In 2019, the world of wine talked about sommeliers and influencers, the way that private label wines were eating their way through the US market, and the meteoric rise of wine tourism. Tariffs came into force in the US, investment funds started de-investing in companies involved with alcohol and, of course, the ravages of climate change became obvious, with out-of-control wildfires burning through Australia.
And then came the pandemic. The on-trade shuttered, sommeliers lost their jobs, wine tourism stalled, influencers had nowhere to go and consumers everywhere went back to drinking brands they knew and trusted. The Court of Master Sommeliers scandal rocked the wine establishment to its core, as did smaller scandals involving misogyny and bullying. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, Black wine professionals demanded to be heard.
Perhaps the most significant change was the acceleration of technology. A sector that famously embraces in-person conviviality and hospitality found itself doing tastings and seminars through screens, using small formats.
The collective brain power of ARENI’s contributors tracked the changes as they happened, discussing and analysing what it said about the future of wine. Here are some highlights of what we discussed in 2020.
Almost the moment lockdowns began, so did Instagram and Zoom tastings. To the delight of many in the trade, there turned out to be a huge appetite among consumers for online learning and sharing.
“People have very quickly gone online to talk to each other, on Instagram live,” said Sarah Jane Evans MW of her experience in Spain. “It’s been a light from 6pm to midnight and it’s super democratic. You can listen in on that conversation or you can contribute to it, which is something we’ve never had before.”
The storied auction house Sotheby’s, founded in 1744, even discovered that the digital world enabled them to connect fine wine to a younger group. In 2020, the company trialled an online/offline bidding hybrid, where the auction begins online, but a live auctioneer steps in to finish. It was an immediate success.
“Last year we were 90% live auctions, and this year we will be 30%,” Jamie Ritchie, Worldwide Head of Sotheby’s wine told ARENI. “We’ve been attracting a much broader, younger market. We’re getting a number of 30 and 40-year-old bidders; when I joined in 1990, the average age was 65. Now we’re averaging more like 40 across our markets.”
But new technologies bring their own challenges. Wine is a sensory experience, and the digital world is not – how to bring those together? American writer Elain Chukan Brown told us that working on the sensory experience is a priority. “We explored innovation across a lot of different fronts, but notably innovation in relation to sensory experience itself,” she said. “We particularly discussed music and sound and their impact on wine appreciation, or what it means to truly taste blind. Both could open up new forms of conversations and new forms of understanding wine within an education context.“
She also pointed that out wine education is largely built around technical knowledge and that a more expansive view of wine education is now needed.
Education and Mentorship
As it happens, ARENI’s contributors spent a lot of time thinking about this very topic.
“One of the issues with mentors and mentees is we often have the proteges, the mentees, who are so focused on trying to know everything that they forget it’s a pathway,” said Professor Damien Wilson, the Hamel Family Faculty Chair of Wine Business, Sonoma State University, USA. “The difficulty I have as a mentor is not to get them interested in wine, but to get them to focus on the things that matter.”
Professor Wilson said that education is a stepwise progression. “You can’t start off with Champagne and discover what makes it fantastic. If you introduce a novice to this wine, they’ll know it’s good, but they will never understand why they should spend $500 on it when they can get a sparkling wine from down the road for $10.” He said that to get someone to the point where they could appreciate why fine wine is, well, fine wine, they had to go through a series of progressions. “And it’s a challenge in the mentee and mentor situation, because you’ve got inspired and dynamic individuals who want to grow as quickly as possible.”
Dr Laura Catena, winemaker, physician and author, suggested that insights from medical training could offer some answers. “In medicine we have this expression. ‘see one, do one, teach one’. This is how medicine works. You might have someone doing suturing on you who only saw it done once or twice, but it works. You have a supervisor advising you on what you’re doing. I will say to a patient, “This is a student, but I will be right here”. You think people would be scared, but they’re not, if they know you’re there and you’re watching. Mentoring in medicine is part of the everyday.”
Doctors also teach using the Socratic method, she said. “You present your patient to the person above you and that person asks you questions, and if you say something wrong, they don’t shoot you down. They say, “Really, do you think they have an infection? They don’t have a fever”. But then you say, “They took Tylenol”, and that teaches you to think and present your ideas.”
Finally, she said, it was important for people in wine to have a mentor that’s older and one that’s younger. “If you mentor a couple of people and you teach them how to do mentoring, then they will mentor another ten and it becomes a mountain of mentors and mentees. It should be incorporated in every organisation.”
Diversity and Inclusion
Black Lives Matter dominated the news for much of 2020 and it couldn’t help but have an impact on wine.
“Take out of your vocabulary ‘I don’t see colour’,”said Julia Coney, the US-based wine writer, educator and consultant, and founder of Black Wine Professionals. “Everyone sees colour. When you see a person, you can’t say you don’t see colour because that is false. We all see that. It’s how we react and respond to it that matters.”
Seeing difference is only the beginning. Next comes building a culture of inclusion. But this work should not be done as an add-on, or for marketing purposes – diversity leads to better decision making and stronger companies. One of the most fascinating conversations that ARENI had this year was with cognitive scientist Dr Emile Servan-Schreiber, the managing director of Hypermind and author of book Supercollectif.
