VinePair Podcast: Eric Asimov Takes Stock of the Wine Industry’s Pandemic ShakeupVinePair
This week on the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe are joined by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov to discuss the many ways that Covid-19 has affected the wine industry — and whether many of the pandemic-related changes will last.
For example, will the shift toward algorithmic online wine purchasing continue unabated, or will customers once again rely on personal recommendations as they return to wine shops and restaurants? What will happen to the role of wine professionals within the post-pandemic restaurant economy? Plus, Eric’s thoughts on non-alcoholic wine, the New York State wine industry, and more.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Zach, how are you doing?
Z: Pretty good, man, settling into the new house. It almost feels like spring here in Seattle. It’s nice, sunny weather. I had to mow the lawn, which was something I was not totally prepared for. It was my least favorite chore as a kid, and it has returned to my life after 20 years away.
A: Oh my gosh. Well, I did something that you are going to be proud of me for.
Z: Oh, I know what this is.
A: Guess what I did. I took a picture of a bottle of wine at a restaurant.
Z: I know. I was so excited! It’s embarrassing how excited I was by this.
A: I hate doing it. It’s not my thing. I want to be in the moment, which is why I always forget some of the things that I drink but I was feeling good. I ventured into Manhattan from Brooklyn and went to two places that I really enjoy in the East Village. First, I have to give a quick shoutout to Mister Paradise. They were one of the people that we had on the podcast really early on in the pandemic. I went to see how they were doing and had a delicious cocktail they just added to the menu called Dinner at Cote, which I didn’t ask if it’s in reference to Cote the restaurant, but that felt really weird that was the name of a cocktail I got. They’re nowhere near the restaurant, and they have nothing to do with it but it was a really delicious cocktail. Then, I went down the street to Kindred, which we’ve had on the podcast and they’re good friends. Alexis, one of the owners, and a sommelier brought out a Bardolino Classico, and it was really delicious. I was feeling really good. My wife and I and our friend Lena were all sitting outside and I said to myself, “I got to take a picture of this label.”
Z: Did you think of me when you took the picture?
A: I did. Then, I especially thought of you when I posted it on Instagram, because I also don’t do that. I almost never post bottles on Instagram, but I was feeling happy. It felt so normal, too. It was Saturday in New York City, and it was probably the first time it felt normal in the city. The city felt very alive throughout the day. We walked around throughout the day and every place was brimming with people, wearing masks, but brimming with people. Luckily, I knew the people. There’s no way we would have gotten sat at Kindred if I didn’t. It was a really nice experience and everyone who worked in restaurants was in great moods, too. I said, “OK, we’re coming back.” It was awesome. What about you?
Z: Well, I have both news on that front and also on the drinking front as well. I actually had a job interview yesterday. It was my first time back in a restaurant in a while.
Z: I won’t go into more details because I don’t know if I’m going to be offered the job, and I don’t know if I’m going to take it. However, I was in a restaurant and there were people in it. I really miss that energy. Yes, it’s definitely weird. Everyone’s masked up when they’re at the table and it feels a little strange for sure, especially for me, because I haven’t put myself in that setting. But I miss the energy of being in a restaurant both as a diner, but especially for me as a professional, because it was such a part of my life for so long. I don’t know if I was just caught up in the moment, but I felt that I could work there. I would like to serve people wine because I miss doing that. It was great to be back in that setting. Now, the wine I had recently that I was excited about was a rosé made by a friend of mine, Leah Jørgensen, who’s a winemaker down in Oregon. It was a rosé of Cabernet Franc. She’s very passionate about Cabernet Franc as a variety. She makes rosé a mix of different red wines and also a white wine from Cabernet Franc from which I also very much love. It was one of those privileges being in this industry is getting the opportunity to have wines, beers, or cocktails made by people you know and like. That is really fun. It’s hopefully something that you and I are able to convey sometimes to listeners because there is something really delightful about being able to enjoy a drink made by someone you know. That’s a cool privilege in this industry.
A: Very much. Well, I’m going to go ahead and bring on our guest for this week, which we’ve had on before, but we’re super thrilled to have on again, which is Eric Asimov. Eric, welcome so much to the podcast.
Eric Asimov: Thanks for having me back.
A: Of course. Thanks for coming back. Before we jump into all of our questions, Zach and I always have this conversation about what we consumed recently that we loved. Is there anything that you want to chat about?
E: Well, like you, I’ve been going to restaurants for the last few weeks for the first time in God knows when. It’s such a joy to get back to that simple pleasure and enjoy it without fear of harming restaurant personnel or other people. It made me so happy. I confess it: Pretty much for the last year I’ve done little but post bottle shots on Instagram.
A: It’s just my weird thing, Eric.
E: Yeah, I’m one of those guys.
