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The next big thing? Probably not

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We’ve seen it plenty of times before: “the next big wine variety” is just around the corner. But it usually turned out there wasn’t anything around the corner, except another corner.

Remember Sangiovese? In the late 1980s-early 1990s everybody swore it was the next big red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, they said, was all well and good, but… And then there was poor Merlot, which had gone through its own “next big thing” earlier, but the pundits eventually decreed that it wasn’t good after all to achieve “next big status.” Thus, Sangiovese.

Why do we need “a next big thing” anyhow? We don’t, in reality, but “reality” needs to take account of the people in the wine industry who profit from a “next big thing” mentality. Those would be the so-called tastemakers: sommeliers and MWs, of course, who play an increasingly big role in the culture; wine writers (some of them), who have the journalist’s addiction to breaking “news”; and merchants, to some extent, who hope to capitalize on a “next big thing” by stocking their shelves with it before their competitors can.

Every few months, somebody discovers a “next big thing” and now, it’s the turn of the drinks business, a very good online journal that makes for must-reading every day. Their writers now tell us that “A native Armenian red and a white variety from the Peloponnese could be ‘the next big things in wine…’.”

Why would the authors have chosen two obscure varieties for stardom? Well, the white grape—Rabigato—because it’s “a high-quality and high-acid, age-worthy grape,” and the red– Alfrocheiro Preto—“for its ability to retain acidity, even in hotter climates.”

Understand, I haven’t had either of those wines. They do sound good and savory and, given the authors’ use of the word “lighter” to describe them, it sounds like they’re fairly moderate in alcohol. But “global potential,” as one of the writers asserts?

Several problems, at least in the U.S. (keep in mind that the drinks business is a British publication). For one, there is no Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto planted here (if there is, there can’t be more than a few acres). That means if either wine hits the jackpot, it’s going to have to be through an import. And imports have a hard time cracking the glass ceiling in this country. A few have made it (I’m thinking of Terlato’s Santa Margharita Pinot Grigio), but those usually benefited from big companies with large distribution networks. As far as I know, no large wine company is going to gamble on Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto. Why not? Because wine companies exist to make money, not lose it. They prefer to leave the risk-taking to smaller companies, and then, if things look good, they rush in and join the party.

So will small wineries do Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto? I doubt it. They have enough on their hands without having the headache of convincing people to buy and drink something they’ve never heard of and can’t even pronounce.

The truth is, America is a conservative country when it comes to wine preferences. People stick with what they know; their capacity to change is limited. Gatekeepers are more adventurous by nature, but there’s a limit to how much influence they actually possess among the public. Wine gatekeepers are like inside-the-beltway Washington pols: they live in a bubble that most people don’t really care about.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    Man, the borg implants have taken hold completely–”We are the KJ, lower your shields and prepare to be assimilated”–from the condescendingly snide comments about “gatekeepers” and sommeliers (and let’s be honest, while the MW is immeasurably more of a rigorous, analytical and academic pursuit than the MS, how many of them are there in America and what really is their influence in the mareket relative to the thousands pursuing the MS?) to the straw man grapes that nobody has ever heard of.

    The reality is that there is no singular “next big thing” from a clearly defined varietal or regional perspective. If that were so, people like your current employer wouldn’t be so troubled by current trends, as they could just plant thousands of acres of new big thing and buy thousands of pages of advertising(and scores?) promoting it. In other words, they could react exactly as they’ve reacted to previous new big things.

    The real “new big thing” in wine, however, is much more diffuse. It’s an idea of small, artisan production, authenticity and food compatibility. It has its genesis infinitely more in Italy’s Slow Food movement than in the marketing departments of the large wineries or the editorial offices of the WS. It is a movement independent of the real gatekeepers: Parker and the Spectator who are increasingly fading into irrelevance, and the national and regional chain buyers who unfortunately are not. It can be sourced from a hundred varietals and a thousand regions (even the “new california”). Authenticity: to paraphrase Potter Stewart, “you know it when you see it.”

    And while I may tire of some of the more extreme hipster somms such as the idiot who brags about having no sangiovese based wines in his Italian section (and yes, I have met this exact creature, but let’s be honest in that his type is maybe one in a hundred), I will take someone pushing the envelope and offering his guests new wines, regions and varietals any day over some tired hack buyer who thinks an Italian restaurant needs to have a California section–or more likely has been bought off with free goods to maintain one.