His research has discovered that a more diverse group is a more intelligent group. “What makes one group smarter than another is not how many smart people there are in the group,” he says. “What characterises the smartest groups is that they have more women in them, which is a little bit surprising – with all due respect. If your group has more than 50% women, it has a higher-than-average IQ. Groups that have less than 50% have lower IQs compared to the others. What’s behind that is pretty simple.”
The reason is simple – groups with more women distribute speaking time better. “The more women you have, the fewer men try to monopolise speech in the group. The other side is that women have, in general, a better ability to listen. In groups with more women, more people can express themselves and more people listen when they do, and that’s what makes the group smart. Everybody gets to take part,” he says.
Not only that, but ethnic and cultural diversity makes a group even stronger, for a paradoxical reason. “We distrust people who don’t look like us,” said Dr Servan-Schreiber. “If you’re around people who are just like yourself, your natural tendency is to stop thinking and to let other people think. But if you’re among people who are different – black, white, men, women, French, English, whatever, as long as there is some difference that is visible – then you won’t feel that you are accurately represented by others. You become more responsible for expressing your opinion and you do more independent thinking – which is the key to making a group smart.”
“If you’re around people who are just like yourself, your natural tendency is to stop thinking and to let other people think. But if you’re among people who are different […] then you won’t feel that you are accurately represented by others. You become more responsible for expressing your opinion and you do more independent thinking – which is the key to making a group smart.”Emile Servan -Schreiber, Founder, Hypermind
The Fine Wine community
As the physical world narrowed and the digital one expanded, people yearned to connect. In 2020, ARENI explored what connection and community means to wine and why it must be based on the land itself.
“The human connection to the land will always be our strongest reference point. It’s very natural for us as people to learn about this complex world of wine through geography; it is something very strongly connected to the planet,” said Michael Baum, owner of Château de Pommard in Burgundy and founder of online platform VIVANT.
Michael Moosbrugger, winemaker at Schloss Gobelsburg went further: “We are directly linked to our area, because as estates we are always seen in the context of our areas. We as wineries can only grow in our reputation by raising the reputation of our area, and this is something we can only do by working together.”
Vanessa Conlin MW, Head of Wine for US Fine Wine online retailer WineAccess, agreed. “For a producer it can be quite useful in terms of banding together in terms of an ethos or style. In Pursuit of Balance that we saw in California was a very easy way to help the buyer know that they made wines that were more restrained, with lower alcohol. It’s more the norm here to see producers using their reputations and influence to band together and help one another.”
These collective narratives can help connect the consumer to the wine. “I also look at it from a selling perspective,” says Marc Almert, Head Sommelier at Baur au Lach in Zürich. “When you introduce a new wine to a consumer, there’s a chance to tell a beautiful story, but it also helps if you can say they are part of a quality group.”
ARENI even explored how Europe itself comes together to create the legislative framework around wine, noting that there are five relevant groups: the OIV (Organisation Internationale du Vin which regulates everything technical), the CEEV (Comité Européen des Entreprises du Vin, the official wine lobby), the EFOW (the European Federation of Origins Wines) and Eurocommerce (the distribution lobby). “All these people do a lot of work, and have an influence on the wine market that is much, much higher than the influence of the ten largest wineries together,” said Pedro Ballesteros MW. The projects they are working on now – and their relationship with growing anti-alcohol lobby – will define the next decades for Fine Wine; therefore, the notion that we’re all “in this together” must include the political sphere.
“All these people do a lot of work, and have an influence on the wine market that is much, much higher than the influence of the ten largest wineries together”Pedro Ballesteros MW
The decisions made at this level have an outsize impact on the rest of the world. “The ‘Brussels Effect’ is often underestimated, explained Anthony Gardner, former American Ambassador to the E.U. “The Brussels Effect being the ability to protect and project its values around the world through regulation, standard setting and trade.”
Sustainability for the long term
The world literally burned last year – fires in Australia, fires in California, smoke-tainted wine and wineries lost. While the wine community has always been ahead of agriculture in general when it comes to thinking about the environment, 2021 pushed the conversation into new and urgent directions. Naturally, ARENI joined the conversation, speaking to Philippe Schaus, the CEO of Moët Hennessy about that company’s commitment to sustainability, as well as to Australians Brendan and Laura Carter, who are re-thinking the entire winery financial model.
Sustainability requires good stewardship of the land, and this can only be done with a long-term outlook. One of the most memorable conversations of the year was between Elaine Chukan Brown and Bill Harlan, founder of Napa Valley’s legendary Harlan Estate. He spoke clearly and movingly about the need to plan for the very long term – 300 or 400 years into the future. “We need the staying power to last through good times, bad times and impossible times,” he said.
“Look at businesses that have lasted more than 300 or 400 years and there are a few things they have in common. One is that they’re family owned. One is they’re based on the land and they have virtually no debt. To be able to make it through feast and famine and different political administration, wars and these kinds of things, we need to be thinking about all these things all the time.”Bill Harlan, proprietor, Harlan Estate
As he said, the family is important, and the land is important. “Wine growing is the art of man and nature, nature is where it all begins, but nature without the human element isn’t going to turn a wild grape vine into a wonderful bottle of wine. None of us can do it alone. It takes a lot of people working together and dealing with the vagaries of Mother Nature.”
And, indeed, it takes a lot of people coming together to not just build a community, but to strengthen and empower it. Which is what we did at ARENI in 2020, and what we will continue to do in 2021.
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