A: I’m not judging people that do it at all. I just never think to do it. I’m really bad at social media. I think I’m quite bad at it.
Z: It’s true. VinePair does a great job, but Adam Teeter doesn’t.
E: I don’t know if posting badly framed shots of bottles on Instagram constitutes being good at social media, but it’s what I can offer.
A: I love it. It’s so great to have you back. There’s so much that I want to talk about with you, especially in terms of how everything has evolved in this last year. I think one of the first things we want to talk about is a general conversation about how you may or may not have seen your readers’ taste preferences evolve. One thing that I was really curious about and we’ve been looking both at the VinePair insights data we have as well as sales data, which really showed that during the pandemic there was a return to what we call comfort food wines. The Cabs, the Merlots, and the Chardonnays. Did you see that as well? Were you receiving questions from readers asking to write more about those? If so, did you adapt your coverage?
E: No, first of all, very early into the pandemic, I did an article on comfort wines because I sensed that people were going in that direction. The people I talked to, a lot of whom I confess were in the wine industry, talked about their own comforts. Frankly, I don’t know what my readers are drinking specifically, nor, if I had that data, would I use it to shape my coverage. My role, in my mind, is to introduce people to things that they may not have considered. It’s not just to give them what they think they want, but to offer them something that they didn’t know they wanted. I’m not really catering to where they’re going but there may be other reasons why you see an uptick in consuming those comfort wines. A lot of that may have to do with online shopping, where you’re left to your own devices for the most part. You’re going to pick something that you know about, rather than something that’s suggested to you or something you’ve heard nothing about. Also, for the last year or so, we have not had the voice of the sommelier in people’s ears saying, “Well, if you like that, you should try this.” The act of introducing people to new and different wines in restaurants plays such an important role in wine education in this country.
A: It’s interesting, in this one answer you have touched on almost everything we want to talk about with you. One of the things I want to talk about first is that I completely understand what you’re saying in terms of not adjusting your coverage. That makes total sense. I’m also interested in there being so many articles touting the move to online commerce. Specifically, the move to online commerce is the future. Zach and I talked about this a lot on the podcast. While that’s good in some ways, how is that going to ultimately impact discovery? Personally, I love the wine shop. I love walking into the wine shop. I’m always one of those people that is not scared to talk to someone. I recognize that people jump on their phones in the wine shop and do their own research. They are scared because there’s some fear that someone’s going to sell them something that they don’t want because they think it needs to be moved. However, I like talking to people and I’ve discovered amazing wines that way. The more that transitions online, it’s going to be these algorithms that push in the same way it works on Amazon. You ultimately wind up buying all the Amazon products because that’s where the big margins are for that retailer. Have you thought about that? What do you think are the positives and the negatives of this move to consumption of online alcohol sales, especially wine?
E: In general, I mentally divide the wine-buying public into two large groups. One group is not that curious about wine. They like it. They want something that’s pleasant to drink, that’s inoffensive. But they’re essentially just looking for an alcohol delivery system that they can enjoy. These people may make up supermarket buyers. Also, they may very well end up doing most of their buying online because it’s simply more convenient, the way Amazon is. The other group, which I think is smaller but more ardent are the real dedicated wine lovers who are curious about what they’re drinking. They are interested in where it comes from, how to serve it best, who made it, how the grapes were grown and how the wine was made. All of these nerdy details. I’m not sure that they’re going to default into buying from the equivalent of the supermarket, which is online services such as wine.com or Drizzly. Those services seem to be the easiest and most convenient. They may be sitting at a computer ordering from a wine shop in their city or from a good wine club or directly from a producer. I don’t think they’re going to wholly give up the task of selection to an algorithm. Judging from, whether it’s Amazon, Netflix, or any algorithm, they’re so lame that you’re never going to find some computer-generated substitute for actual exploration and personal decision making.
A: Interesting. OK, that makes a lot of sense to me.
Z: Yeah. I think this is interesting because, in this context, we talked about online alongside retail in people buying wine for consumption. I think you wrote, almost two months ago, something that hit home to me, in part because I wrote something about this problem also. What will be the role of the dedicated wine professionals, sommeliers, and wine directors in restaurants moving forward? Obviously, we’re still discovering, the restaurant industry has been through an incredibly traumatic last 12 months or so. Do you think that piece that you just mentioned, Eric, the fact that people still want to explore, they do want to discover and have someone help them with that. Will this provide space for dedicated wine professionals in restaurants or does this feel as an endangered species at this point?
