Virginia Wine 2020 — Opportunities and Headwinds (and a few opinions)

[A week late posting this.  What I thought was a sniffle turned out to be the Flu.  Germs, pffft!]

By most counts, 2019 was a great year for Virginia wine.  For Maryland and North Carolina (for the most part), too.  

Mother Nature blessed the Commonwealth with great weather for a fantastic vintage, a much needed rebound from the soggy 2018 vintage. Proving again, she has a sadistic sense of humor under the guise of vintage variation.  

After dipping slightly from 2017 to 2018, sales of Virginia wines rebounded in FY 2019 too.

The year was not without loss.  David King, founder of King Family Vineyards lost his long battle with cancer in May.  Jim Livingston, founder of Hartwood Winery, passed away last month and longtime Virginia wine advocate, Gordon Murchie died in March.

Overall, the industry finished the decade strong and is well positioned for the opportunities and challenges ahead in 2020 and beyond.

Each year I join the chorus of writers who hazard opinions on the year ahead.  The following is my annual collection of opinions (and a suggestion or two) on wineries, wines and other topics that will impact the industry in 2020 and the coming decade.

Headwinds.  There are many.  Among the most notable headwinds for wineries in the Mid-Atlantic region — Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina: climate variability; increased competition from other alcohol categories like hard seltzers; spotted lanternfly; oversupply; the quality divide; waning demand from younger consumers; a looming economic slowdown; and regulatory uncertainty.

Some of the headwinds are also opportunities!  

Revisiting the Wine Quality Divide
In 2014, I wrote about my view of the growing quality divide in Virginia wine.  Five years later, I stand by this opinion — while there are more world-class wines being produced today than at the beginning of the decade, there are sadly, even more bad (rampant VA, straight-up flawed wines) and meh wines today than a decade ago.  

I believe about twenty wineries in the state are producing world-class wines.  

As headwinds compound in 2020, these world-class wineries will distance themselves further from the pack in terms of recognition, media coverage, and of course, wine quality.   These wineries will define Virginia wine in the coming decade.

Tastemakers and Grapes to Watch in 2020

  • Dr. Joy Ting.  Research Oenologist at the Virginia Winemakers Research Exchange by day, wine and spirits rockstar all the time.  From a line of exceptional wines to a new Brandy to a soon-to-be released Vermouth, Joy Ting continues to demonstrate her breadth of expertise with each release.  Like 2018 and 2019, 2020 will be a big year for Joy Ting, Joy Ting Wines and the contributions she makes to the industry. I remain hopeful she will open an urban winery (she’s one of the few who could pull it off successfully) or tasting room.  
  • These wineries continue to make significant quality gains, produce compelling wines or are newcomers to keep an eye on in 2020:   Casanel Vineyards in Loudoun County; Afton Mountain Vineyards west of Charlottesville; the newly opened Hark Vineyards in Earlysville; Montifalco Vineyards in Ruckersville; Rosemont Vineyards in southern Virginia; Sanctuary Vineyards in the Outer Banks (look for their Albarino) of North Carolina; and Port of Leonardtown Winery and Black Ankle Vineyards in Maryland, among others.
  • Albarino.   Chardonnay will always be the white grape of the region but Albarino has found a home in the Mid-Atlantic and is showing as much promise as any.  Look for this zippy grape to gain more traction and attention and vineyard space in 2020.  
  • Nebbiolo.  Much like Albarino, Nebbiolo has found a home in some areas of Virginia and Maryland. Local Nebbiolo wines with six to seven years of age are beginning to sing, showing the potential of the grape in this region (planted in the right sites of course).  I believe we’ll see more wineries turn to Nebbiolo in 2020.  
  • Chardonnay.  Always. 
  • Cab Franc.  Always.  (Stop over oaking!)

2020 Will Be The Year of Virginia Sparkling Wine:
One of the most important industry announcements in 2019 was the establishment of the Virginia Sparkling Company (see my story in the Jan./Feb. Issue of VA Growler Magazine).  2020 will be a big year for the expansion of traditional method sparkling wine in Virginia.  Given that the sparkling wine category across many price points and styles continues to grow (even Cava sales have rebounded) every local winery should  consider bubbles this year.  

Climate Variability and the Next Decade (and non-vinifera grapes):
Science overwhelmingly supports the fact that our climate is changing.  More intense rainfall and weather extremes are already being experienced in mid-Atlantic vineyards.

The climate obviously can not be controlled and winegrowers are largely at the mercy of Mother Nature but some forward-thinking wineries are taking a proactive approach to account for tomorrow’s weather extremes.

Jim Law, founder of Linden Vineyards, expressed serious concern about the potential impact of the changing climate on viticulture during a recent visit.  Law recently grafted 13 different varieties — including Furmint, Mencia, Mourvèdre, Gros Manseng, Saperavi, and Grüner Veltliner— to plant in his climate change trail vineyard at Linden.  He plans to plant new varieties each year as part of the experiment. 

There are of course other examples, but a surprising number of winemakers and growers I’ve spoken to are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to climate change.  Wow!

Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet will remain the backbone of the industry but non-vinifera grapes that are more resistant to lower temperatures and intense humidity, will play an important role — much more important! — in the next decade of mid-Atlantic viticulture. 

Mango White Claw anyone?
Who saw the $1.5 billion fizzy water avalanche coming?  

Those cans of fizzy water with a dash of sugar, some fruit flavor and a little alcohol disrupted the booze business in a big way.  

The mid-Atlantic wine industry is ripe for disruption.   

What form will disruption manifest (if at all) in 2020?  

