As a writer specializing in the coverage of wine, food and travel, 2012 afforded me the opportunity to make several reporting trips to Europe, as well as to revisit some American venues. During the long overnight flights and airport delays, I have had time to reflect on what I have seen and what I have tasted.
Not surprisingly, the world economy has been the fabled elephant in the room. That being said, I am impressed by the resiliency of people who have been getting along on much less than they were used to and how much they continue to enjoy what they do have. Away from the elegance of wine estates and destination restaurants, people are still friendly and cheerful in the streets of Lisbon, Paris, Beaune and New York (well, as friendly as New Yorkers à pied can be). They still haunt the cafes and bistros. My take-away is that people may cut back on buying clothes and cars and appliances, but that dining out – although perhaps much more frugally – remains a bright spot in all of our lives, shreds of light in an otherwise dark economic world.
That being said, those doomsayers who predicted the death of high-end wines do not understand the human psyche. There will always be people, particularly young people, on the upward swing of their earning power who will want to buy the best – which may or may not also be the most-expensive – and who want to flaunt it competitively with their other upward-mobile friends. Hormonal instincts don’t disappear in a recession. Add to this young audience an older one, perhaps living more simply but who will still buy their annual cases of Château Palmer or Clos de Vougeot or Cakebread, and there always will be an market for high-end wines. Some of those producers on the cusp – those new estates with a year or two of great reviews – will fall by the wayside because they neither have the panache of decades of performance nor the loyalties of long-time customers.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the economics of restaurants – I’m not sure who is – other than to observe that those who survive over decades seem to have the outlook of farmers, which, ultimately, all winegrowers are. Most restaurants aren’t geared to ride out down cycles, while farmers know they have to. This past harvest, Burgundy lost up to half of its crop, yet most of the farmers will stay in business, having tucked away some of the plentitude from the excellent quality and quantity of the 2009 vintage. Farmers also know they have to sell. Visit a weekly market in any small town in France and see how those selling their produce, meats and cheeses watch their competition and listen – sometimes painfully – to the complaints and suggestions of their customers.
As far as trends are concerned, I’m still amazed at how much winegrowers sincerely want to cling to the past while buying the most-modern equipment. They want “authenticity” (without really defining what they mean), but they want it to be risk-free. They want to make wine the way their grandfathers did but without the hazards which can now be overcome by temperature-controlled equipment and bug-seeking laboratories.
I’m equally amazed by my writing and trade colleagues who want less diversity. They demand only low-alcohol wines, advocate only bottles that cost less than $20, love or hate natural wines (however you define a “natural” wine) and want to proclaim the death of this or that region (lots of luck to those who bet on the demise of Bordeaux with all the zeal of short-sellers in the stock market). I certainly have strong preferences in what I drink when I am doing the buying, but as a writer/critic I am perfectly happy if some consumers want a little more residual sugar in their table wines than I prefer. It is possible to praise or enjoy a new trend without denigrating what came before. So, let’s lighten up and encourage a strong diversity in wine (and food) and let the public decide what they will buy – or not.
Early next year, I head back to the Southern Hemisphere for trips to Mendoza and New Zealand’s South Island. I’m sure I’ll have amazing wine and food, great conversations with winemakers and chefs and will become intrigued by ideas I have never before contemplated. Of course, I will also encounter things to annoy me, but, then, don’t we quickly tire of wine without acid, food without salt?