Top Wine Stories of 2010

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By Courtney Cochran

Silly prices for Lafite in China.  A wine ed gone maverick (and getting majorly trashed in the media). A schizophrenic harvest.  Stellar new apps on the market.  Cow horns getting cool...What didn't happen in 2010?  Looking back, it was a year of flux, with major trends and market shares shifting around the globe, consumer attitudes skewing from snobbery to self-orientation, and raucous weather keeping things interesting right here in our own backyard.  Herein, highlights. 

Hectic Harvest
Without a doubt, the happening that generated the most press here in the US was the year's wild grape harvest.  From coast to coast, unnaturally cool weather pushed harvest weeks behind schedule.  Along the way, clusters were blasted by errant heat spikes (resulting in serious sunburn) and late season rains pummeled fruit left on the vine into the fall.  We can't help but point to climate change for the continued wild ride that's become harvest; this year was the wildest in memory.
Asia Evolves
Wine sales in Asia continue to grow, with marketing reps from wine producing spots around the globe spending more and more time in the region raising awareness and drumming up sales.  This year, we learned that American wine imports to Hong Kong grew a whopping 138% to $40 million in 2009 (U.S. trade data).  A rapidly growing middle class in China is fueling the bulk of Asian wine growth, with newfound wealth stoking strong demand for luxury goods.

Lofty Lafite
Celebrated Bordeaux First Growth Château Lafite-Rothschild was the year's barometer for skyrocketing wine values in Asia, with three bottles from the wine's 1869 vintage selling for a mind-blowing HK$1.8 million each in Hong Kong in October.  Bidders at the Sotheby's auction, which surpassed previous tallies in numerous categories, were predominantly from China.  Reportedly, the booming demand is driving prices up for the celebrated 2009 Bordeaux vintage, too.   

Wine Spec Ex Excoriated
Ex Wine Spectator scribe James Suckling is stomaching some seriously bad press these days.  After leaving the vaunted wine mag under a cloud of mystery this summer, the worldly wino launched a new venture to critical uproar.  Why all the fuss?  His videos - which feature sought-after wine personalities from "cult" properties - strike critics as condescending, his subscription web fees exceed even those of Parker, and his elite events scream...well, elitist.  Hmm.

DIY Over Scores From On High
Speaking of pompous, critics' scores continue to rub new drinkers the wrong way, while a slew of new and improved wine apps on iPhones, iPads and other mobile devices are putting the power of choice into the hands of drinkers of all stripes.  To wit, Snooth's new app is the first to allow bottle label recognition (just take a pic, yo), while other sweet tools are engaging and empowering drinkers to seek out, research, sample and record their wine discoveries...on their own.  In 2011, watch for still better tools, with scores continuing to slide in relevance.

Rise of the Négociant
Recession-induced downward pricing pressure coupled with rising costs has made wine production in the traditional sense fearsomely unappealing (the year's rash of winery foreclosures makes for a grim tale).  Enter the négociant, nimble practitioner of a lean business model who makes use of purchased fruit and leased winery space.  If we take Lioco - producer of my favorite wines at this year's PinotFest - as an example, the future looks bright for the négociant.  

Biodynamic Brouhaha
A widely read write-up in the Wall Street Journal (merci, Jay McInerney) and the controversial wine blog Biodynamics is a Hoax have stoked widespread awareness for this mystical, super-organic farming practice.  My curiosity piqued to the point of action, I attended Paul Dolan's Biodynamic Camp this fall and came away a believer.  Bottom line: These wines are among the most faithful transmitters of terroir, and those who sample will be amply rewarded.  

Alt Packaging Allure
Wine packaging gets more interesting every year, but 2010 was a year when we innovated more impressively than ever before.  For example, take Mercury Wine in Geyserville, a stylish new producer whose "The Jug Red Table Wine" comes in generous 500mL (that's two-thirds of a traditional wine bottle) jugs replete with old-school thumb loop.  A pack of these ironic send-ups of generic jug wines -word on the street is they're quite good - comes in a recycled wood box.  Yes.

Water Woes
Water allocation and use limits continue to be sources of serious angst amongst growers the state over.  Accordingly, in revealing its three-year plan, the new board of the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) named water as a key area of focus going forward.  To combat waning water allocations and rising heat pressures due to global warming, many growers are already turning to heat- and drought-resistant clones and recycling water wherever possible.  

Cork Dorks
And as a final note, let's talk about the missteps of the natural cork lobby, which recently released a series of anti-alt-closure videos that insulted women and wine drinkers in general.  The spots, which feature drinkers in embarrassing situations due to - gasp! - serving wine from bottles sans natural cork, have had a reverse effect on many bloggers and viewers, whose response has been to sing the praises of alt closures while criticizing the cork lobby for being insensitive.  Oops.

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Nice! Interested in the rise of the "negociants". Definitely something to keep an eye on. But also potentially very cyclical?

Tai-Ran - The negociant model has indeed seen its fair share of cycles, but today it's more relevant than ever here in the US given the significant barriers to entry to make wine in the traditional sense (owning vineyards & equipment, namely, along with 100% of production costs) and the concurrent rise of the custom crush and mixed-use winemaking facility. The coming years should see the model refined by best of breed producers; should be an exciting evolution! Thanks for your comment.

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