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January 21, 2024

Wine Sales Are Declining: Should We Be Concerned?

A few days ago, I sat in on a Zoom presentation discussing the latest findings of the Silicon Valley Bank’s annual state of the business wine report and quickly wrote a news story about it for the next day’s issue of the Drinks Business daily news feed.  The first graph read:

American wine sales are predicted to continue their slow decline during 2024, although tasting room visits and DTC sales are expected to slightly increase during the year, as will premium wine sales, according to the 23rd annual Silicon Valley Bank wine industry report released on Thursday 18 January.

Much of the discussion by the panelists during the Zoom presentation centered around why this continued decline was happening and what could be done to reverse it, and my story reflected that.  The tone was understandably similar to discussions centering around climate change – what in hell can we do about this looming disaster?

But I found myself asking: How concerned should we be about these declining sales – especially in sales volume – or should we be concerned at all?

For years, I have railed about how big investors in the stock market only value sales growth, even though that growth often comes with negative profits.  Though not an economist, I did work from the early 1970s through the 1990s for a large industrial company, including editing the corporate annual report for a couple of years.  Back in those days, growth was fine, particularly if you were launching a new brand or technology.  But even more important was what we called “quality of earnings” or ROI – return on investment.  Profit margins were holy, because this is what allowed you to invest in growth and to pay regular dividends to stockholders.

Alas, no more – new company launches, rings bell, hires people, has growth, stock goes up, market becomes saturated, growth stalls, investors flee, stock price drops, employees fired, company vanishes or is purchased by the carrion crows of private equity firms.

I feel somewhat the same way about declining wine sales in the U.S.  Does this decline necessarily affect the things that I believe we should be concerned with?  The decline is mainly in low-end wines and not in premium wines.  And the decline is somewhat generational – some younger people are drinking less wine than we old folks did or drinking no wine at all.  (I remember being similarly alarmed in the 1990s when no one was drinking cocktails, and some Bourbon producers, notably George Dickel, even mothballed their main distilleries. But I could still drink great whiskey.  Could some things just be cyclical?)

To me, the important things are that great wines can continue to be made around the world, even if I can’t afford them, and that smaller, high-quality wineries can provide me with very good drinking at reasonable prices while their owners make a living.  I’m not sure that the fact that the average American, who views wine as a commodity that he or she can have at dinner or not, is drinking less of it will ultimately make good, affordable wine and great, unaffordable wine from being made and being available to me and other wine lovers.

My greater concern is that the health mafia among government agencies and prohibition groups worldwide, with their questionable “scientific” studies, continue to legislate against wine and other alcoholic beverages or, failing that, socially shame drinkers the way lifestyle behavior was once shamed.  Dry January is one example.  While we should not pressure people to socially drink, neither should we pressure them not to drink socially if no health problem is involved.

Yes, I am aware that there are economic hardships when any industry slows down.  In the case of wine, marginal vineyards start being abandoned or ripped up, sometimes bankrupting farmers, and sales and production workers get laid off, especially from large-volume producers.  But that is the unavoidable nature of all economies and of all industries.  Things become obsolete or go out of style or the competition wins, and investors, owners and workers all suffer (although workers generally fare worse than others).  Those of us who believe in compassionate government try to help cushion their falls, whether it is through bankruptcy, tax credits, unemployment benefits or job retraining.

Those of us who were around during the wine boom years of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and the early ‘00s were fortunate as wine collectors or wine journalists to feel like we were the center of the wine universe – and we were.  It was fun being there.  Now, we are less revered.  Fewer people outside the wine world ask us what we are drinking, what they should be drinking or starting conversations with us by apologetically saying,  “I don’t know much about wine....”

So as long as great stuff remains available to us and as long as it appears that it will be available in the foreseeable future, I won’t put down my wine glass to wring my hands.
Posted by Roger Morris at 10:32 AM

January 5, 2024

Wine Review Onlineā€™s Ed McCarthy Shifting into Columnist Emeritus Status

It is with profound gratitude that we at WRO thank Ed McCarthy for his consistently excellent columns published every four weeks since we founded this website in August of 2005.  Ed addressed a wide range of regions and wine types in an informative and appreciative manner but also with some critical bite where it was deserved.  He led readers to the world’s best wines and values, but just as important, explained why excellent producers were achieving excellence—and why mediocre ones were falling short.

