Raising a glass in ‘06

How much do Americans like the fruit of the vine? A 2005 Gallup poll indicated that wine is in fact this country’s favorite alcoholic beverage: 39 percent of the people polled said that they preferred wine over beer and liquor – a 6 percent jump over the previous year. There are myriad reasons for the rise in wine’s popularity, from the low-carb diet fad to an increasing desire in the beverage and food industry for products perceived as sophisticated.

With increased demand comes certain changes in the viticultural world, with some regions amping up their production to satisfy a growing market, and others falling a bit by the wayside as value becomes more of a concern.

Xpress recently spoke to three local wine gurus to pick their brains on trends, both local and global, for the coming year. Gene Hollar at the Winehaus, Greenlife grocery’s Martin Pusser, and Rob Cambell of the Wine Guy were all willing to add their two cents.

Hollar believes that one of the major wine trends that will continue is the further emergence of sustainable agriculture, a development that follows right along with growing public desire for all things natural. Somewhat ironically, this is due in part to the progression of certain wine-industry technologies, advances that allow for less use of chemicals – from the vine all the way to the bottle.

Hollar says he’s pleased to witness an agricultural turn in North Carolina away from crops like tobacco and toward the production of grapes. “It’s a prestige thing, because you can boast that you’re a wine-producing state,” he notes. “But it’s also good, sustainable agriculture because … you’re trading a crop that’s hard to grow and herbicide- and pesticide-intensive for a crop that’s a little easier to grow – still very high maintenance, but less intensive as far as what you have to squirt into the soil.”

Another practice Hollar believes is on the rise is the blending of more than one grape, as opposed to single-varietal wines. “The Australians were the first to not really care what they threw into the blend as long as it tasted good … and it’s done well for them,” he observes. Now, the rest of the world is following suit. “I think California’s going to be doing much more of that than they have,” he predicts. “You’ll find some values in those blends, like the Cline Red Truck – a good, everyday blend that tastes good, but it doesn’t follow the California ‘law,’ which encourages every wine to be a varietal wine.”

Ageability, Hollar says, is also less of a factor than it used to be. “The model of the Bordeaux that’s age-worthy is pretty much over, I think, and everything’s pretty much going the American way, which is, ‘I want this immediately. I don’t want to postpone my gratification. I want to buy this, take it home, and drink it tonight.’

“On the positive side of that, it requires wine producers to make wines that are consumable earlier. And they’ve learned that through vineyard management, and through technology you can produce a wine that’s ready” to drink immediately.

As for Pusser, when asked what he foresaw as the biggest wine trend for the new year, he had quick answers: “Spain. Value. People are still going crazy over Spain – it’s such a value. I don’t know how they’re doing it with the Euro [growing so strong against the dollar], but they seem to be really rolling with it. The trend is well-priced bottles – the expensive bottle is gone, at least in my market.”

Value, Pusser fears, might be the main problem when it comes to North Carolina’s wine production. Home to 50-some wineries, the state is now ranked 10th nationally in grape production and 12th for wine production.

“The North Carolina wine industry is going in the right direction, but I think they’re taking themselves a little too seriously with their pricing,” he says. “The wine-making is definitely getting better, but they need to find out what grapes … will work better than what they’re doing now. They come out of the gates with a $20 bottle when I have bottles from Spain that are quality for $7.99, so it’s kind of hard to push people in that direction.”

Excessive cost, notes Cambell, is one of the growing pains of a young wine region. “Price is going to continue to be a problem, because when you start wines from scratch, you don’t get any return for three to four years, so it’s a huge investment. … Hopefully the prices will crest and then start coming down a bit.”

Internationally speaking, France is no longer such a heavy hitter, Cambell says. “We’ve seen a decline this year in French wines, [and] if they don’t get their pricing right, I think that we’ll see even more of a decline. Their market’s really hurting right now.”

He cites Portugal as the country most likely to follow in Spain’s footsteps. “I think you’re going to see a lot of wines coming in from Portugal, especially red wines. They’ve been rather rustic in the past – now I think they’re getting more of an influx of money and technology, and I think that they’re seeing what’s happening in Spain and … trying to make [their wines] a lot more international in style.”

To top off his analysis of wine trends, Cambell foresees a decided decline of the cork. “You better get comfortable with the screw top, because there’s definitely going to be a lot more of those. It makes sense for wines that are meant to be drunk young, but it’s going to take almost a generation, I think, to get fully comfortable with it.”

Perhaps even veteran wine drinkers could see the upside of that switch. After all, as Cambell notes, the screw top “sure makes it easy to get in the bottle.”

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