The most important wine trends in 2017 won’t be the wine we drink, but who drinks it and how and where we buy it
• More consolidation, certainly, but more importantly, more consolidation among the country’s 10 biggest wholesalers. A senior official at one of those companies told me everyone has to get bigger, not only to keep up with the competition, but because the retailers are getting bigger. How else to service Kroger, Costco, and Total Wine, he said? This matters to wine drinkers because distributors, given the nature of the three-tier system, determine what we see on store shelves almost as much as retailers do. If they don’t like a wine or don’t think it will sell, they won’t distribute it. And if they don’t distribute it, you can’t buy it. That will make it harder to find wine not made by the biggest multinational producers.
• Three-tier reform. No, the dreaded three-tier system isn’t going to go away, but this year will see inroads made in several states to make it easier for us to buy wine. This follows last year’s surprise reforms in Colorado and Pennsylvania, which opened the wine markets in ways not seen since Prohibition ended. In Texas, for example, I’ve been told that the legislature will allow liquor retailers to open on Sunday, which hasn’t been legal for decades. Again, not big changes, but smaller changes across the country that may eventually lead to bigger changes.
• The official end of the U.S. wine boom, because younger drinkers didn’t move to wine as quickly as their elders did. One of the great shocks to the wine business was that Millennials didn’t do as they were told and start buying as much wine as the Baby Boomers. One of the top analysts in the country told me that, for the foreseeable future, U.S. wine sales would increase only as much as the growth in the drinking age population, about one percent a year. That’s a far cry from the double digit increases of the past.
• Craft beer and craft spirits replacing wine as the drink to have with dinner. Several analysts told me that there are no firm numbers on this yet, but that they have seen evidence that Millennials and Gen Xers are perfectly content to drink beer and cocktails instead of wine with dinner. That’s revolutionary: Wine’s reason for being is to drink with meals. But beer and spirits are easier to order and the diners know exactly what they’re getting in terms of flavor. A cocktail made with grapefruit vodka tastes like grapefruit in a way that sauvignon blanc doesn’t, no matter what the tasting notes say. If this happens, it will take away one of wine’s most important advantages in its fight with craft products to keep market share.