Ed’s writing has always been refreshingly straightforward.  For example, regarding practical matters such as how cold to chill top-shelf Champagne or how long to age fine Barolo before pulling a cork, Ed didn’t engage in much subjectivist hand-wringing.  His advice didn’t begin with clauses like, “Perhaps you could try this...” or “Some people report good results from such and such.”  Long experience informed by sharp attention and a keen palate led Ed to offer definitive recommendations.  

By not mincing around, he gave readers clear starting points for their exploratory adventures in the complex world of wine.  Some readers might re-calibrate their practices by a few clicks based on their own preferences once they’d started as he advised, but that was fine with Ed, who was more intent on providing a flying start than dictating a “correct” flight path to everyone.

Ed’s writings and accomplishments range far beyond Wine Review Online, earning him recognition as one of the most influential voices in fine wine in a generation—maybe two.  As a wine writer, a Certified Wine Educator, and wine consultant, he’s been active in the wine trade for forty years.

With his wife, Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW, he is co-author of Wine For Dummies, White Wine For Dummies, Red Wine For Dummies, Wine Buying Companion For Dummies, French Wine For Dummies, Italian Wine For Dummies and California Wine For Dummies (Wiley & Sons).  Wine For Dummies is one of the largest-selling wine books ever; having sold about one million copies to date and having been translated into 34 languages.  Both Wine For Dummies and Italian Wine For Dummies were nominees for a James Beard Award, in 1995 and 2001 respectively.

Ed's own book, Champagne for Dummies, was also nominated for the James Beard Award as best wine book of the year, in 1999.  McCarthy is considered a leading Champagne authority in the U.S.

Ed was wine columnist for Nation’s Restaurant News and a quarterly columnist for Beverage Media.  He has also written for Decanter magazine, Quarterly Review of Wines, and Wine Enthusiast.

Ed’s working life began as an English teacher in the NYC school system.  While teaching, he pursued part time jobs in wine shops, began collecting wine and became active in wine-tasting and collecting circles.  Soon after retiring from teacher, he began writing about wine.

In addition to his writing, McCarthy is a regular guest speaker at wine events.  He has appeared frequently as a guest on radio and television programs in various U.S. cities.  He is also a frequent judge at wine competitions in the U.S. and abroad. An avid wine collector, he has a temperature-controlled wine cellar of over 3,500 bottles.  He travels extensively to the world's wine regions to visit winemakers and to research new developments.  

I’m fortunate to have traveled and judged with Ed many times in many places, and I’ve always admired how he stays balanced between critical professionalism and appreciative enthusiasm.  No wine that he tastes “gets a pass” simply because it showed well in earlier vintages, and he never seems to dismiss a wine out of hand due to being an upstart that’s made from a new region or a minor grape variety.

Ed’s long career was interrupted last year by a bout with cancer of the tongue.  He underwent major surgery, and is now engaged in a of period of recovery that can return him to near normalcy in the summer ahead.  His most recent PET scan in late October showed him to be free of cancer, and we’re optimistic that we’ll continue to enjoy our friendships with him for many years ahead.

Many of Ed’s columns will remain on Wine Review Online as the thoroughly re-designed website debuts toward the end of the first quarter of 2024.  During the past year, we scrutinized the 944 columns published on the site since it launched, looking for examples that were truly excellent and strongly viable as “evergreens” not diminished by the passage of time or the march of vintages.  Ed contributed a conspicuously large share of the columns meeting that standard for retention on the new WRO.  

For that reason, this is not a piece of “farewell” writing to Ed, but rather an appreciation of our friend and all the wine wisdom he has imparted to our readers to date, with more to come as we cycle some of his best writing through the site (including one on Champagne this week) while retaining much more in his “Columnist Emeritus” archive.

Thank you Ed...with all best wishes for the future, from all of us at WRO!
Posted by Michael Franz at 11:06 AM