E: No, I don’t think it’s endangered. I think that we’ve really gotten used to it, and it may not come back immediately. Starting with high-end restaurants, so many restaurants have sold off part of their wine inventory just for survival. I think as they reopen, particularly high-end ones, they’re going to want to build it back up because wine is a profit center, and wine directors and sommeliers help generate those profits. The big restaurants that are able to afford them are going to hire them right back as if they’ve never left. It’s really the middle-range restaurants where you’re going to see people doubling up. You may not have one person solely acting as wine director. They may be serving tables. They may be taking on other sorts of managerial tasks. There is going to be some period of reckoning for restaurants as they try to get back on their feet. It’ll be interesting also to see where restaurants are opening. In my household, we’ve been debating whether Manhattan is ever going to come back and what it’s going to look like. Given the real estate, the rental prices, and the seeming refusal of landlords to bargain or relent on leases, I don’t really see restaurants returning to Manhattan immediately in the way that they were pre-pandemic.
A: Well, I think that what’s interesting about that, Eric, is I definitely think if they do return at least anytime soon, they’re going to be backed by big restaurant groups. It’s people with large piles of cash. Is that what we want? Probably not.
E: Yes, you’re exactly right. Those restaurants also cater to business clientele. We don’t know if the business clientele is going to be back in midtown Manhattan. It’s going to be really interesting to see how that plays out.
A: The one thing I’m curious about is: I understand some of the high-end places ultimately adding sommeliers. What I’ve heard from a lot of my peers in New York is that sommeliers, even at these high-end restaurants, are being asked to also act as servers. They’re being asked to run food, and a lot of them don’t want to do that. They’re basically leaving the profession. Is that going to last for too long? I believe the sommelier is going to come back. I don’t think the sommelier is never going to come back, but maybe come back as a whole new generation of sommeliers.
E: We may have this fallow period. Even before the pandemic, a lot of people sought success as a sommelier so that they could move on to a less demanding job. That was the model before all the shit of the last year. I agree, I think there’s just going to be this period of sorting out where restaurants are going to have to see where they stand. They’re going to have to measure who’s coming in, what their clientele wants, who they are, what they can sustain, and how they can build back. I think last year has just exposed how fragile the restaurant business is. I’m not sure that everybody is going to want to jump right back into the way it was.
A: One other question around that: I’m wondering if you’ve heard similar things that Zach and I have heard is, people are trying to figure out where they’re going to wind up. A lot of people, obviously, who are former sommeliers are moving into peripheral professions and some are moving into winemaking. I’ve heard blowback from winemakers who are saying, “Why are they doing this? I went to school, I did all these things. I’ve had apprenticeships. Just because this person was a famous sommelier, they think they can put their name on a bottle and be equivalent to me?” Are you hearing that, too, or is this just a bunch of people complaining?
E: I haven’t heard that, but bitterness and recriminations are part of the wine business. There’s always resentment. A third-generation farmer in Napa Valley sees the medical parts billionaire that comes in and buys up and charges hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine that’s never been made before. Sadly, them that has, gets more. I don’t know that people are going to buy a wine because it has a sommelier’s name on it, but it’s a foot in the door.
Z: What about from the production standpoint? It’s been a challenging year, and it goes beyond a pandemic, although that’s a big part of it but, we had these tariffs that were imposed on a number of different European imports; we had a devastating fire season in California and other places as well. Recently, there were frost events in France and other parts of Europe. Has everything felt shaky because the last year was so unstable, or has the wine industry been a shaky place as a whole? I know it’s very hard to generalize, but I’m going to ask you to do it anyhow.
E: Well, there was so much uncertainty in the wine industry, and going back a year ago, the method of sales and distribution had just been completely disrupted. Nobody knew what they were going to do, but I think American producers proved amazingly adaptable at pivoting. Direct selling, I think on the part of wineries, is here to stay. Producers were so successful in adapting to that that I don’t really see any reason for them to give that up. It turned out that the fires caused far more problems than the pandemic did as far as production. It was just tremendously disruptive. If you look at fires as part of the overall effect of climate change, whether it’s late frosts in Europe or the wildfires on the West Coast. Every year there is going to be something now until producers and growers figure out how best to adapt to that.
A: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I also wanted to talk to you about visiting these wine regions, which is a huge part of what we all do. For the last year and a half, we haven’t been able to do that. How has that affected your own job?
E: Well, I like the wine producers, I’ve had to adapt and pivot. I had a bunch of major trips planned in 2020, all of which was we’re going to yield multiple stories. I had to move as the news moved. I ended up writing pieces that I never would have imagined. Comfort wines, drinking alone, and other issues of the pandemic. One in particular, for me: I’ve always said that writing about wine has made me feel connected to nature in a way that I never would have experienced living in a city for most of my life. That’s restored each year when I visit wine regions, walk in the vineyards, smell the air, and smell the life that’s around me. I am educated by farmers about how they go about managing and nurturing a vineyard. That has proved so valuable and meaningful to me that I really felt the absence in the middle of the summer of 2020. I grew up in New York, and I’ve lived near the water all my life except for a brief amount of time I spent in the middle of the country in Chicago. Even though that was near Lake Michigan, not being near an ocean gave me an unpleasant physical sensation, almost a claustrophobia. I had that same feeling this year.
