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A Weird Wine Year in Retrospect
By Jim Clarke
Dec 1, 2020
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Ah, December.  The time of year when, among other, more truly festive activities, wine writers turn to the listicle without shame, recapping their favorite wines and wine experiences of the year, and perhaps making predictions of wine world trends that might surface during the year to come.  This isn’t a format I’ve ever indulged in much, if at all, but 2020 has been different in so many other ways, so why not?

In fact, much of what I have to reflect upon is about how different this year was.  And much of that, in turn, stems from a profound lack of travel.  I haven’t been on an airplane since March 10th, and even in the beginning of the year, visited not a single wine region.  In fact, my sole international trip this year, in January, took me to the Galapagos.  In wine terms the best I can say about that is…should you find yourself in San Cristobal, the lovely hotel Muyu has by far the best wine list in town, and a delicious menu to match.

I made a few other, domestic trips, but none to winemaking areas, and only once have I left New York City since lockdowns began.  A planned trip to the Finger Lakes fell through.  I do miss the travel, and I’m hardly alone in saying so.  But in the context of this column, I’ve been considering how staying at home has affected my wine drinking.

Some observers, watching as alcohol sales spiked in spring, expressed concern that people are drinking more – more than is healthy, specifically.  That may be.  For myself, the lack of occasion that marked the year has meant fewer temptations to overindulgence.  Rather, the amount I consume each week or even each day has been level and consistent overall.  Much of that ties back to the lack of travel, by myself and by others.  In any other year visits to winegrowing areas might invite hard-to-resist opportunities to taste excellent wines in perhaps excessive quantity.  Similarly, industry friends – sommeliers, writers, winemakers – might pass through town, and if they didn’t bring rare and exciting wines in tow, often just their presence and the conviviality involved might encourage indulgence.  I’m not looking back at my drinking in more usual years as particularly excessive, and I certainly welcome the chance to gather with friends in just that manner again, hopefully soon.  But it may be that this year has been marked by a more balanced approach to winedrinking that may leave its mark on future habits.

I hope others can say something similar.  This has been a year of untold stresses, and some studies suggest that for some, alcohol has become an unhealthy crutch rather than a pleasurable and manageable distraction from the troubles of the day.

Staying at home has also changed what I drink, but mainly in ways that reinforce directions I was already heading.  More whites than reds, lower alcohol rather than higher.  Sparkling wines took a hit, though.  Some have said there’s been precious little to celebrate, accounting for a drop in Champagne sales.  My wife and I have long known that sparkling wines deserve to be enjoyed in their own right rather than to serve as festive signifiers to an otherwise vinously neutral occasion.  For several years we’ve marked almost every Sunday with a brunch of dim sum and bubbly, but that tradition has been put on hold.  Our beloved Chinatown restaurants were among the earliest to suffer as the pandemic began, and while we continued to support them, ordering take out each Sunday or perhaps dining outside when that became possible, bubbles seem less fitting without the gaudy dining rooms, the passing dim sum carts, and the buzz of diners sharing their meals.  I suppose this makes us among the few who are indulging in less day-drinking rather than more.

In terms of regions and grapes, I suppose there’s been a leveling out not much different to what I see in terms of quantity.  We still drink diversely, but in other times we might dive into a specific grapes or regions for a time and then change to explore some other region in some depth.  This year, it’s been a quicker turn back and forth through what we have in the cellar, some purchases, and whatever press samples come down the pike.  South African wine remains a priority, of course, and I’ve been enjoying many wines from our friend Michael Terrien’s Becheur project (and Bluet, his remarkable sparkling blueberry wine, for that matter).  And I think that reflects the real, underlying trend behind our winedrinking this year.  If we can’t be with our friends, we can at least drink their wines.  

I’m writing this over the Thanksgiving weekend, and witnessed the usual spate of what-to-pair articles in advance of the holiday.  I plan to finish out the year drinking wines that pair with my friends and family, even though they themselves cannot in most cases be present.  I’ll be thinking of my mother when I crack open a California Pinot Noir, her favorite.  Of my friend David Flaherty when I pop the top on a funky cider, a style we’ve bonded over many times through the years.  Of Duncan Savage and his threat/promise to take me surfing the next time I’m in South Africa as I open his Cinsault.  Of my wife – happily, here with me – when we open a Japanese wine or sake we brought home from our honeymoon, the cepage of which we’ve forgotten and can’t decipher from its English-free label.  There are many other ways to stay in touch, of course – Zoom, social media, or even the phone, for the old-fashioned among us – but as we finish a long and difficult year, I welcome having one more way to keep my friends and family in my heart.  

Read more columns by Jim Clarke:   Jim Clarke 
Connect with Jim on Twitter:   @JimWineBeer