The future of wine in 2021 and beyond is looking up! Restaurants are open, travel restrictions are easing, and e-commerce is booming.
Though the picture of our “new normal” is not yet clear, there are strong signals of what that might look like, and when.
During February and March, WineFuture2021 and the Wine Scholar Guild assembled (virtually) some of the world’s leading voices to contemplate this very question. What’s next? How did the dynamic world of wine change as COVID-19 halted travel, battered the economy, brought industry gender and racial inequities to light, and reinforced the steady march of climate change? What might things look like a year (or two) from now?
Wine writer Andrew Jefford sets the stage for future speculation, noting that a crisis merely accelerates a change that is already occurring. Multiple presenters sent ripples of optimism across the familiar saying “never let a good crisis go to waste.”
“The wine industry is resilient, innovative, inclusive, and determined.”Pancho Campo, CEO, Chrand Events USA and Founder, Wine Future 2021
“Conventional wisdom about the wine industry is changing. It’s complicated! The post-pandemic wine economy will be a ‘K’ shape: some wineries will recover quickly, while others will decline. A rising tide will not necessarily lift all boats, but shifts to e-commerce, on premise sales, and consolidation of small/medium wineries will aid in recovery.”Mike Veseth, The Wine Economist
“Stories about wine are wonderful. People should learn more about wine.”Francis Ford Coppola, FFC Family Winery (Cinema, Wine, Food, Hideaways & Adventure)
“Wine is naturally inclusive, especially over a meal. It is a spectacular medium through which you can do so many things.”Selena Cuffe, founder of Heritage Link Brands; and Alicia Towns Franken, Director of Wine Unify
“Wine is a roadmap to explore the world (even when you cannot travel). Travel makes you smarter.”Adrian Bridge, CEO, The Fladgate Partnership
Hospitality Wine Trends
Personal experience is probably enough data to say that restaurants were hit hard by the pandemic. The most recent report from the National Restaurant Association (December 2020) documented that 17% of U.S. restaurants closed permanently. But many believe the number could climb as high as 25% when new surveys are conducted in 2021.
If you dive a little deeper into the situations of restaurants that remained open during the pandemic–or reopened after temporary closures–the picture of restaurant wine programs is even more challenging.
- Many restaurants sold off their wine collections to generate cash flow. How and when, if at all, will wine programs be rebuilt?
- Most restaurants that survived the pandemic created a carryout, meal kit, and/or “ghost kitchen” program, in part to keep workers employed, and began to incorporate wine (as well as other alcohol) with food deliveries. Although most viable restaurants have reopened with restrictions, it remains to be seen if takeaway programs will continue, and whether consumers will prefer drinking their own wine at home.
- A new concept was developed in some major cities during the pandemic: “O to O” (online to offline). Customers order wine online and it gets delivered in 20 minutes. In the future, people may be able to place wine orders during a flight and pick it up at the gate upon arrival.
- High tariffs and shipping delays significantly limited the availability of imported wine for restaurants and retail winesellers. Will the shift to “buy local”–a nationalist approach to drinking more wine from one’s home country–continue when international restrictions ease? Will we be able to afford our favorite imports? Will bag-in-box packaging and plastic containers eclipse glass bottles as winemakers struggle to find ways to reduce shipping costs?
Although we don’t yet know the exact percentage of the more than 300,000 U.S. sommeliers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, we do know anecdotally that somms were first to be laid off among restaurant personnel. The “somm pivot” to other wine-related work is a topic that consumed wine writers and media during 2020. Some worry that the job of sommelier could disappear as a profession. The United Sommeliers Foundation was established in early 2020 to provide aid to unemployed somms, modeling its approach in part on the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. Both are still seeking donations.
No two pandemic stories are alike. Across the globe, wine patriotism and sales volume surged in China, while domestic wine purchasing took a nosedive in France.
“We experienced a huge increase in consumption of Chinese wine. We were already used to ordering food and wine on our phones, so the pandemic experience only accelerated an existing technology trend.”Fongyee Walker, MW
“It is another French paradox that people emptied their cellars but didn’t buy more French wine. Our biggest export markets shifted, moving Britain to second place.”Philippe Guigal, E. Guigal Winery
Future Wine Tourism
“The industry will come back!!” This was the unanimous proclamation of international experts from the global travel and hospitality industry.
Demand for air travel declined 74% due to the pandemic, creating a $1.3 billion loss for airlines. In February–during the Wine Future 2021 conference–the world-wide campaign for vaccinations was off to a slow start and travel restrictions were getting worse. Only China was back to pre-pandemic normal for domestic travel. Manuel Butler, Executive Director of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, estimates that 2023 is the earliest for total recovery for everyone else.
Wine writers across the globe bemoan the fact that it’s nearly impossible to do their jobs if they can’t travel. While hopeful that travel will continue to slowly open, it is unanimous: online/virtual experiences are here to stay.
Consumers are increasingly invested in wine experiences at home and buying wine online as e-commerce gained strength during the pandemic. Emilio Restoy, president of the Spanish Wine Federation, reported that e-commerce increased 600% in Spain during 2020. In Sweden, wine sales increased 11% with many customers trading up to premium wines because they weren’t spending money on restaurants.
In the past, big wine conventions such as Vinexpo (France), ProWein (Germany), and VinItaly International could not imagine ever cancelling an event. But that’s just what happened in 2020: the pandemic forced cancellations of what Stevie Kim, Managing Director of Vinitaly International, calls “chaotic charm.” Perhaps it goes without saying, but vintage specifics are key for these trade shows, and you can’t digitize the liquid. So virtual substitutes were out.
These three major trade shows skipped 2021 and are all rescheduled for early 2022. Even though the conviviality of face-to-face meetings will never disappear, said ProWein’s Project Director Bastian Mingers, “we all need to rethink our business model and the value proposition of the exposition and create some digital alternatives.”
Looking beyond trade expos to consumer wine tourism trends, a recent Australian survey suggests 2022 as the timeframe for recovery to pre-pandemic levels.
“Remember that tourism is a tertiary business for wineries. They are primarily in the business of making and selling wine,” according to Sylvie Cazes, Director General of Bordeaux Saveurs, a wine tourism agency. This explains why, in part, there are experiential museums to show “the magic of wine” in Bordeaux (Cité du Vin), which is temporarily closed, and Porto (Museu do Vitral), scheduled to open soon.
Even so, individual wineries have had to step up their marketing games to engage visitors in the experience of wine and explain how each winery is unique. There is no substitute for a personal experience.
“It is boring to visit one vineyard and winemaking operation after another,” said Gonzalo Merino, Coordinator of Wine Tourism & Social Responsibility for Bodegas de Argentina. Wineries need to take the lead to present their own authentic wine stories conveying a sense of place, not rely solely on other entities. Wineries in Argentina are investing in their people and staff training.
“The cellar door must be open!” Jean-Charles Boisset, with vineyard properties in both France and California, took that idea to a whole new level in 2020. JCB Live is a new lifestyle channel on YouTube which has already attracted thousands of subscribers.