The shrill talk about the American wine industry having a “problem”
defies all logic and common sense.
By Randy Caparoso
Like everyone else in the wine industry, when Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank speaks, I listen. I take notes and repeat just about everything he says. He pays attention to the details and the bigger picture that many of us tend to overlook as we go through our everyday lives, toiling in the wine industry. Yet when he sounds the alarm about shrinking consumer bases and a fractured marketplace, I look around and my eyes tell me something different.
The dark days
I, for one, have been pushing wine like a street huckster since the late 1970s. Remember the ’70s? That’s when most American wine consumers were still hooked on Blue Nun, Mateus and Gallo Chablis Blanc. A famous Hollywood figure was still convincing consumers, with complete conviction, that there should be no wine — even if it’s crappy — sold “before its time.”
Comparing the ’70s and ’80s to the 2020s is like comparing night and day. I was still a floor-walking sommelier 40 years ago, and I can well remember getting barely 20% of my guests to order a bottle off a wine list after their third or fourth martini (and the fifth or sixth cigarettes, which I dutifully had to light for them). When it comes to pure, simple wine appreciation, those were very dark days — Spanish Inquisition-level dark days — compared to today.
California’s bright evolution
Now, of course, I live among vineyards in a California region that’s more than quadrupled its wine grape production since the 1980s. Everywhere you look — counties such as Mendocino, Sonoma, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, even San Diego, for Pete’s sake — you see vineyards in places that might as well have been figments of anyone’s imagination just 40 or 50 years ago.
And everywhere you look, you see wine being made. You see wineries established by entrepreneurs who’ve been successful in other businesses and by independents barely able to scrape up enough pennies from their piggy banks. Rich or poor, there’s a market that now lets would-be vintners fulfill their dream of becoming producers of the stuff of long, fabled legend: conscientiously crafted wine.
Not only are there far more grapes grown and far more wine made than ever before, the best of these products are, in my estimation, 50 times better and more interesting than the wines made just 40 or 50 years ago. Take it from me, I’ve been around long enough to know.
Is this a “problem?” I don’t think so.
They will come to us
Common sense tells me there are far more consumers of fine wine than ever before, and these consumers have been getting pickier and more sophisticated by the proverbial day. So what if younger consumers are also attracted to all those other choices of alcohol-based products waved in front of their eyes? To me, they will be like all those consumers who came before them with their preferences for piña coladas and martinis, “lite” or craft beer, wine coolers, White Zinfandel or Merlot. Sooner or later, all lovers of adult beverages become smarter and more discerning.
When that happens, they’ll start gravitating towards finely made wines coming out of vineyards cultivated by farmers who get better and better (not to mention better financed) with each passing vintage. It doesn’t take a genius — or a Rob McMillan — to come to this conclusion. It’s plain as day, in front of anyone with two eyes or just the slightest amount of experience in wine-related industries.
To suggest we’re in dire straits or desperate times is, frankly, daft. Everything we know about how the wine market changes and evolves tells us the opposite. We really don’t have to break our ankles chasing after those elusive millennials or spoiled rotten Zs. If we do what we do, they’ll come to us.
Words of positivity
In the end, of course, fine wine is fine wine. There’s nothing like it. It tastes great and stimulates the mind or intellect as much as it titillates the tongue and inebriates the bloodstream. Everything — including the history of farmers, vintners, vineyards and entire regions — about a well-made wine is compelling. No matter how “hard” you make a seltzer or how exotic you make a fruit wine, you can’t beat it.
If you still doubt any of that, just take another look around. All these beautiful vineyards and amazing wines wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t so.
I think the wine industry will be OK.
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, Calif. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at email@example.com