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09.10.2004

Parker Predicts The Future of Wine and I Respond

What should appear before mine eyes as I leaf through my latest issue of Food and Wine Magazine? Yea, verily, a prognostication from the most contentious of oracles, Robert M. Parker, Jr.

Like it or not, this guy is the world authority, and so when he makes predictions, even I sit up and take notice. My comments are included below each prediction in italics.


Parker Predicts the Future
Robert M. Parker, Jr., the world's foremost wine guru, makes 12 bold predictions about seismic changes that will influence how we'll shop, what we'll buy and how much we'll pay.

By Robert M. Parker, Jr.

Predictions are often carelessly thrown together lists, since few people remember them 10 years later. Who is going to call the author after a decade and complain about his boneheaded observations? Still, I confess to having given the following 12 predictions considerable thought. Moreover, I am confident that they will come true sooner rather than later.

1. Distribution will be revolutionized
I predict the total collapse of the convoluted three-tiered system of wine distribution in the United States. The current process, a legacy of Prohibition, mandates that all foreign wines must be brought into the country by an importer, who sells them to a wholesaler, who sells them again to a retailer. Most U.S. wineries sell to a distributor, who in turn sells the wines to a retailer. It is an absurdly inefficient system that costs the consumer big bucks. This narrowly restricted approach (blame all the lobbyists funded by powerful liquor and wine wholesalers) is coming to a dramatic end—hastened in part by the comparative ease of ordering wine over the Internet. Differing federal court opinions over the last decade have insured that eventually the Supreme Court will have to rule on whether wineries can sell directly to whomever they wish, whether it is a wholesaler, retailer or consumer. Imagine, if you can, a great Bordeaux château, a tiny estate in Piedmont or a small, artisanal winery in California selling 100 percent of its production directly to restaurants, retailers and consumers. I believe it will be possible by 2015.

AMEN TO THAT. While Parker and I often disagree about wine, I think he's hit the nail on the head with this one. While its easier to see this system crumbling in liberal California than it is in states that currently have draconian state-run distribution laws, I agree we are witnessing the Decline of the Distribution Empire.

2. The wine Web will go mainstream
Internet message boards, Web sites tailored for wine geeks and state-of-the-art winery sites all instantaneously disseminate information about new wines and new producers. Today the realm of cyberspace junkies and hardcore Internet users, these sites will become mainstream in 10 years. A much more democratic, open range of experts, consultants, specialists, advisors and chatty wine nerds will assume the role of today's wine publications.

Hmmm. I can't quite put my finger on this one....sounds really familiar though....

3. World bidding wars will begin for top wines
Competition for the world's greatest wines will increase exponentially: The most limited production wines will become even more expensive and more difficult to obtain. The burgeoning interest in fine wine in Asia, South America, Central and Eastern Europe and Russia will make things even worse. There will be bidding wars at auctions for the few cases of highly praised, limited production wines. No matter how high prices appear today for wines from the most hallowed vineyards, they represent only a fraction of what these wines will fetch in a decade. Americans may scream bloody murder when looking at the future prices for the 2003 first growth Bordeaux (an average of $4,000 a case), but if my instincts are correct, 10 years from now a great vintage of these first growths will cost over $10,000 a case...at the minimum. It is simple: The quantity of these great wines is finite, and the demand for them will become at least 10 times greater.

This may, in fact, be the case, but a corollary to this is that overall wine quality around the world will rise along with these prices, meaning that those of us who CAN live without that Chateau Lafite will find better and better wines at our price points.

4. France will feel a squeeze
The globalization of wine will mean many things, most of it bad news for the country historically known for producing the world's greatest wines: France. The French caste system will become even more stratified; the top five percent of the estates will turn out the most compelling wines and receive increasingly astronomical prices for them. However, France's obsession with tradition and maintaining the status quo will result in the bankruptcy and collapse of many producers who refuse to recognize the competitive nature of the global wine market.

I'm not so sure this is 100% true. I think that many winemakers in France (those often beneath the notice of Parker) will step up to the new realities of the market and of international taste. For those stodgy old buggers that would rather suffer the dire fate that Parker describes rather than change their ways, well, serves them right.

5. Corks will come out
I believe wines bottled with corks will be in the minority by 2015. The cork industry has not invested in techniques that will prevent "corked" wines afflicted with the musty, moldy, wet-basement smell that ruins up to 15 percent of all wine bottles. The consequences of this laissez-faire attitude will be dramatic. More and more state-of-the-art wineries are moving to screw caps for wines that need to be consumed within 3 to 4 years of the vintage (about 95 percent of the world's wines). Look for this trend to accelerate. Stelvin, the screw cap of choice, will become the standard for the majority of the world's wines. The one exception will be great wines meant to age for 20 to 30 years that will still be primarily cork finished—although even the makers of these wines may experience consumer backlash if the cork industry does not solve the problem of defective corks. Synthetic corks, by the way, are not the solution. They do not work and can't compete with the Stelvin screw caps.

