The SW Summary: The need for a more diverse wine industry, Champagne feels the pandemic pressure, predictions of the ‘new normal’ in the wine industry and the virtual English Wine Week

By Hanna Halmari

The need for a more inclusive wine industry

“[Setting] off a chain of reactions across the globe,” the murder of George Floyd on May 25th has made people take a long-overdue introspective look at systemic racism and racial inequality on both a personal and professional level. Writing for Wine-Searcher, Kathleen Willcox ponders if the “notoriously unwoke world of wine” will see a fundamental change as “Black Lives Matter protests drive more business to black winemakers.”

The wine industry cannot be distinguished for its diversity. Willcox highlights how black winemakers in the US and South Africa make up less than 1% of their respective wine industries. Willcox quotes Selena Cuffe, co-founder of Heritage Link Brands, who explains, “It’s the result of decades of not being able to own land. Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, and it took until 2005 for even a small contingent of land-owners to emerge with products.”

In MaryAnn Worobiec’s article for Wine Spectator, she interviews leaders of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV), including AAAV founder and chairman Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars, AAAV president Phil Long of Longevity Wines, and board member Lou Garcia of Stover Oaks Winery. Given the lack of diversity in the wine industry, AAAV aims to promote awareness of African American winemakers and to drive a more inclusive industry by creating pathways for entry through networking events, internships, scholarships, and mentorships. 

McDonald, Long and Garcia share a positive overall sentiment for the future. In response to Worobiec’s question about “whether people publishing lists of African American-owned businesses that people can support” helps, Long replies: 

“I like the fact that people are paying attention. I think that’s the bigger picture. And it’s not just black people paying attention—it’s everybody paying attention to it. And I think that narrative now where we’re all in support of the same thing, and moving forward, and the support of the African Americans in business in general and not just the wine business. I think for me that’s the bigger picture. Now people are paying attention. It’s a positive step in the right direction.”

Referring to the tragic incident of Floyd’s death and the current environment, Long also comments how people “are using the subject now to voice their opinion, and tell you what they feel about it. Where before, it was like, ‘hmmm … yeah …’ But people are now saying, ‘OK, we’re going to talk about it.’” Worobiec ends her article by stressing the importance of continuing to do so, because “otherwise, it’s just going to fade back into oblivion again. We don’t want that.”

In her article for Seven Fifty Daily, Dorothy J. Gaiter discusses “her experience as a black wine journalist in an industry that has been slow to shed its identity as an exclusive all-white club” and expresses her “anger at how little progress [has been] made toward justice and equality—both in [the US] and in the wine industry.” However, Gaiter also believes this could be a pivotal moment that drives real progress in the industry, noting how “the world—including our world of wine— [has] never been more threatened. Let’s together make this a watershed moment of change.” 

Gaiter shares Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci’s advice on how to encourage more diversity in the wine industry: “Share your knowledge and wines with anyone who is interested in viticulture and wine. Meet with the vineyard and cellar workers, many of whom are Hispanic, and share with them the results of their efforts. Encourage them to go to school, if they are interested in taking on greater responsibilities. Pour wine at ethnic and cultural events.” Read Gaiter’s article here, and for advice on how to be a better ally and how to support people of color in the drinks industry, see Jones’ article in Seven Fifty Daily here.

Champagne feels the pressure 

Writing for Wine-Searcher, Caroline Henry observes how despite a strong start to the year, Champagne sales quickly took a downturn as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. With little to celebrate in times of social distancing and lockdowns across the world, the region saw a 70% decrease in sales volumes in March and April. Henry quotes Jean-Marie Barillère, president of the Union des Maison de Champagne and co-president of the Comité Champagne, who warns that although sales should increase over the next few months with the easing of lockdowns, the rebound will be slow. Consequently, the region is estimated to see sales volume and value drop by a third in 2020. 

It has already been agreed that “the last two grape payments of the 2019 harvest” will be delayed for four months. Henry describes the measures the region’s Executive Bureau is taking to support the Champagne houses in regards to 2020’s harvest. The Bureau has decided that the sellable yield, or appellation volume, from this year’s harvest will be split into two, similar as in 2009. One part “will be bottled and paid according to the traditional criteria, while a second part will remain in tank or cask till January 2022 and will be payable in February 2022.”

