Story by Clive Pursehouse. Additional reporting where indicated by Brianne Cohen, Jonathan Cristaldi, J’nai Gaither, Anna Lee C Iijima & Maiah Johnson Dunn.
America has long been a land of innovation – from blue jeans and fast food to lightbulbs and telephones. American ingenuity and the country’s talent for dreaming big have led to novel solutions to complicated problems. In wine, this means that new consumers, changing tastes and traditions in food and wine pairing, industry leaders, new technologies and new names are leading American wine into its next wave.
Of course, there are many issues facing American wine – wildfires and smoke continue to torment wine-growers in the American west, fewer young Americans are drinking wine as their beverage of choice, and the global climate crisis rumbles on.
But there are also many promising innovations. Climate change and new wine drinkers’ adventurous tastes are allowing winemakers and growers to explore new and not-so-new wine grapes in different ways. And there are brand new demographics of wine drinkers to whom influencers, rather than traditional industry gatekeepers, speak directly.
So what will America’s next wave of wine be, where will it come from, and who will be riding it? Here’s our US-based team’s selection of questions, answers, people and ideas…
Why aren’t younger demographics in the US turning to wine? Is it a simple lack of advertising in the wine sector or a combination of factors?
‘Growing up, for me,’ says Steve Matthiasson, winemaker at Matthiasson and popular Napa Valley vineyard consultant, ‘it was a given that wine was good for you. That’s not the message today, and I believe this is why younger drinkers are attracted to natural wines.’
His suggestion is that when young people today, Millennials and Generation Z, reach the stage of having sufficient money and the wherewithal to start properly enjoying wine, they don’t do so in a context framed by the ‘French paradox’ – the contention, first popularised in the 1980s, that the Mediterranean diet (relatively high in fats and oil, but also including regular consumption of wine, and in particular red wine) contributed to lower rates of heart disease deaths in France.
‘It’s not a given for younger people that wine, conventional wine, is healthy,’ Matthiasson continues. ‘If you grow up instead hearing that alcohol is unhealthy for you, and then you’re presented with a different type of wine that is “natural” or healthy, that’s very persuasive.’
These notions of health, sustainability and responsibility are essential to buying decisions for younger consumers. Many wineries are already addressing this, but their messaging is only sometimes connecting to younger demographics. ‘Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily sync with a luxury message,’ Matthiasson admits. ‘So you end up with an either-or situation. It’s either luxury, or it’s something driven by values.
‘With this either-or concept, we’re losing time. We should be telling the story of our evolution as something that addresses the planet and the people here, all of those things that young people care about. They need to know that they can find that right here in Napa.’
AI: Cracking the code
As younger generations come to wine, the sheer variety (flavours, styles, regions) can present a hurdle. For wine enthusiasts, the differences in wine style and varieties keep us exploring. But new drinkers with limited budgets are hesitant to hand over hard-earned cash for something they may not wholly enjoy while learning the nuances of wine appreciation.
There have been several attempts to ‘curate’ wine choices for new wine drinkers. Most of these approaches involve a quick online questionnaire, but only one is backed up with real science. Katerina Axelsson is the CEO and founder of Tastry, which describes itself as ‘The world’s first AI-driven sensory sciences company’. A chemist working in a winery laboratory, Axelsson invented the founding data set for Tastry. Her achievement has been to decode the chemical composition of a wine’s flavour profile. Using artificial intelligence to unlock this conceptually – and actually – has allowed Tastry to pair it with another data set.
‘We’ve collected about 100,000 actual palates, and when it comes to projected palates, we’re at 240 million, approximately,’ Tastry chief business officer Charles Slocum tells me. ‘We have a similar quiz. The AI generates 19 questions, based on the chemistry of wine. The AI tries to discern what people like and don’t like on their individual palate.’ Tastry’s success rate is 80%, compared to the standard ‘profile quizzes’, which typically succeed at around 40%. Rather than making assumptions about the similarity of styles, or varieties, Tastry uses hard data gleaned from a wine’s chemical composition.