I don't know exactly what he's talking about when he says synthetic corks don't work (that's news to me) but I wholeheartedly agree with the screwcap prediction. Let's get on with it already. They are the future.

6. Spain will be the star
Look for Spain to continue to soar. Today it is emerging as a leader in wine quality and creativity, combining the finest characteristics of tradition with a modern and progressive winemaking philosophy. Spain, just coming out of a long period of cooperative winemaking that valued quantity over quality, has begun to recognize that it possesses many old-vine vineyards with almost unlimited potential. Spanish wineries recognize that they are trapped neither by history nor by the need to maintain the status quo that currently frustrates and inhibits so many French producers. By 2015, those areas that have traditionally produced Spain's finest wines (Ribera del Duero and Rioja) will have assumed second place behind such up-and-coming regions as Toro, Jumilla and Priorat.

I've just started exploring these wines, so I can't comment on whether I believe that this is true, but Spain certainly seems to have promise.

7. Malbec will make it big
By the year 2015, the greatness of Argentinean wines made from the Malbec grape will be understood as a given. This French varietal, which failed so miserably on its home soil in Bordeaux, has reached startling heights of quality in Argentina. Both inexpensive, delicious Malbecs and majestic, profoundly complex ones from high-elevation vineyards are already being produced, and by 2015 this long-ignored grape's place in the pantheon of noble wines will be guaranteed.

Huh? OK, Robert, maybe you should tell me which ones to try, because every Malbec I've ever had (maybe 20 or 30 in my life) I really haven't liked.

8. California's Central Coast will rule America
Look for wines from California's Central Coast (an enormous region that runs from Contra Costa down to Santa Barbara) to take their place alongside the hallowed bottlings of Napa and Sonoma valleys. No viticultural region in America has demonstrated as much progress in quality and potential for greatness as the Central Coast, with its Rhône varietals, and the Santa Barbara region, where the Burgundian varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are planted in its cooler climates.

Paso Robles, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Cruz Mountains... they're all fantastic wine producing regions and definitely will come into their own. I go one further and predict that in the next 20 years we will see a breakup of this massive region into more distinct AVA regions.

9. Southern Italy will ascend
While few consumers will be able to afford Piedmont's profound Barolos and Barbarescos (which will be subject to fanatical worldwide demand 10 times what we see today), once-backwater Italian viticultural areas such as Umbria, Campania, Basilicata and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia will become household names by 2015. The winemaking revolution currently under way in Italy will continue, and its rewards will become increasingly apparent over the next decade.

I have really enjoyed the bit of exploring I have done recently in the wines of the Apulia region, and particularly those of Salento, which is in the heel of the boot. They certainly rival the best Chiantis in my mind and some of the other varietals used in these regions like Malvasia Nera are incredibly dynamic and expressive grapes.

10. Unoaked wine will find a wider audience
Given the increasingly diverse style of foods we eat as well as the abundant array of tastes on our plates, there will be more and more wines that offer strikingly pure bouquets and flavors unmarked by wood aging. Crisp, lively whites and fruity, savory and sensual reds will be in greater demand in 2015 than they are in 2004. Wood will still have importance for the greatest varietals as well as for wines that benefit from aging, but those wines will make up only a tiny part of the market.

'Bout damn time. We are still currently on oak overkill around here. I think this will be a slow change as the A.B.C Movement (Anything But Chardonnay, which is largely in reaction to the heavily oaked over-malolactic tasting California Chardonnays) is still in the minority.

11. Value will be valued
Despite my doom-and-gloom prediction about the prohibitive cost of the world's greatest wines, there will be more high-quality, low-priced wines than ever before. This trend will be led primarily by European countries, although Australia will still play a huge role. Australia has perfected industrial farming: No other country appears capable of producing an $8 wine as well as it does. However, too many of those wines are simple, fruity and somewhat soulless. Australia will need to improve its game and create accessible wines with more character and interest to compete in the world market 10 years from now.

I agree about the values, as I mentioned above, but it's interesting that Parker used this as an opportunity to get a dig in on Australia. While he may not like many of those wines, perhaps he has noticed that the majority of Americans DO.

12. Diversity will be the word
By 2015 the world of wine will have grown even more diverse. We will see quality wines from unexpected places like Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Mexico, China, Japan, Lebanon, Turkey and perhaps even India. But I believe that even with all these new producers, the saturation point will not be reached, since ever greater numbers of the world's population will demand wine as their alcoholic drink of choice.

Parker forgot Greece in there as well. It will be very interesting to see how regions that currently have a very poor agricultural base see the opportunity for profit in winegrowing.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.