Wine News Farewell to Wine's Weirdest Year

Farewell to Wine's Weirdest Year

Doors closed and businesses folded as Covid-19 came to town.
© FT.com | Doors closed and businesses folded as Covid-19 came to town.
We look back on a year full of new challenges – and a lot of the same old stories.
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Friday, 01-Jan-2021

So, then. How has your year been?

Sitting down to write a story rounding up the major events of the past 12 months can often feel like rearranging your furniture. It might be in a slightly different place, but it still essentially consists of the same elements. Not this year. There are so many elephants in the room that is the year gone by that I no longer feel like an editor; more like a zookeeper.

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And yet, for all the genuinely unprecedented events we suffered through in 2020, it's amazing how many of the big topics keep repeating again and again. Obviously, Covid was a surprise, as was the unlikely encroachment of the Black Lives Matter protests into the wine world and even the implosion of the Court of Master Sommeliers, America amid revelations of sexual harassment and assault, but a lot of the big stories have been around for a lot longer.

A year ago I wrote a piece on an uncertain year for wine. Boy, was I understating the case. Looking back on the article, the main issues were around a tariff war between the US and the EU, the hardy perennial of interstate shipping of wine in the US, fraud and the endless process that has been the UK's "departure" from the EU. 

Inexplicably, I concluded that Brexit might be concluded by the end of last January. Was I mad? Here we are a year later and it still hasn't actually happened, with all the uncertainty that entails for the global wine trade.

In a fit of quite unwarranted optimism, I also thought the interstate shipping question was pretty much resolved with the US Supreme Court coming down on the side of free trade in a crucial case in June 2019, only for a lower court to ignore the ruling in July of this year, plunging the wine trade into confusion again.

By the beginning of this year, it looked as though the big issue was going to be tariffs, as the US and EU continued a tit-for-tat trade spat that left thousands of businesses unsure if they had a business anymore. That story still hasn't gone away – much like wine fraud and climate change – but it was overshadowed by the arrival of Covid-19, a novel coronavirus that not only caught the world off guard, but also became the topic of the year.

It started quietly enough, with reports of localized lockdowns in China. But it soon spread; it wasn't long before the lights were going out in Europe, as cities and then entire countries closed down to try to stem the spread of the virus. By the end of March, it was clear that things had changed forever.

As well as being an existential threat to life, it was also –  and still is – a massive challenge to the world economy. Wine was nowhere near immune to this economic reality and the survival of the industry depended on how quickly producers and retailers could change tack to temper the cold financial winds that were suddenly blowing.

Randall Grahm's honest response earned him the quote of the year title.
© Bonny Doon | Randall Grahm's honest response earned him the quote of the year title.

For most, this involved switching to online sales channels and hoping like hell that a boom in cyber-commerce would somehow be able to replace the economic impact of losing thousands of cellar-door visitors and losing the vital restaurant trade. The online sales boom eventuated all right, but few producers escaped without taking a rather severe financial haircut.

Similarly, retailers were frantically switching to the online, too, offering kerbside pickup, contactless delivery and more in order to survive and it was amazing how quickly most managed to pivot and how quickly we all became au fait with terms like "contactless delivery".

It gets worse

And, as if that wasn't quite enough from a year that seemed endlessly full of unpleasant surprises, California was hit by record wildfires, with thousands of acres of land going up in smoke. Wineries fell to the blazes too, and all along the West Coast growers then had to work out whether or not their grapes had smoke taint. All that was missing was rains of blood and plagues of frogs.

It wasn't all natural disasters, of course, there were plenty of manmade issues to deal with, too. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the Court of Master Sommeliers, America stood accused of a lack of diversity. It responded to the charges in typical fashion – it harrumphed a few times and then grudgingly allowed that some form of change might be possible down the road, in the fullness of time, at an undefined point in the future. An understandable approach given its effectiveness when a cheating scandal erupted at the Court a couple of years ago.

But, for once, things weren't going away. In fact, things got a lot worse when accusations of sexual impropriety emerged, involving high-ranking members of the organization. This kind of publicity couldn't be ignored and several board members eventually stepped aside.

Beyond the Byzantine workings of the Court, fakery was another big topic this year, with wine counterfeiting rings uncovered in Europe, marauding gangs of thieves breaking into shuttered restaurants and making off with the contents of the cellar and, almost inevitably in this year of signs and wonders, the reappearance of the arch-faker himself, Rudy Kurniawan, whose prison sentence ended and who is now sitting in a squalid immigration processing center in New Mexico, awaiting deportation. So it wasn't all bad news this year, then.

Other notable events this year included the planting of new grape varieties in Bordeaux, as authorities there struggle to combat both climate change and collapsing prices. French wine authorities also decided to take on a seemingly impossible challenge by defining and legislating about natural wine, which rather misses the whole point of the natural wine movement.

The story of the year – based on the sheer volume of readers – was a rather surprising one. An opinion piece by Oliver Styles about whether the traditional glass bottle was the best container for wine struck a loud chord with hordes of readers across the planet and it was comfortably our most-read story of the year, even though it was only published in October.

Quote of the year must surely go to the pithy observation of Randall Grahm during an interview discussing the sale of his pioneering Bonny Doon label. When asked why Bonny Doon's sales didn't reflect the huge amount of publicity the winery attracted, Grahm shrugged and replied: "Nobody knows anything about what sells wine."

And nobody could have predicted what this year would hold, even 10 months ago.

So let's raise a glass of something excellent and bid good riddance to 2020 in the hope of a better year ahead, as vaccines become available and the possibility of returning to some form of normality rises on the horizon. And let's try to forget that the Critics' Choice Movie Award-winning post-apocalyptic horror movie A Quiet Place is set in ... 2021. 

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