‘We might ask how you feel about the smell of cigar tobacco,’ says Slocum. ‘We’re not asking whether you want that in your wine. What the AI is doing is calculating. Let’s say there are 33 compounds responsible for the general aroma of cigar tobacco. We want to understand: when those chemicals hit your palate, do you enjoy that or not? We might ask next how you feel about the taste of green bell pepper. Now, some of those compounds will overlap with cigar tobacco. So the AI is trying to tease out what you like and what you don’t.’
Tastry has had success in retail establishments, increasing sales between 12%-18% on the shop floor. The company projects that with rates of 80% success, it can recommend a wine that a consumer will rate as ‘good’ or ‘better’ – which Slocum pegged at equivalent to 88 points or above.
Tastry, though, can go beyond just matching wines to individual consumers. ‘What Tastry does is to provide visibility to the winemakers,’ Slocum explains. ‘A winemaker can say, “Hey, I’ve got 32 tanks of wine. I can make a red blend or maybe a Cabernet from Sonoma.” What the winemaker can do is create several blends and have Tastry analyse them: we’ll tell them exactly how they’re going to perform and where, who’s going to like them – and who won’t.’
Or Tastry can do it the other way round. ‘We can do a million blends and then go back to the winemaker with the blends the AI says will perform best. The winemaking team then takes it from there.’
What’s in the bottle?
With US consumers increasingly looking for healthier options, winemakers, chefs and wine professionals in the fine dining world are having to be more thoughtful and creative about how they produce and market their offerings.
Ingredient listing on labels first gained traction in the beauty industry, then with food and non-alcoholic beverages, and now it’s alcohol’s turn. The European Union recently announced a new requirement for nutrient content and ingredient labelling for wine (either on the label directly or with a QR code on the bottle), beginning in December of this year.
The US government, specifically the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), in response to a coalition of consumer groups advocating for label and ingredient transparency, confirmed it would study the issue within the next year, and it seems likely a similar requirement will follow.
Bonny Doon Vineyard, when Randall Grahm was at the helm, was one of the first wineries in California to embrace ingredient labelling in 2008. ‘We would hold ourselves to a high standard and thus be better winemakers,’ says Grahm. This was at the dawn of conversations concerning the benefits of arming consumers with wine ingredient information. At this same time, brands started touting their wines as ‘low sugar’, ‘low carb’, or ‘clean’, among other health claims. This move by the TTB may eradicate those sometimes misleading claims.
Once the playing field is levelled with ingredient lists and nutrient contents, consumers can make educated decisions. ‘Ingredient labelling,’ Grahm continues, ‘makes for better-informed consumers as well as better, more careful and thoughtful winemakers, and arguably better wines.’
Wine’s new voices
Madeline Puckette: Wine’s visual artist
The recession of 2009 and a subsequent lay-off paved the way for the nascent stages of Madeline Puckette’s insanely popular website Wine Folly. ‘I started working in a wine bar for under-the-table cash in Reno,’ says Puckette. ‘I became immediately obsessed with wine, but I wasn’t sure it could be a career path.’
Like so many wine lovers, Puckette didn’t think that wine was a viable option for making a living, nor did she know of the many career paths available in the world of wine, so she went with what she knew. As a graphic designer, part of her job at the time included making infographics to distil complex information into its essential elements. Wine Folly (winefolly.com), a site dedicated to learning about wine visually, does just that. For example, to explain malolactic conversion, she created an animated yeast bug that eats green triangles representing malic acid and then expels round white circles representing lactic acid. Puckette has parlayed her infographic site into a bona fide business with many successful products, including online wine courses and videos, posters, regional maps and a James Beard Award-winning book, Wine Folly: The master guide (available through Amazon UK). ‘If you’re making great stuff, it spreads,’ says Puckette about how she measures success.
And what about the future? Puckette thinks that the online world will continue to foster camaraderie among wine drinkers. ‘I hope the internet can continue to bring us together, sharing experiences, learning and evolving. Education is the answer and where I’ve invested my positive energy.’
