Where to start? COVID-19 upended all our oenophile habits, shifting how we buy wine (online more than ever), how we taste and learn about it (virtually), and where we end up drinking it. (Not at parties, bars, and restaurants.)
Thankfully, many cities considered wine shops to be essential businesses. Vino has been a great connector, as we’ve shared glasses with friends virtually and traveled by proxy to regions we can’t visit.
Surprisingly, the pandemic didn’t shift what we put in our glasses all that much. Rose is still hot. So is hard seltzer, which, along with canned cocktails (both, ugh!), grew 43 percent during 2020. Bubbly is still going strong, with more countries than ever producing great examples (read: Brazil).
The earliest harvest ever in Burgundy and devastating fires in California wine country for the fourth year in a row reminded people that climate change is a truly serious issue, and inspired new wine initiatives to save the planet.
Expect many of 2020’s trends to evolve in 2021 — the health and wellness alcohol-free drinks boom, the canned and boxed wine movement, vino from extreme regions — helped along by new digital and AI technology innovations, even if everyone really dreams of returning to sharing wine with others outside their homes.
Here’s what else I see in my crystal glass:
Pink prosecco is the new new thing
Rose. Just. Doesn’t. Stop. Retailer Wineaccess.com sold seven (!) times more bottles of rose wine in 2020 than in summer 2019.
I’m betting 2021’s big pink drink will be prosecco rose. At the end of November, the approved category launched in Italy, which already has a boom in big-value pink wines. John Gillespie, founder and chief executive officer of market research firm Wine Opinions, says that combining the prosecco trend with the rose trend is as close to a sure thing for success in the U.S. as he’s seen.
More than 100 labels have sought U.S. approval. A couple are already on shelves, and more are coming in 2021. I’ll be reporting on which are worth drinking.
Online wine access will get way better
Online sales are booming with growth in the three digits. Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division, reports that for small producers, it’s 153 percent. Expect new and expanded shopping sites and search engines in 2021.
I have my eye on Pix.wine, from wine tech platform Emetry. Led by industry veterans Paul Mabray and Erica Duecy, it aims to be the ultimate one-stop online finding and buying spot, with plenty of deep data to help you decide what to pick. (Pix, get it?) In an exclusive sneak preview, I found it impressively comprehensive and easy to navigate, with a design and information to appeal to everyone from newbies to connoisseurs. A daily newsletter? Yes. Hot picks from diverse critics? Ditto. Collectors can even sign up to receive texts when rare bottles they’re hunting are available at a good price. It launches in April with links for more than 200,000 wines.
The wine country of 2021 will be … Portugal
The thirst for discovery rolls on, and Portugal is becoming the latest hot spot. Why did sales of the country’s wines surge 35.1 percent in September alone in the U.S.?
It’s simple: quality-price ratio. They’re delicious, food-friendly, inexpensive, and more than worth the cost. Douro Valley reds are stunning, but for 2021 I’m also betting on newcomer region Alentejo, with its fresh, aromatic, savory whites and juicy, plush, smoky red blends, all from unusual varieties (antao vas, argonez), and some fermented in clay amphora. The region boasts rock-star winemakers, a fantastic sustainability program and one-third of the world’s cork forests.
Wine seltzer will be the new hard seltzer
I remain mystified by the massive appeal of bland flavored sparkling water with an alcohol kick from malt or spirits. In 2021, expect more craft breweries and celebrities to offer their own interpretations of these dry, low-alcohol drinks. Yes, I’ll be sampling chef Gordon Ramsay’s brand-new Hell’s Seltzer line, with flavors inspired by dishes in his Hell’s Kitchen restaurants and names such as “Knicker Twist” (passionfruit, pineapple, and orange flavor notes).
But wine seltzers are more my style. In their annual predictions, U.K.-based market research firm Wine Intelligence sees a coming push by wine producers “to ride the hard seltzer wave.” Mass-market wine brand Barefoot launched four last spring made from white wine, seltzer water, and natural flavors, with a mere 4 percent alcohol, as Napa’s Trinchero did with its Del Mar wine seltzer. They’re lighter and crisper than canned wine-based spritzers, which, well, contain more wine. Please let new ones be better.
Virtual tastings will be the new company perks
Winery tasting room visits took a huge hit in 2020, and winemakers quickly pivoted to virtual tastings that allowed drinkers to get up close and personal with brands they love. These are not going away. But to me the more interesting development is the way corporations, which couldn’t lavish travel and entertainment money on reward retreats to Napa, tapped wineries to host special sessions for employee team-building and perks, a trend that’s also here to stay. (No, it’s not day drinking.) Each employee gets mailed a specific set of bottles (snacks, too, sometimes) to sample at home while participating.
Recently launched Virtual With Us hired unemployed sommeliers to conduct tastings for such companies as Johnson & Johnson — as well as for private birthday parties. The strangest request? A Santa Claus-costumed somm to present the vino. Virtual with Us is now going global.
And for the harder stuff, the Cocktail Guru is leading virtual mixology classes for companies ranging from the London Stock Exchange to Pfizer. (A break from vaccine development?)
Sustainability will be the big eco-word
Once just a meaningless feel-good term in the wine industry, “sustainability” is starting to reflect serious commitment to organic vines, green winery design, carbon neutrality, and more.
But wineries are expanding sustainability to mean economic and social accountability, too, which includes promoting racial and gender diversity and taking care of workers — concerns especially important to younger drinkers.
In 2021, more wineries, including luxury wine giants, will promote new “ethical wine” initiatives such as the certified regenerative farming program. A 12-year veteran of eco-warrioring clothier Patagonia Inc. started California’s Tablas Creek winery. The International Wineries for Climate Action, which was founded last year by Spain’s Torres Family and California’s Jackson Family Wines, will also continue its mission.
Streaming live experiences will be the new oenotourism
Oenotourism, now shut down, won’t be back for a while. Count on being transported to wine regions virtually, as new wine experiences vie with Netflix.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Michael Baum created an innovative tourism hub in Burgundy after buying his wine estate Chateau de Pommard. Now he’s launching Vivant, a platform streaming live wine experiences from wine regions around the world, with professional production values and a community of organic wine producers.
Expect master classes, music and wine pairing, and interactive “visits” to 12 new wine regions in 2021.
The Champagne robot sommelier
With restaurants closing and the Court of Master Sommeliers organization rocked by #MeToo scandals, the somm community had a bad year.
And now: robots. Recently, in cooperation with Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon, two M group restaurants in London unleashed Bailey and Sage, which ferry bottles and glasses of bubbly to customers. Hotel Trio in Healdsburg, Calif., sends out Rose the Robot butler (not as cute as Bailey) to deliver room service wines. “She” is sanitized after each delivery.
Yet, I still have plenty of questions. Which NBA stars will debut wines next year? What bottles should wine lovers pour with lab-grown meat? Where are all those airline wines from planes no longer flying? And last: President-elect Joe Biden is a teetotaler, but Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is not. What wines will she be drinking in 2021?
I’ll be covering those stories, and many more, in the year ahead.