This year’s appellation volume should be decided on July 22nd, although Henry speculates that the decision may very well not be made until a few days before the harvest. “Sitting on six years’ worth of stock,” many Champagne houses would welcome lower appellation volumes. On the other hand, Récoltant Manipulants (RM), or winegrowers who grow and produce their own Champagne, tend to hold less stock and are understandably pushing for appellation volumes similar to last year. To avoid a situation of two varying appellation volumes in Champagne, the Bureau has announced that RM will be allowed to “buy a significant amount of grapes to close (some of) the sellable volume gap, while keeping their RM status.”

Yves Couvreur, president of Vignerons Independents de la Champagne (VI), is not in favour of this exception. Henry quotes Couvreur, who says, “It goes against the RM philosophy to control every step of the production process, from the vine to the wine,” and that “It is not normal that RM need to purchase grapes to let the Champagne houses off the hook while protecting the grape growers selling by the kilo.” However, it is unlikely that many RMs will purchase grapes given the cash flow problems that characterise much of the region. 

It certainly is a “bewildering [time] for Champagne.” Read more here. 

“What’s Next in Wine’s New Normal?”

This is the question James Lawrence explores in his article for Wine-Searcher. Whilst Lawrence acknowledges the futility of attempting detailed prophecies in such an uncertain environment, he does point out the few wine industry trends analysts all agree on. For instance, the pandemic has “fast-tracked consumer trends that were in their infancy before the coronavirus became world news.” Online sales have spiked across the US and UK markets for wine, beer and spirits, whilst “Champagne and esoteric labels have suffered.” Lawrence notes how predictions of e-commerce as a continued crucial business platform and new forms of online communication are completely reasonable assumptions.

However, the wine industry does raise conflicting predictions of consumer trends. Will China be a crucial factor in driving the growth of future wine demand? Will expensive wines see a pick up in sales? Will the retail market see a ‘shake-out’ of small brands? Who will emerge as the winners? These are just a few of the key questions up for discussion, with opinions ranging from “‘nothing will drastically change’, to ‘the high-end segment is kaput.’” Lawrence quotes a representative from Jackson Family Wines, who says, “If only we had a crystal ball. It’s hard to predict, but we remain hopeful that consumers will continue to explore, seek out and buy wines at all price points as they have in the past. They will simply be doing this through different mediums.”

Another topic in the forecasting arena is that of abstinence and moderation. Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, abstinence was identified as a growing trend among younger generations. According to some wine industry members and analysts, this trend has been reversed by the coronavirus. Wine Intelligence reports how Millennials and Gen-X have increased their wine consumption during the lockdown. Lawrence notes how there is “merit to the idea of households forming longer-term habits to the benefit of wine brands” as multi-generational families live together and enjoy wine as part of socialising and mealtimes. Other analysts are less convinced, anticipating that the change is short-lived and will be reversed post-lockdown. 

Overall, the general mood among the wine industry seems to be optimistic. Lawrence ends his article by nothing how “a reversal of the moderation/abstinence trend and a turn towards wine is debatable, but it is inarguable that Covid-19 has forced an industry re-evaluation – and a welcome spurt of innovation – which will be indispensable in the years to come.” Read more here

Virtual English Wine Week

Taking place from 20th – 28th June, this year’s English Wine Week looks slightly different than previous years. As with all events taking place during the global pandemic, the majority of it is being held online. Reporting for Drinks Retailing, Sonya Hook describes the new format of the event as it adapts to Covid-19 restrictions. To showcase English wines throughout the week, retailers are encouraged to partner with winemakers to create virtual tastings and tours via online video platforms and to provide special offers and deals. 

Hook quotes Julia Trustram Eve, marketing manager of Wine GB, who says, “We have seen a huge amount of resourcefulness and creativity amongst both our members and the wine trade over the last few months, and we are keen to harness this to further support our industry during English Wine Week.” As the week-long event aims to raise awareness of English wines, it will also draw attention to WineGB’s sustainability initiative. Established at the start of 2019, the Sustainable Wines of Great Britain Workgroup “aims to secure environmental sustainability at the heart of UK wine production and to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.” To get involved, see the full calendar of English Wine Week events here.

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About the author

Hanna Halmari

Hanna Halmari is the editor at Sustainable Wine and the head of conferences at Innovation Forum. Hanna specialises in sustainability research and events across various industries. She holds an MSc in international development from Kings’s College London, where she developed a strong interest in political economy and post-communist transformation. Hanna speaks Finnish, Bulgarian and English. In her spare time she is a dedicated Radio Lollipop volunteer at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, enjoys travelling, and tasting new wines.