Pairing with plants
As the impact of meat-based diets becomes more evident, vegetarian and vegan cuisines have become popular, with many consumers either making wholesale changes to their diets or reducing their meat intake to moderate their carbon footprint. The announcement in 2021 by chef Daniel Humm, of Michelin three-star Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, that he was making a wholesale conversion to vegan cuisine was met with scepticism.
‘The signature dish at Eleven Madison Park was the duck,’ says Gabriel Di Bella, now wine director for Eleven Madison Park. ‘Lavender glazed, with peppercorns and perfectly paired with a Syrah from the northern Rhône.’ When the menu changed, he was working at Humm’s London restaurant Davies and Brook. ‘My first thought,’ he says, ‘was, what will we do with all those wonderful Syrahs?’
As it turns out, those wonderful Syrahs are still moving. ‘Yes, we no longer have foie gras, caviar, lobster and so forth. We now start with a lighter, brighter and fresher dish and work towards a crescendo from there,’ says Di Bella. ‘Up until the main entrée, which is always the most savoury, there is lots of umami. The final course will be more intense, and have more bite to it. The way the menu is built up throughout the seasons still gives me so much room to play with what we have in the cellar.’
Di Bella explains: ‘We’re trying to show what’s possible. We’re not saying stop eating animal proteins. We’re trying to show that this can be done at the highest level. If we can do it in a three-star restaurant, anyone can do it.’
Wine’s new voices
André Hueston Mack: Go-to wine guru
Former sommelier at The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York, and American winemaker, André Hueston Mack was hired by New York-based Bon Appétit to bring some new dynamism to the world of wine. ‘I was pretty sceptical at first,’ he recalls, ‘but as I started to brainstorm with the team, I realised that we could really fill the void of basic communication for wine for the masses.’
The Bon Appétit video series World of Wine with André Mack runs the gamut of topics of interest to the general public, from celebrity-owned wines, to Bordeaux at all price levels, to an introduction to all the tools wine pros use daily along with how to use them. He’s even tackled answering the most Googled questions about wine. And he does it in a straightforward, breezy style.
His approach is working. ‘People come up to me to tell me how much they enjoy the work that I’ve done. It blows my mind every time someone in the industry approaches me to say that they’ve learned so much through the videos.’
The visual component of his videos resonates well. Most are shot in a bar, with wines, glassware and top-shelf liquors in the background. But, when discussing wine tools, for example, he shows each one and demonstrates how they work. Or he’ll take you on a journey to a wine shop to suggest some options for Thanksgiving Day wine. That accessibility has garnered Mack loyal fans and inspired a younger generation to give wine a second look.
The grape revolution
Anna Lee Iijima & Maiah Johnson Dunn
As climate change creates challenges and opportunities for viticulture in the US, different grapes and new influences are taking hold. The term ‘Old World’ is being redefined, and some vintners are looking to Kyiv, rather than Bordeaux, for wine inspiration.
The history of American wine was built upon a profoundly European yearning for Vitis vinifera. This has changed recently, with hybrid varieties beginning a spectacular resurrection in America. Vinifera originating from the so-called Old World were untenable across large swathes of America. They were vulnerable to the frigid winters of the American northeast and midwest and lacked resistance to threats such as phylloxera, powdery and downy mildew.
European settlers considered native American grapes unsuitable for winemaking. To better adapt their preferred vinifera to the local climate, they were married to hearty but ostensibly unrefined American species such as Vitis labrusca or riparia. Their offspring, interspecific hybrids, were considered satisfactory for winemaking and remarkably disease-resistant. But as the wine industry made a wholesale shift to the vinifera-friendly west coast after Prohibition (which ended in 1933) hybrids disappeared from the scope of fine wines.
Now the picture is changing again. Alongside an increasingly mainstream ‘natural wine’ movement, hybrid wines of similarly nervy, transparent style have flourished.
Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber, owners of La Garagista Farm & Winery in Vermont, in the US far northeast, were at the forefront of using hybrid varieties. Their first vintage was in 2010, and within years, wines like their delicate, floral Marquette red and tea-stained, spicy La Crescent white were celebrated in New York City’s trendiest restaurants.
