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WineInk: Wine in the Year of the Plague

Kelly J. Hayes
WineInk

 


It’s been one long year. Well, actually more like 14 months if you are keeping track.

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, back in March 2020, all of our lives have been affected significantly. And while the wine world, the subject of this column, represents just a small portion of the overall economy, it is in its own way a microcosm of the struggles we have all endured. While it is an industry, with profit and loss like any other, it is also made up of people. Flesh and blood just like the rest of us.

As it is May, a time of rebirth in the vineyards, I thought it perhaps the right moment to review what the wine industry has just gone through using the lens of the WineInk columns that appeared over the last 14 months, as we tentatively, hopefully, proceed on a return to normal.



THE BIG CHILL

In the March 12, 2020 edition of the stand-alone Aspen Times Weekly, glasses on a springtime table at the Silver Oak Winery heralded a series of upcoming wine dinners in the ski resorts of Colorado. Silver Oak was to be poured in Vail in a special event at the Sebastian Hotel, Moët & Chandon Champagne was to bubble up in flutes at TORO in the Snowmass Viceroy, And, in an extraordinary event, Alessia Antinori, vice president of Tuscany’s Marchesi Antinori and scion of one of the world’s most prestigious wine families, was to toast the 30-year history of the Little Nell Hotel by pouring ten wines from the past three decades of Antinori releases.

Alas, a box added moments before press time atop that column noted that these events and all events scheduled for the future were cancelled. That weekend skiing shutdown and “lockdown” became the phrase du jour.



I remember, first, the uncertainty. No one was sure what was going to happen or how this was going to work. A canceled wine dinner was one thing. But what was on the horizon? And then the fear set in. Restaurants started to close, people lost their jobs. Winery tasting rooms shuttered and business as usual no longer was.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

2017 Mi Sueño Syrah

In Spanish, “Mi Sueño” means “my dream” and this wine is the culmination of a lifelong dream for Napa Valley Vintner Rolando Herrera. In fact all of the Mi Sueño wines could be considered such. Herrera, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 15, has become one of Napa’s most storied winemakers. While perhaps best known for his Cabernet Sauvignon, he makes a small amount of Syrah because he likes the way the Rhône grape grows in the Napa Valley. Deep purple in the glass with bold but softened tannins, this wine is a combination of French grapes, Napa terroir and Mexican talent.

It did not take long for the wine industry to pivot and begin to adjust. It started with a move towards online, direct-to-consumer sales. At first there were concerns that boxes could be contaminated with COVID, but that rumor was quickly put to rest.

CREATIVE PIVOTS

Retail shops like Jimbo’s in Basalt were quick to begin taking telephone orders and touted their efforts to serve customers curbside so they would not have to come inside. “When this first began (in mid-March) we were crazy busy with people stocking up,” Gonzo Mirich, owner of Jimbo’s Wines & Crafts, said in an April 2020 WineInk. “The joke was ‘this is the third time I’ve come in to buy two weeks worth of wine. But once April hit things became much slower. I think the economic reality set in and people began to wait for the debt-relief checks and unemployment benefits.”

Ah, those debt relief checks. They were hardly the panacea that restaurants and bars had hoped for. Perhaps more helpful was the change in state laws that allowed restaurants to sell to-go wine and cocktails. “There has been an amazing amount of creativity, especially in the restaurant and wine space,” said John Salamanski of CS Wines, who represents a portfolio of small, bespoke wine producers. He told me in late April 2020 six weeks after the shut down, “First, there was creativity in the decision by
the Governor to allow restaurants
to sell wines, then there was creativity by restaurants to open to-go windows so they could still interact with their customers.” Many eateries also creatively put together wine offerings to help bolster their bottom lines in difficult times.

In that WineInk, a photo ran of Jimmy’s wine and beverage director Greg Van Wagner riding a “Booze Bike” that made deliveries of on-line orders from the restaurant. It was befitting of the creativity that Salamanski had alluded to and was worth a smile.


And the wineries themselves were being innovative as well. Welcome to the world of the “Virtual Tasting.” The first of these that I saw was “Sunday Night Virtual Tastings with K-J Winemaster Randy Ullom!” That would be Kendall-Jackson. Ullom tasted and described a different wine each week on Facebook and Instagram. They were charming.

But it was not long before the wine world, and the world in general, turned to Zoom for virtual tastings. Wineries began to package events where consumers could purchase wines in advance, have them shipped to them before the tasting and then gather with 100 or so folks and taste through the wines “together.” This will surely remain part of the landscape in the future.

CLASSIC TO RETURN

June in Aspen was quiet as the Food & Wine Classic was canceled, a decision that was made in March just as the world began to change. The town was left to wonder when the Classic might return (now we know: the second weekend in September of this year will see a “modified” Classic and wine will flow once again.)

Perhaps, even more significant to the American wine industry in the long run was the eruption of seemingly endless wildfires in Napa and Sonoma. On Sept. 27, just as harvest was underway the Glass Fire roared to life in the Napa Valley. For 23 days it raged in both Napa and Sonoma, not only interrupting the harvest, but also leaving flavor killing smoke taint on the grapes. The beloved Restaurant at Meadowood was destroyed in the blaze and 31 wineries, including Cain, were damaged.


In my Oct. 1 column, I speculated on what the 2020 vintage would be remembered for. The pandemic or the Glass Fire. Perhaps both.

In Europe, the pandemic also caused problems for vintners who had shortages of workers due to restrictions placed on movement around the affected countries. But many regions did well. Both Piedmont and Tuscany in Northern Italy had solid vintages. In France, Burgundy and Bordeaux were scorched by summer heat and the Champagne region had a smaller harvest. But real damage was caused by a freeze earlier this month in France that affected many vines just after bud break. It will be a challenging year.

As we progress into 2021, the Aspen wine community has seen improved projections for how the year might play out. To-go dining and liquor sales provided some solace this spring and, perhaps most importantly, the continued increase in the number of visitors restaurants can host will be an indicator for 2021. The bottom line is that while the past fourteen months have put many obstacles in front of the wine world, it — like us — has survived. Let’s hope 2021 sees us find our way out of this pandemic.


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