Predicting the future is a mug’s game, but it’s fun, and I’m a bit of a mug. So here goes – my wine predictions for 2014.
The commoditization of wine will continue apace
Supermarkets do their job well. For most people, wine is just wine, and they want a glass of something red, white, pink, or fizzy at a good price. The improvement in quality of cheap wine, coupled with the near monopoly on route to market that supermarkets enjoy (bringing with it irresistible negotiating power) means that wine is becoming a commodity. In the absence of strong brands, and with infinite substitution in this fragmented category, there’s a huge downward pressure on price. It’s great for consumers looking for drinkable inexpensive wine, but not good for producers playing at this end of the market, who are struggling for profitability.
Wine will continue to lose market share; craft beer is on the rise
2014 could be a big year for craft beer. At the more commercial end of the market, wine is becoming expensive and quite boring; you have to spend quite a bit now to get something really interesting. Beer used to be a boring category, with most beers stuck in a limited flavour space: the rise of craft beer has seen beer become more interesting, without it becoming more expensive. You can now get some great flavour experiences from beer for relatively little money. The same isn’t true of wine, and those who make mid-priced boring wine are the ones who will suffer loss of market share.
It’s going to be a good year for the Balkans and the ancient wine countries
In 2013 we have seen some interesting wines coming out of the Balkan/‘ancient wine’ countries. Georgia, Turkey, Serbia, Greece, Israel, Hungary, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Romania are all now making some really good wines, and are starting to sell these successfully in export markets. They have good stories to tell, interesting grape varieties and good terroirs. As they begin to get their viticulture, winemaking and marketing up to speed, they’ll find buyers even in competitive markets such as the UK. Wines stocked by the Wine Society, Waitrose and especially Marks & Spencer are testimony to this.
It’s going to be a bad year for many wine writers
The barrier for entry into wine writing has been lowered massively over recent years, with the dawn of the internet, blogging and social media. It’s not a bad thing: personally, I have been a beneficiary, having come to make a living out of wine communication as an extension of a hobby website. But it means there are increasingly more people writing about wine, most with relatively little reach. For existing wine communicators who have failed to adapt to the digital age, it has been very bad news indeed. And as PR companies, generic bodies and wineries struggle to assign authority to the massed communicators (how do they decide who is worth investing in, in terms of samples, press trips and invitations?), a lot of people are going to lose out. Let’s just hope that the talented voices, new and old, rise to the top, and not just the aggressive self-promoters.
Many will wish they’d paid more attention to their established markets
A lot of generic bodies and wine producers have been seduced by the lure of making easier money in China. While there is little doubt that China is going to be an incredibly important place to sell wine, in 2014 many will wish they’d not abandoned their established markets to the degree they have in recent years in order to chase China, which is proving to be a tricky and uncertain market at the moment.
2014 will be the year of the niche
Wine is a niche interest. And in 2014 we’ll have realised that, and we’ll be fine with that. Look: lots of people drink wine, and lots of people enjoy wine, but for the majority it is just a drink, and they don’t have a special interest in it. Those of us who write about wine need to recognize that reading about wine is just too abstract to be of interest for most people, no matter how accessible our writing is and no matter how engaging we are. But there are enough people who have a special interest in wine for it to be a niche worth bothering with. We, as communicators, just have to remember who we are communicating with. The good news: the internet has made connecting with those who are interested in what we have to say much easier, and the likes of Kickstarter and the ease of electronic publications has made it possible for authors to produce books which are too niche for mainstream publishers to be bothered with.
The rise of neo-prohibition will threaten the wine industry in many countries
Wine contains alcohol, and alcohol is the enemy in the eyes of influential public health advisors. Many loud voices in the medical profession are lobbying against alcohol, which is seen as an evil in much the same way that tobacco has been targeted over recent decades in western countries. In this debate, there is little acknowledgement of the social and medical good achieved by modest wine consumption. Alcohol is bad and it is increasingly being legislated against. This poses a direct threat to wine, and expect to see this grow as a problem in 2014 as governments lose patience with the ability of the alcohol industry to regulate itself. In the UK, binge drinking among teenagers is rife, and becoming an epidemic. The reaction against this is going to see wine caught in the crossfire, and the danger to wine production and sale should not be underestimated – not only have we legislation to fear, but also broader societal attitudes towards drinking.
We’ll finally see some real innovation in the wine category
Go into any supermarket and browse the wine aisle. The wall of wine is made up largely of products packaged the same way (in tall glass bottles), which look the same, and to the average person, taste the same. There is massive clustering in terms of look and flavour in the wine category, and there’s little sign of real innovation aside from a few brave attempts with label design. 2014 will be the year that finally sees some new brands with the courage to be genuinely innovative. One of the reasons that wine has become commoditized at the bottom end is because of the lack of strong brands; and with commoditization comes an inevitable downward pressure on prices.
For interest, here are my predictions from this time last year.