On the 100th anniversary of the start of the American Prohibition, the buzz in the wine world is once again a conflation of not-so-good news.
Proposed tariffs will double the price of foreign wines and could spell the end for hundreds of small importers and distributors.
Dry January led to a rash of articles such as “America Drank Less Wine for First Time in 25 Years” in the Wall Street Journal, and "Hard Times Ahead for US Wine" on the Winesearcher blog. The annual State of the Wine Industry report from Silicon Valley Bank — an industry bellwether — cast further gloom on things, pointing to a growing glut of wine across all price points.
To make matters worse, the Boomers are aging out, drinking less and wondering if they'll ever taste all the wines filling their cellars. Millennials are far less brand loyal, more interested in cocktails and embracing such new items as hard seltzers.
As part of a broader trend focused on health and wellness, all alcohol is becoming demonized to a degree not seen in decades. Even non-alcoholic beverages — from sparkling flavored waters to cold coffee and kombucha — are competing for consumer drinking dollars.
OK, enough with the bad news. Is there any good news out there for wine lovers?
I asked that question of a selection of local folks involved in one or another part of the wine business, and found them decidedly upbeat.
Emily Riley, a partner in The Thief Fine Wine & Beer establishment on East Main Street, sees "an opportunity for wine to intrigue a whole new generation of youthful, trendsetting adults who are passionate about travel, style, and luxury goods. “Additionally, interest in wine has grown significantly since the advent of the SOMM movies, which has inspired new wine industry professionals."
At Walla Walla Steak Company, managing partner Dan Thiessen points out that "wine and Walla Walla is an experience that can’t be replaced with the next cool hard seltzer company or sexy cocktail. There isn’t a place like Walla Walla anywhere — the small town charm, dining next to the farmer who grew your onions, or the winemaker whose tasting room you just visited. Life should be about balance and unique experiences. (We should) listen to our own bodies; if you hear 'I want a glass of wine' then pour yourself a glass of wine!"
This past year, Spain's Valdemar Estates chose to build their first American winery in the Walla Walla Valley. That was perhaps the most notable among a healthy group of new arrivals in recent months. Fifth-generation family member Jesus Martinez Bujanda Mora was tapped to lead the project.
Downplaying the risks involved, he explained his thinking.
"Walla Walla has the best position among U.S. wine regions to overcome the challenges that you are mentioning," he said. "It's the strongest competitor to California wines and at more competitive prices. As a wine destination it is going to keep growing ... which will lead into more brand awareness and direct sales."
Robert Hansen, who heads the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, is equally bullish on the region's prospects. He points to upcoming activities such as the Reveal auction in April, Celebrate Walla Walla Wine in July, and the numerous winery-sponsored activities throughout the year as signs of good business health. "Walla Walla Wine is more than just a bottle on a shelf — it is a wine country experience that continues to attract visitors (buyers) with no current signs of slowing down.
"Wine experiences, such as food and wine pairings, vineyard tours, seminars and more, are something that can be harder to replicate outside of wine country."
For consumers, there are plenty of new horizons to explore close to home, from Biodynamic wines, to Pet-Nat sparklers, to wines made in amphorae and concrete egg. With more and more wineries focusing on direct sales, there's no shortage of unique and rare bottles to be found by visiting tasting rooms and perusing websites.
And even if cutting back a bit on alcohol is your goal, you can spend more quality time with the wines you taste. Give young wines ample time to breathe and develop. Pay attention to aromas, textures, flavor details and length. Take a few minutes every time you have a glass of wine to train your palate with the same focus you might train your ears when listening to chamber music, or train your eyes to better understand the dynamics of painting.
It all contributes to a full, rich and creative life, and wine is and will continue to be an essential part of that life for a great many of us.