For Heekin, hybrids were a means to grow wine grapes biodynamically in Vermont’s extreme climate (cold, snowy winters with warm, humid summers, and a large diurnal temperature range). ‘I wanted to work with vines in their most natural state without resorting to tricks in the vineyard or cellar,’ she says. La Crescent, Marquette or Frontenac (red) seemed as suited to Vermont as Italy’s Pelaverga in Piedmont or Passerina in the Marche, she says: ‘So we regarded them simply as regional varieties that spoke to this particular place.’
For Nathan Kendall, owner-winemaker of Nathan K and Hickory Hollow Wines in the Finger Lakes of New York state, hybrids were a step forward in the face of climate change. The Finger Lakes, as elsewhere, face mounting disease threats from mildew and rot as the climate becomes hotter and wetter. Unlike hybrids, vinifera vines typically require a greater reliance on fungicides and pesticides, making organic or biodynamic wine-growing challenging. Since 2016, Kendall and New York sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier MS have produced Chëpìka, a series of exceptional pétillant naturel wines made from Catawba, Concord and Delaware sourced from the region’s first and only certified-organic vineyard.
The adaptability and resilience of hybrids have triggered a flood of new winemakers and wineries in places not historically associated with fine winemaking. The lower cost of land and resources for hybrid winemaking has prompted dramatic democratisation, boosting access to a diversity of people traditionally excluded from the industry.
Back in the realms of vinifera, in 1985, the first successful commercial label of Saperavi was sold in the US. Dr Konstantin Frank introduced the vines to the region in the late 1950s, with 60 other varieties, during the vinifera revolution.
‘Konstantin was very passionate about Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, because they were a direct connection to his homeland of Ukraine,’ explains Meaghan Frank, vice president and fourth generation overseeing the Dr Konstantin Frank winery on the western banks of Keuka lake in Upstate New York. ‘Saperavi was so unknown in 1985 that the TTB did not recognise it as an approved grape,’ explains Dan Jimerson, general manager at McGregor Vineyard across on the eastern side of Keuka lake. With the grape’s name on the label, sales were restricted to on-premise at the winery, but the wine was a hit despite the unexpected hurdle. To expand distribution, the winery rebranded to ‘Black Russian Red’. The wine quickly became a bestseller. McGregor returned to variety-specific labelling in 2018. ‘It was more important for people to know about the Saperavi grape variety that made this wonderful wine,’ explains Jimerson.
Bob McGregor first planted Saperavi on his Finger Lakes property in 1980. He had been in search of an ageable, cold-hardy, disease-resistant red grape, and selected the ‘teinturier’ vinifera, which achieves a good depth of colour and flavour thanks to pigmentation in both skin and flesh (and dates back at least 8,000 years as one of the Republic of Georgia’s indigenous grapes). McGregor is also one of just two wineries producing the increasingly coveted Rkatsiteli – Saperavi’s aromatic white counterpart. Neither grape has gained real traction with US consumers beyond the local area.
‘The popularity of Saperavi and Rkatsiteli in New York is the result of tenacious producers like Dr Konstantin Frank, McGregor and Standing Stone Vineyards [on the eastern flank of Seneca lake], who discovered the potential for these grape varieties decades ago and made wines that gained a loyal following,’ says Erika Frey, co-founder of Saperica, a non-profit promoting the rich history of Georgian wine and food.
Success with both grapes in New York has led to increased hectarage throughout the region. There is ongoing experimentation in other markets such as Virginia, New Jersey and California. The continued curiosity signifies a delicious renaissance for ancient vinifera in times to come.
Wine’s new voices
Roberto Rivera: Video Instagrammer of wine
Scrolling through Roberto Rivera’s educational Instagram reels (@roberto.uncorks), finding an answer to a wine question you might be looking for is easy. Proper wine education and breaking down barriers to it are essential to the New York City resident, sommelier and content creator for the Hispanics in Wine non-profit.
‘Sometimes in the wine world, we use difficult terms to express things,’ he says. ‘I take a friendly approach that is non-pretentious, easy and practical. I also use my Spanish background to help pronounce Spanish grape varieties, producers and wineries. And since I’m Latino, I like to pair Latin food with wine.
