You’re on mute. Social distancing. Wear a mask. Pivot. Doomscrolling.

Words and phrases added to our lexicon in the year no one will forget.

Each year, I take the occasion of January 1 (or thereabouts) to post my Virginia wine prognostications for the year ahead.  I also take time to revel in how right my predictions from the previous year were (prescience, of course, is easy when making broad generalizations).

While my 2020 predictions were more right than wrong (see: Virginia Wine 2020 — Opportunities and Headwinds), a global pandemic that upended life in every corner of the world and put the global economy in a tailspin was not on my list.

From the mandated shutdown to reshaping winery operations to vineyard losses due to devastating late spring frosts, winery teams demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges in 2020.  So did local wine enthusiasts who supported the industry during the year (See ‘We Are With You!’ support video for the industry filmed in May).

If I endeavored to summarize Virginia wine in 2020 in one word it would be — resiliency

Much ink has already been spilled about the nightmare of 2020 and its many impacts on local grape farmers and wineries so I will dispense with a detailed postmortem and instead offer a few thoughts on the year to come.

As I do every year, I emailed three dozen industry folks (30 responded) to ask about their thoughts on the state of the industry, lessons learned and focus areas for the year ahead.

The following are a few of my opinions with insights from winery folks about the year ahead.  Note — If you have a different view of the year to come, please share.  I’m open to learning and will certainly stand corrected on December 31, 2021 if the following predictions don’t pan out.

Economic Realities:

Among other things, the pandemic exacerbated the economic challenges of operating a winery in Virginia (and of course, all other states, too).  By my count, about ten Virginia wineries were sold or shut down completely in 2020 (it may have been a few more).  Sadly, I know of several more wineries teetering on the precipice of insolvency, unable to recover from the lockdown. I believe the same number of wineries will be sold or cease operations in 2021. 

On the upside, there are several promising new vineyards and wineries set to open in 2021.

Equal Pour:

The depths of racial injustice were brought to the fore in 2020 following the death of George Floyd in May. There is much work to do in this country and in the wine industry. Overwhelmed by reshaping operations and working to stay solvent during the pandemic, the local wine industry was largely silent on inequality and racial injustice but I hope wineries will (and should!) focus on diversity and inclusion in 2021. Change begins by putting in the work! Local wineries (and all of us) can begin by self-education, implementing diversity initiatives and team training like the unconscious bias workshops offered by Pam Riley, founder of Equal Pour

One word:  Digital!

In 1967 it was plastics. In 2021, it’s digital!   If 2020 taught us anything, in the context of wine sales and marketing, it’s that engaging via social media, having an agile digital strategy and a well-designed, mobile-friendly website with seamless shopping functionality matters!  

A marketing manager of a mid-sized winery told me, “No where do we get a greater return on investment than we do via our social media efforts.”

Those wineries who devoted time and resources to engaging consumers via social media platforms prior to 2020 fared much better during the year than those who treated social media as an afterthought.

I understand winery teams are overwhelmed and have limited bandwidth for social media but engaging consumers online is no longer optional.  

Online obviously isn’t the only sales channel but it’s more important than ever.

According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, ‘The global e-commerce market for spirits and wine is expected to nearly double this year, notching a 42% increase since last year.’

As part of writing this piece, I reviewed the social media activity — posts, replies, comments and overall engagement — of 24 wineries and cideries.  

Nearly half of the social media accounts I reviewed only posted marketing messages to their social media accounts (mostly Facebook) with no actual engagement with consumers. Some wineries took several days to respond to comments/questions on their Facebook page or Instagram account, if at all. 

This type of one-way use of social media will not work going forward.  Consumer expectations have shifted — engagement is expected!

Many wineries have let their Twitter accounts go dormant — a strategic business mistake. Some of the dark corners of Twitter may be shitshows, but important conversations are happening there.  Your winery should be part of the conversation.

Engaging with customers and potential customers will matter more in 2021 than ever (ok, that may be hyperbole but, you get my point — it’s really important!). 

Rosé is still hot! 

I know… I know… not more talk about rosé. Yes, consumers are still drinking light, refreshing rosé! The rose category continues to grow and that won’t change in 2021.  Keep making the pink juice.  

Canned wines:  

Wine in cans continues to gain traction with consumers and wineries.  On December 29, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced a new regulation to allow wineries to use three new sizes of cans: 355 ml (12 ounces), 250 ml and 200 ml. I believe we’ll see more local wineries put their wine in cans in the coming year.

Sparkling wine:  

With a number of wineries releasing new fizz, 2020 was a big year for the expansion of traditional method sparkling wine in Virginia.  I believe we’ll see more and better sparkling wine released in 2021. (For more info, please read my article from the January edition of VA Growler/Va-Pilot online about the Virginia Sparkling Company.)  

Question:  Will piquette catch on here?  I don’t think so but would like to hear other opinions on this.  

Regional Identity:

This is one of my ‘long-shot’ thoughts, but one that I think warrants serious consideration and discussion.   

