Trend spotting is a fraught exercise, because things that look significant today may disappear in the face of wider macro-economic trends.
Remember the Zoom tasting, for example, which was hailed as a revolutionary way to introduce more people to wine? It was supposed to cut down on the need for salespeople and winemakers to travel the world, visiting a customer at a time. But once the pandemic closures were over, so was it.
Still, it can be worth looking at trends, because sometimes they can have long-term implications. Here are seven worth watching.
The decline of social media
Those wineries and wine companies that have built their brands on social media may have noticed that fewer followers and fans are engaging with the content.
It is not likely to get any better.
Those who relied on Instagram and influencers will need to re-think their marketing strategy, because social media isn’t the juggernaut it once was, with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram usage falling. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the rise of TikTok. The Atlantic magazine even ran a story called The Age of Social Media is Ending.
Social media isn’t dead yet, by any means, but it’s going to be more difficult and more expensive to get anything like the same level of consumer engagement that wine marketers once took for granted. TikTok won’t help, because branded alcohol content is banned on the platform.
Wine tourism is set to grow
Before the pandemic, wine tourism was a financial bright spot for the industry. After the closures and restrictions lifted, everyone waited with baited breath to see if travel was going to return. Would tourists want to mingle with one another in airports, after being health conscious for so long?
They did. Travel has exploded, despite the many difficulties, from long waits in airports to flight cancellations, due to fewer staff.
And things are about to get even more hectic, because China has opened. Many Chinese households saved a lot of money over the pandemic period, and they’re eager to spend it ― CNN reports that travel bookings for the recent Lunar New Year holiday soared by 540%, while average spending jumped 32%. This pent-up demand will be particularly good news for Australia, as it’s a top destination for Chinese tourists.
Not every tourist will be heading to wine regions, but the Financial Times reports that a key motivation for Chinese tourists is food and drink, being potentially good news for the international on-trade.
Speaking of which, Dubai recently dropped its punishing 30% tax on alcohol, specifically to boost tourism ― good news for wine exporters.
Young people take to fine wine
Both Liv-ex, the London-based fine wine exchange, and Sotheby’s wine department, are reporting that a young group of fine wine buyers is emerging.
“We have roughly 40% of our new buyers under 40,” Jamie Ritchie, the Worldwide Chairman of Sotheby’s Wines & Spirits Globally, told Meininger’s recently. “It’s in every area. It’s Asia, it’s America, it’s Europe.”
Justin Gibbs, the Deputy Chairman and Exchange Director of Liv-ex, said the same thing, with both of them explaining that new apps and other digital tools had opened up the market in a new and compelling way. “You don’t need a relationship with a merchant — this brings in young and tech-savvy people,” said Gibbs.
The Financial Times remarked on a similar trend in the overall luxury market, saying the emergence of these cashed-up younger people “challenges much of our conventional wisdom about luxury spending and the rich in general”.
“For starters, last year’s boom in the €1.38tn market was driven almost entirely by Gen Z and Y, who dominated the personal goods market (including luxury clothing, bags, jewellery, etc),” the article noted, quoting a financial analyst who said that the spending of this group is set to grow three times faster than other generations, at least until 2030.
There’s a business opportunity waiting to happen for the fine wine company that decides to cater for this younger group.
Fewer listings in the on-trade
It’s old news that the pandemic was brutal for the on-trade, with many restaurants having to sell off their wine collections to survive. Old and rare fine wines have since increased markedly in value, meaning it will be nearly impossible for most restaurants to replace that stock.
Not only that, but fine dining is going through a major shakeout, as many Michelin-starred restaurants are closing their doors ― not least of which is Noma, the revolutionary Danish restaurant. There are also serious questions being asked about the way that restaurant workers are treated, which is likely to raise the cost of labour.
But it’s not just the top end of town that’s suffering, as restaurants across the world struggle for staff, and deal with inflated prices for ingredients.
There will always be fine dining, but the days when many restaurants could afford to buy and hold large amounts of wine stock have probably come to a close. Wine lists will get smaller, and every bottle or glass listed will have to earn its keep.
The rise of vegetarianism and veganism will also have an impact, although a much smaller one, as different wines will be required than the classic steak matches.
Sommeliers are becoming more important
The past ten years has seen a rapid and widespread professionalisation of restaurant wine service, with more sommeliers undertaking training and certifications, in more countries.
The 2012 film Somm really ignited the trend in the US, where sommeliers today enjoy widespread respect and even celebrity status. This has yet to happen elsewhere to anything like the same extent, but the somms’ moment is coming.
First, they are on the frontline telling the wine stories to the captive audience seated in front of them, who are actively seeking a glass or bottle of wine. Second, they are exceptional users of social media, which is still an important channel, even given what was written above.
La Place de Bordeaux is growing in importance
Bordeaux may no longer be the wine powerhouse it once was, but the Bordelais themselves are growing in influence and importance.
La Place ― a network of about 300 negociants, or distributors that more or less controls the ex-cellar sales of wines from all of the top estates ― has unparalleled access to important sales channels worldwide, including in small but valuable markets that are difficult for producers to handle. These negociants are taken extremely seriously, because they are the people to talk to if you want access to the tightly-controlled, investment-grade wines of Bordeaux. Now, more wine brands from other regions and parts of the world are beating a path to their doors, hoping to get access to that prestigious distribution network ― and shooting off a press release the moment they do so.
Being listed on La Place remains a sign that your wine is one of quality, and that the quality is recognised by people of taste.
In one of those quirks of fate, it’s the producers of the New World that are building La Place into a powerhouse. The more attention they pay La Place, the more they shine its reputation. However, unlike the Bordelais, they often decide which markets they want to supply through La Place and which they continue to manage themselves.
All these trends pale in comparison to the final one:
In the past two-to-three years, a new niche has been born in the USA: the so-called “better for you” wines that sell themselves as being healthier types of wine. Some offer all the flavour with lower sugar, while others make a point of touting their no-pesticide, no-additives credentials.
So far, this isn’t a trend that’s taken off elsewhere. But a related trend has: sobriety. In both the US and the UK, growing numbers of people are taking the Dry January challenge, while newspapers and magazines are producing a flood of sobriety content.
Think Europe is safe? Think again. As The Guardian reported in late December 2022, France is “leading the way” in the “alcohol-free drinks boom”.
And the people most likely to give up alcohol are those in their 20s and 30s, despite the curious case of the young fine wine buyers outlined above. As the recent Silicon Valley Report made clear, young people aren’t following their elders up the wine curve, adopting it as they mature, as generations before them did.
As we all know, Prohibition was a massive failure. But that’s because it was politically imposed. What’s happening now is that people are willingly adopting it for the sake of better sleep, a clearer head, and an Instagram feed that won’t come back to haunt them.
This isn’t a trend that will go away by ignoring it, or ― worse ― denouncing people doing Dry January.
It’s something the wine trade needs to take very, very seriously.