  2. Patrick says:

    Yeah, I agree that we don’t need a new Next Big Thing every year. (What will be this year’s Wine Of The Century?) But that article as a whole was kind of interesting, highlighting lots of little-known grape varieties that may have potential.

  3. All I need is a wine that is nice to drink. When someone ask me what wine I like, my answer is “all good wine”. Meaning, most varietals can be vinified well or horribly.

    I just spent quite a bit of time in Portugal and those two grapes make really nice wines. The price points are great there too. I hope winemakers don’t jump to plant the next big thing because soon it won’t be popular and they could struggle.

  4. redmond barry says:

    Happy Independence Day, Steverino.

  5. Nobody’s called me that for a long time. You too!

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Regarding . . .

    “Why do we need ‘a next big thing’ anyhow? We don’t, in reality, but ‘reality’ needs to take account of the people in the wine industry who profit from a “next big thing” mentality. Those would be the so-called tastemakers: sommeliers and MWs, of course, who play an increasingly big role in the culture; wine writers (some of them), who have the journalist’s addiction to breaking ‘news’; and merchants, to some extent, who hope to capitalize on a ‘next big thing’ by stocking their shelves with it before their competitors can.”

    . . . I believe you have the “pyramid of persuasion” upside down.

    By occupation, wine merchants influence more wine sales – by grape variety and brand – than do restaurant sommeliers, Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine, and wine writers.

    How many mainstream dining establishments in the U.S. even have “sommeliers”?

    ( See W. Blake Gray’s insightful blog on the statistics of M.S.-es actually “working” on the dining room floor of restaurants:

    http://blog.wblakegray.com/2014/05/most-master-sommeliers-are-somms-in.html )

    How many M.S.-es in the U.S. write a consumer media wine advice column?

    How many M.W.s in the U.S. write a consumer media wine advice column?

    How many daily newspapers and weekly/monthly consumer magazines have a wine advice column? (An occupation that dwindles each year . . . in lockstep with the declining fortunes of subscriber- and advertising-supported media.)

    The most influential Master of Wine in the U.S. is Mary Ewing-Mulligan, who with her husband Ed McCarthy co-authored with her husband Ed McCarthy has co-authored the widely read “Wine for Dummies” guides that every book store stocks.

    Now that’s a “taste maker” and a “bully pulpit” street corner soap box!

    The “next big thing” was identified by Wine & Spirits magazine critic Patrick Comiskey in his series of articles for the Los Angeles Times “Food” section during the Great Recession.

    Specifically: The “sweet spot” of affordably priced, high quality wines.

    Your bibliography:

    From 2009 . . .

    “Better Wines for Fewer Dollars?”

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-fo-sommelier4-2009mar04,0,481881.story

    Quote: “Most sommeliers report a modest downward shift in what’s known as “the sweet spot” — the price range where most consumers are comfortable spending. Many but not all report that THE SWEET SPOT HAS FALLEN INTO THE $50-TO-$60 RANGE, where it had once been more like $80. …”

    From 2010 . . .

    “Dark Days for Cult Cabs”

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/feb/04/food/la-fo-cultcab4-2010feb04

    Quote: “At Twenty-Twenty Wine Co. in West Los Angeles, owner Bob Golbahar sees the same trend among former big spenders. THE MARKET, HE SAYS, IS ‘OVER-CULTED. OUR AVERAGE BOTTLE SALE USED TO BE $100; NOW IT’S $50. Unless you’re giving it away, they’re not interested.’”

    From 2011 . . .

    “$15 Wine the New Normal”

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2011/apr/14/food/la-fo-economical-wines-20110414

    Quote: “…most wine store owners . . . are describing a new normal, one in which the high-margin sales of WINES IN THE $50 to $150 RANGE ARE DIFFICULT — indeed, some would say they’re ALMOST A THING OF THE PAST.”

    The folks who really “move the needle” in the three-tier distribution system are wine merchants.

    Of which far too many are content to abandon their historical role as wine educators and taste makers, and instead sell of Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast reviews reproduced on “shelf talkers.”

    ~~ Bob

  7. Bob Henry says:

    An erratum to a comment awaiting “moderation”:

    The most influential Master of Wine in the U.S. is Mary Ewing-Mulligan, who with her husband Ed McCarthy co-authored the widely read “Wine for Dummies” guides that every book store stocks.

  8. It’s kinda like “the next Napa Valley” story that seems to pop up every couple of years.

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