Virginia is too large and geologically diverse to have a ‘state grape’ (just ask viognier) or state-wide wine identity, in my opinion.  As consumers continue to buy more wine online, flattening the wine world, competition for consumers’ finite booze budget will only intensify. 

Now is a good time for forward-thinking wineries to seriously consider the matter of working together to establish regional identity.

By regional identity, I’m not talking about coming up with a neat name for a ‘cluster’ of wineries and designating it on the Virginia wine map.  By regional identity, I mean a small number of wineries in a clearly defined geographic boundary (not just a gerrymandered AVA that offers no clear identity) with a focus on a particular variety (Cab Franc, for instance) supported by a clearly defined marketing and branding strategy.  Some have started down this path in the past but never made it far with the concept. I believe the timing is right now.  

I am working on a longer article on this subject so I would be grateful for opinions on this, especially those who have tried something similar in the past.

Zoom Fatigue… Zoom Drinking is Here to Stay: 

Zoom fatigue is real but Zoom drinking is here to stay!  Well, for a while anyway.  I’ve tuned in to most of the virtual tastings/Zooms hosted by Virginia wineries at least once.  The days of a winemaker sitting in front of a camera, light ring on high, expressionless, delivering a monotone lecture while tasting wine while lots of people watch are pretty much over.  Participation in virtual tastings has plummeted for most wineries but those winemakers who keep it interesting (que Stephen Barnard) continue to attract a large audience.  Winemakers will need to keep innovating (virtual vineyard and winery tours, special guests, …) to attract new viewers.

Fix your websites:  

Those sites using Adobe Flash may be in for a surprise next week.  Adobe stopped supporting Flash Player on December 31 and will Flash content from running in Flash Player beginning January 12. Check your sites.

Also consider the following:

  • Update your sites for mobile. Many of your customers are still accessing your winery websites from their mobile devices; 
  • Create a media section on your winery website that includes high-resolution bottle shots of your wines and vineyards in all seasons; 
  • Keep your sites updated with current vintage information but also store data for all past vintages so customers who drink older vintages can find that info when needed.

A second word:  Video!

I believe video will be one of the most important ways to communicate your winery story with current and potential customers.  From short video interviews with winemakers and other winery team members to vineyard tours to educational clips (all archived for viewing at any time), video offers wineries a way to stand out from the masses of wineries competing for finite booze spend. One of the best examples I’ve seen is the Early Mountain Vineyards Rise video produced by Consociate Media.  

Online wine sales — keep your eye on Pix:

2020 proved that consumers want to purchase wine online and having a strong online presence will grow in importance this year.  This year we’ll see new online tools and mobile apps to help consumers with their online wine buying decisions. One of the most promising is Pix.

A few weeks ago, my friend Paul Mabray and I got together for a Zoom to catchup and talk about a new project he’s been working on.  Anytime Paul, a thought-leader in the wine industry, reaches out to talk about a new project, I eagerly listen. Pix will be a new online platform to help connect wine enthusiasts with the wines they love and give wineries and merchants a way to connect with consumers. Wineries would be wise to register for updates and list your winery and wines as soon as the platform launches. 

Open That Bottle of Virginia Wine Day — 2021:
On March 28th, I hosted the first annual ‘Open That Bottle of Virginia Wine Day’ intended to bring attention to local wine in the midst of the lockdown. The event was a huge success!  I hosted a virtual industry gathering that included Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, winemakers and Sommeliers. .  

The 2021 Open that Bottle of Virginia Wine Day will be held on Saturday, March 27.   I’ll be posting more information along with special offers from wineries in two weeks.

Wine seltzer:

The hard seltzer category remains strong ($1B) and growing with ready-to-drink cocktails gaining ground.  Will a Virginia winery (or wineries) make a serious move into this category with a wine seltzer?  Does piquette count as a close alternative?

Winery mobile app:

Which winery(ies) will be the first to develop a winery-specific mobile app?  An app with geofencing, location and notification options that allows a winery to engage directly with customers and potential customers. There are so many potential opportunities for a winery (or small group of wineries in a region) that gets this right.  If I had mobile app development experience, I’d offer this to wineries, cideries and breweries.

A Personal Note:  

This was a year of personal loss for our family.  My brother died unexpectedly in September. He was only 35 and left behind two young kids and many friends and family who miss him. Alot! 2020 taught me that grief can come at you fast, at any time with no warning.  

And, our 14 year-old mini dachshund Nathan crossed the rainbow bridge at the end of the year. His sister Lucy, who is also 14 and blind, walks around the house ‘looking’ for him, often howling. We all miss his presence in our home.

If there was an upside to 2020, it’s that my wife, daughter and I spent much more time in our kitchen cooking, talking and reconnecting.  

As I say every year, these are just my opinions and musings on the year to come based on my 12 years of covering the industry. I am open to learning and welcome all opinions on my opinions.

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous 2021!  I hope to see you all at some point on the wine trail in (late) 2021.

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