A: Is there any place you want to go to soon?
Z: Yeah, I was just going to ask if you had anything lined up.
E: No, I don’t have anything lined up yet. I’m still planning to go to a major tasting in Atlanta, in late June.
A: Is that the High Museum thing?
E: No, it’s a private thing.
Z: You are not invited, Adam. I’m sorry.
E: It’s not my wine. Otherwise, I’d invite you. I need to go to the West Coast because ordinarily, I would have been out there at the fires, looking at the after effect. I’m holding a bunch of plane tickets from last year, but I eventually will be traveling. I have so many places that I want to go to. I know France said that if you were fully vaccinated, you could come this summer. That all depends on what else is going on. Are they still going to be in lockdown because of their deficient vaccination program? What about the rest of the EU? Right now, it’s just going to be easier to travel domestically.
*Z: It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of things to see and do in the U.S. when it comes to wine, I know you just wrote about New York State wines. I obviously encourage people to go read that, but as far as what’s going on, what is it that in particular people should be aware of?
E: As I wrote, New York is the least-known great wine region in the U.S., and it’s because it is probably the leading cool climate wine region. A lot of places on the West Coast claim to be cool climates, but if you go out there and it’s 107 in August and they’re getting ready to harvest, that’s just not true. The Finger Lakes really is a cool climate. When you get a bunch of wines from the Finger Lakes and they are all 12 percent alcohol or so, it’s a very different experience than drinking 14.5 percent wines.
A: I love the wines of the Finger Lakes.
E: I think Long Island is coming along, too. They went through their California wannabee period, and I think they’ve emerged from that. I don’t think they’re as far along as the Finger Lakes in figuring out what they have to offer in particular, but I think they’re really on the path now. The Finger Lakes are just so exciting. There’s just so much interesting stuff going on up there. That’s another trip I need to take.
A: Yeah, I went a few years ago, but I would love to go back. I saw your article, but for those that didn’t, are there are a few producers that people should look for in terms of Finger Lakes and the North Fork?
E: There are the Finger Lakes, Ravines, Forge Cellars, and the old standbys: Herman J. Wiemer and Dr. Konstantin Frank. There’s Red Tail Ridge, there’s Empire. Nathan Kay and his partnership with Pascaline Lepeltier. These are just terrific wines. There’s a lot more on the North Fork. There is Paumanok and Macari. I have to investigate a new incarnation of Shinn Estate. I haven’t had their wine and they’ve just relabeled to what they are now known as Rosehill. Then, there’s Wölffer Estate, Channing Daughters, and Lenz. There’s a lot of good places, Bedell.
A: There’s another new winery out there, RGNY. I think it’s a Mexican family that also makes wine in Mexico. Definitely interesting stuff happening for sure. It’s very cool.
E: Yeah, I haven’t heard about that particular winery.
Z: I also wanted to ask about another thing you wrote recently, which is about non-alcoholic wines. It is something that I’ve talked about a little bit on the podcast. I think the expectation is that the wine writer is going to trash non-alcoholic wines. My sense of your perspective was that at worst, it was an interesting category that you are keeping an eye on. Does that accurately reflect how you felt about it? Also, do you see there is a place for this in the wine industry?
E: Well, I’m surprised by the huge amount of interest in these wines, but I think there’s also a lot of misinformation about them. I think there are people who, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t want to drink alcohol anymore. They expect that if you simply remove alcohol from wine, you have this wonderful, complex beverage that is non-alcoholic. And it’s not true. Removing alcohol from wine is a major manipulation. What you are getting is a compromise at best. I tasted a few of them, and sure, they’re pleasant. They’re inoffensive, but they’re not what people are looking for in wine. If you understand that once you take the alcohol away, it’s not going to be the same thing, but this is something that can be enjoyed, I think that’s an honest assessment and honest understanding of what it is. I think that it’s also a pretty small category, although it’s definitely going to grow, given the apparent interest in it. Until now, a lot of stuff that masqueraded as non-alcoholic wine was really just grape juice unfermented. I think anybody who really understands wine knows that once you ferment it and then put it through whatever technology you need to do to remove the alcohol and then reconstitute the beverage, knows that that’s not what any conscientious winemaker would do to make good wine, so you’re going to end up with something different.
A: Right. Well, Eric, this has been a really fascinating conversation with you, as always. I want to be conscious of your time and thank you so much for joining us again. I thank you as well for your column every week. It’s always something that VinePair looks forward to, and I’m sure our listeners look forward to it as well.
E: It’s always a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Z: We’ll do it again sometime after we’ve all had a chance to travel and discuss the world of wine outside of our homes.
A: Well, Zach, I’ll talk to you next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City, and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
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