‘You often hear of classic and traditional pairings like pasta and Barbera, but as a Latino, I don’t really eat that. I pair stuff like chicharrones and Riesling. I like to go outside the box.’
As a Latino in wine, there have been times when his knowledge has been questioned. While being dismissed for his identity weighs on Rivera, he’s focused on the impact he might have on those who find wine intimidating. ‘New wine drinkers are curious and open-minded,’ says Rivera. ‘They care about the planet, they’re into natural wines, and they’re questioning what’s in their glass. It’s totally different to how it was 20 years ago.’ Rivera believes that catering to this new kind of consumer may be one of the keys to improving wine’s relevance for new audiences.
Going direct: The future
As global wine sales normalise post-pandemic, direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales are becoming paramount to a winery’s bottom line in the US. Consultant winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown, who makes wine for more than 45 different boutique producers, says: ‘Given the costs of making wine and running a facility, you need DTC sales to establish proper margins.’
For Brown’s clients, having representation in a dedicated hospitality space – such as 810 Foothill in Calistoga, which features a collection of boutique wines fashioned by Brown – offers the kind of face-to-face tastings critical to the slow game of building up a responsive mailing list. ‘There’s no silver bullet,’ Brown contends, noting that the mailing list for his Rivers Marie label, with more than 18,000 subscribers, has been built up over ‘a thousand different sources’, he says. ‘You have to meet people, and the wines have to resonate for the quality and the price. The conundrum is you need to have a three-tier presence [within the US national distribution system] to drive people to a label in the first place.’
But finding placements on a wine list or retail shelf often means hiring someone to manage your wholesale distribution. Even large wine companies need help in wholesale because competition is steep. Many companies have begun turning to influencer marketing to help.
While the beauty, food and fashion industries have leveraged influencer marketing for almost a decade, the wine world is playing catch-up and trying to find its way. Amanda McCrossin, a Napa Valley-based influencer (@sommvivant), says that the Covid pandemic ‘forced wineries to look beyond normal sales channels’ and they have gradually turned to people like her for help. ‘A lot of wine influencing is centred around the culture and education of wine, which is inherently important when it comes to driving sales,’ says McCrossin, who sees a future in which ‘major wine companies [are] incubating entire wine brands’ around influencers to sell DTC.
Jessica Kogan, co-founder of Cameron Hughes Wine (CHW), one of the original DTC wine companies now owned by Vintage Wine Estates (VWE), says that even as wineries realised the need to merge DTC sales with wholesale, it used to be ‘hard to find e-commerce companies that could support a multi-channel approach’. Solutions such as Shopify and Salesforce Commerce Cloud changed the game, she says, by giving companies with multiple labels the ability to ‘sell their brands on [multiple] brand sites with one common back office’.
The practice of geo-targeting [delivering online advertising to consumers according to their location] can be another game-changer. ‘We practise segmenting and targeting [because] we have a good understanding of our customer’s digital journey and do our best to anticipate when, where and how they want to engage,’ says Kogan. She notes that to do that, they leverage a platform called Salsify, which allows VWE to ‘publish product information to our retailer websites. We call this the digital shelf, which is like the physical shelf, but with a lot more information that can tell the story of our brands through content, videos, lifestyle images, reviews and more. Our experience in DTC e-commerce comes in handy here, because we know the types of information customers seek to connect with wine.’
Kogan believes giving consumers more tools and information is ‘super-empowering, and I think will be transformative to the wine industry in maintaining relevance and ensuring long-term growth’.
Direct-to-consumer wine sales in the US
An annual report from Sovos ShipCompliant and Wines Vines Analytics, which analysed direct-to-consumer shipping data from more than 1,300 US wineries – most producing 60,000 bottles annually or less – posits that DTC wine shipments decreased in 2022, reflecting a cooling-off period in the aftermath of the global Covid pandemic. Total DTC sales accounted for 12% of all off-premise sales, and while the volume of winery shipments decreased 10.3% in 2022 compared to 2021, the average price per bottle shipped increased by 9.7%, coming in at roughly US$45 per bottle.