No one knows for sure but there opportunities for wineries to capture new consumers.

Capture Low ABV Drinkers (a White Claw-like Branding Moment):  
Part of the appeal of White Claw is its simplicity and low alcohol (it can’t be the taste). The demand for these types of drinks will continue in 2020 until the next shiny thing comes along.  There is an opportunity for local wineries to capture ‘low alcohol drinkers’ with lighter, younger nouveau-style wines, piquette or pet-nats

A Significantly Improved Direct-to-Consumer Model:  
With many wineries selling the majority (some 100%) of their production via their tasting room, this remains a vital channel for financial viability and always will.  However, a number of winemakers have shared with me that tasting room traffic has been down over the past year. This may be a small blip but it could also be a sign of the future.  Connecting with new consumers who do not visit your tasting room and converting them to buying customers is going to be much more important in 2020 and the coming decade. This connection is likely going to happen by leveraging social media platforms (especially video).

Winery Collaboration(s):  
There is a great opportunity for a small group of wineries with similar styles and missions to join forces for a collaborative tasting room in vibrant areas like Scott’s Addition in Richmond, Norfolk, or Northern Virginia.  A small group of wineries in the Crozet area working together to share their common story could pull this off successfully.  

Beer, Cider and Spirits — Can’t Beat ‘em, Join ‘em?
In 2015, I wrote the following in my annual Opportunities and Headwinds article; ‘local brewers and their beers are winning over wine-centric drinkers, making craft beer a big player in the competition (yes, competition) for local consumers’ finite ‘drink local’ budgets… thereby making beer a part of the Virginia wine narrative in 2015!’

A few winemakers and winery owners took exception to my opinion that local beer would be a serious competitor to local wine (one even sent me an email to call me an ‘asshole’). 

Why are so many wineries expanding to cider and beer production?  Is the expansion into beer, cider or spirits a passion project or merely for economic survival in the changing booze landscape?  

It’s clear more wineries will expand into other booze categories like cider and beer in 2020.  

I question the brand dilution of such expansion.

Opportunities in the Tasting Room
In the past two months, I’ve visited fifteen tasting rooms in Virginia (10), Maryland (3) and North Carolina (2) to experience the tasting room experience.  

Much like the growing divide in wine quality, there is a divide in quality of tasting room experiences — some were fantastic while others were meh.  

Given the competition for your customer’s finite booze budget, tasting room experience is more important than ever.  

Elevating the tasting room experience is a huge opportunity in 2020!  

Most of the tasting room experiences followed a similar format:
After a friendly greeting and the obligatory “is this your first time visiting the xyz winery,” the tasting and lecture began; “this is our Pinot Grigio, it’s crisp and you’ll get lemon, yada, yada… this is our reserve Chardonnay, you’ll baked apple and some nice vanilla notes … and here is our Cab Franc… you’ll get some pepper and cherry notes... and this is our red blend, it won a quadruple gold medal at the intergalactic wine competition…  yada yada.”   

Stop this!  Please. 

Not one tasting room team member asked me or my friends (or any other customer that I could hear), ‘what type of wine do we like to drink’ or ‘what style of wine do we prefer’ or any other questions intended to learn about our wine preferences. 

During each visit, I watched how the tasting room team interacted with other customers. There was a lot of lecturing customers about what they should taste in each wine and what wines they should like and dissertations about the winery.  

At one winery, a lady tasting with her friends announced that she only likes white wines but the tasting room team member insisted she taste all of the red wines including their “award winning red blend.”  

At another winery, after the tasting room staff delivered a five minute treatise on fermentation (I was actually impressed), a customer, exacerbated, asked, “can I just taste the wines?” 

Some visitors do want to learn and taste the full range of wines and may appreciate a lecture on what they should taste in each wine but many don’t!  They visit your tasting room for their own reasons. 

Consider looking for ways to meet your customers where they are in their preferences and education level.

Meet your customers where they are!

Another note about the tasting room experience — check temperatures of wines being poured.  Reds and whites were poured too warm and way too cold.

Update your websites!  
I visited the websites of 40 wineries in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland as research for this and another forthcoming article. A surprising number of winery websites are seriously out of date.  

They reference events from years or months ago, don’t have a privacy policy (yes, you do need one!), do not have a ‘media’ section, do not have information on current releases. 

Only about half of the winery websites I visited are optimized for mobile.  Your customers are accessing your sites via their mobile devices!  

Meet your customers where they are!

Instagram Wine ‘Influencers
Yawn.  

I believe 2020 will be the year the facade of the Instagram influencer will crumble, separating those with actual wine intellect and influence from the posers.  

The majority of Instagram wine ‘influencers’ aren’t influencing anyone but other influencers!  

Instagram and the social platforms are full of people with tens of thousands of followers who have purchased followers and/or are part of ‘comment pods’ where they blindly like each other’s posts.  This is not true influence!

The next time an influencer contacts you to request wine, a comped experience, or payment for posting pretty pictures of your wine, reach out to the other wineries featured on their page to ask about ROI.  Choose wisely before you spend money for their influence

(I’m happy to provide a list of wine influencers with actual influence for those interested.)

Rose
Wine writers who built up rose over the past few years will soon turn their pens (or, keyboards) to tearing the category down in 2020. Ignore them. Demand for light, crisp and dry roses continues to grow. Keep making the glugable pink juice!

Oh, and put your rose in cans!  'Wine in can' as a packaging option is going to continue to grow in 2020.

If you disagree with any of my opinions (seems crazy to even think such a thing), please leave a comment.  Would love to hear opposing views.

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous 2020!

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