March.”
The supply-chain constraints are leading to many wineries’ accelerating their switch to lighter glass bottles or new wine containers altogether. Expect to see wine come in more shapes and sizes, with many winemakers looking to milk cartons, tin cans and even refillable containers such as kegs and plastic jugs.
The current process of making glass results in a high level of carbon being emitted, and today there are only two major glass producers in the United States — Owens-Illinois and the Ardagh Group. That means most glass comes from overseas producers.
“Shipping glass from overseas is getting harder and has an impact on the environment,” winemaker and owner of Turning Tide Wines, Alisa Jacobson, said. “We are always looking for alternatives that do not compromise quality but also have a better climate-friendly profile than those heavy glass bottles.”
Natural and sustainable wines growing but need definition
No official or regulated definitions exist for natural wines, but plenty of wines claim to be natural, organic, additive-free, biodynamic, vegan, no-sulfites-added (NSA) or sustainable. But exactly what do all of these descriptors mean?
Some in the industry are looking to define those terms so that consumers understand what to expect when purchasing such wines. Until they do, Nielsen data tracking can tell us some general sales trends in the category — growing from $27 million in 2017 to more than $160 million in 2021.
Look for an increase in wines labeled as natural or sustainable in the coming year, but be certain to do your research to learn exactly what the winery might mean by descriptors such as “sugar-free” and “sustainable.”
Wine as an investment
Fractional ownership is transforming nearly everything collectable — art, homes, baseball cards — into an investment vehicle for the common investor. And wine is no different. For years hard-to-find wines such as rare Burgundies and California cult wines like Screaming Eagle have found their way into the cellars of wealthy individuals who either enjoyed drinking them or sold them to other collectors.
Liv-ex — a London firm that tracks the fine-wine market — had historically focused on wines from France and Italy, tracking the fluctuation of a wine’s value on the secondary market. But that changed a few years ago when they added a “California 50” index to track the combined value of 10 vintages of five brands. Four of the initial brands tracked (they’ve added more since) were Napa Valley wineries — Screaming Eagle, Opus One, Dominus and Harlan Estate. Since then the value of these wines has soared, growing an average of nearly 50%.
Today some companies trade in wine as one might trade in stocks, with platforms such as Vinovest providing an app where investors can purchase fractional shares of various wines. Of course, you can’t drink fractional shares of wine, but plenty out there are coming to see fine wine not as a consumable but instead as a tradable asset.
Health claims being replaced by climate-friendly claims
Whereas once wine was considered by many — doctors included — to be a health elixir, today such claims are being called into question. The data just do not support anything more tenuous than the simple fact that people who drink wine may live a few years longer than those who don’t. But people who drink wine might also drive more expensive cars, have better healthcare or get more spa-treatments, too.
As it stands now, there is no direct evidence that consuming wine has any causative impact on better health outcomes. In fact, the opposite is true. Alcohol is the cause of many negative outcomes — alcoholism, liver damage, car accidents and the list goes on.
In response to this new scrutiny, many in the wine industry are looking to distance themselves from claims about wine and health. Instead, they are beginning to see a real positive impact of wine and wine-growing on climate change. Adopting carbon-neutral or even carbon-sequestration strategies in vineyards by using regenerative farming techniques and in the winery by reducing glass usage and employing other climate-friendly practices, many in the wine industry are seeing that the story of wine does have a significant role to play in helping solve one of humanity’s biggest threats.
The continued growth of wine consumption, coupled with severe supply constraints and a vintage that was less than normal means only one thing — expect higher prices.
However, given that the wine industry is highly competitive (i.e., there are tons of competing brands out there at nearly every price point), prices should not rise more than a few dollars for any wine under $30 a bottle.
Lighter styles of wine
There are times when a huge-extracted-high-alcohol wine is called for, but there are times when something less is called for, too. Expect the trend toward lower-alcohol wines to continue as younger consumers shift toward less-inebriating alternatives.
“There is a growing call for lean wines that are low-calorie and low-alcohol,” Jacobson said. “The days of highly extracted, oaky wines is not necessarily gone, but there are many looking for something different.”
The recent fires coupled with the ongoing pandemic and supply-chain issues are changing the world of wine. It’s true that wine in 2022 will cost a bit more, but the industry is also becoming more accountable for tenuous health claims, is providing a greater number of alternatives, is looking to become more sustainable and is even poised to become a new means of economic investing (wine as a non-fungible token [NFT] anyone?).
Wine is more than just something to grow, make, buy and sell. It is a beverage that has deep historical connections with the human condition and the potential — when consumed in modest quantities — to bring people joy in a spirit of togetherness around the table. In this way, no other beverage can compare.