Once again, it’s that time of year when we’re all looking backwards, thinking about the year that was. In The Chronicle’s Food & Wine Dept., we love these sorts of year-in-review exercises, and my colleagues have already fired off some fun entries.
We’ve got lists of 2021’s best new restaurants, most beautiful new restaurants, best dishes, best new bars and most notable restaurant closures. On top of that, restaurant critic Soleil Ho shared a list of favorite stories that our department published, and my editor Serena Dai, outing herself as a curmudgeon, shared her personal favorite foods.
In these final days of December, I always find it useful to look back on the news that consumed the wine beat during the previous 12 months, as a way of understanding my job better. It’s easy to get caught up in individual stories throughout the year, but sometimes when I step back, larger themes become easier to see.
The stories that shaped the Bay Area’s wine scene continued to reveal larger truths about the way we live here. The same anxieties around climate change and social justice that inform our region’s consciousness, for example, were constant, urgent issues in the wine industry.
So here are the major threads that appeared in the world of wine in 2021 — topics that I’m confident will remain important as we enter 2022.
Climate change is transforming California. Severe drought, record-breaking wildfires, erratic weather patterns: Climate change is a defining force of life in California today. One of the many ways to understand its effects is by looking at agriculture, especially wine, which has enormous economic and cultural impacts on our state. Even “60 Minutes” is covering it.
Early effects of the current statewide drought could be glimpsed in the 2021 wine harvest. One notable vineyard in Sonoma County couldn’t produce any grapes at all because it was so parched. Another winery in Marin County closed down entirely because climate change had made business untenable. Winemakers throughout the state saw the dry soils reduce their crop yields dramatically, even as the Bay Area got a welcome respite from the wildfires that have ravaged its wine regions in recent years.
Climate change poses an existential question to the global wine industry: Will warming temperatures make grapegrowing nonviable in certain places? In response, a growing chorus of industry players is advocating for a reconsideration of what sorts of grapes get cultivated in which places. The hottest topic there was a category of grapes known as hybrids, which may be better suited to a changing landscape than the types of wine grapes currently grown in places like California. We wrote about that extensively this year; I anticipate there will be much more to say as time goes on.
“Healthy” drinking is all the rage. People are still drinking plenty of alcohol. But they’re increasingly interested in beverages, including wine, that purport to confer health benefits — whether they’re marketed as “clean,” low in alcohol or free of alcohol altogether. In early 2021, I wrote about how this dynamic is part of a larger pattern in American history, which has always volleyed between extremes: One minute, people are binge drinking, the next, they’re advocating strict sobriety. All data point to our country currently being deep in a sober-curious mindset. By November, sales of non-alcoholic beverages had risen 33% year over year, according to Nielsen, reaching $331 million.
Given how focused Americans seem to be right now on wellness and health, I anticipate that the “healthy drinking” segment — which includes plenty of misleading, not-actually-healthy products like White Claw — will continue to thrive.
The wine industry confronts hard questions about equity, justice and access. Whereas 2020 saw many calls to action for the wine industry to increase its accessibility to people of color and to reconsider some of its problematic language conventions, 2021 was the year when more people actually tried to change it for the better. (Wine is certainly not the only field where this reckoning continues.) Winemaker Christopher Renfro has become a leading voice here: His 280 Project, a tiny vineyard in urban San Francisco, aims to help a more diverse array of youth find careers in food and wine, a goal he sees as inextricable from combating the effects of climate change. Even former NBA star Dwyane Wade amplified the cause this year, joining the board of UC Davis’ wine education program with the goal of increasing its racial diversity.
“Equity” is a broad term, and many other related issues surfaced in 2021 too. We examined the rise of Instagram’s wine influencers, whose blossoming success has generated a backlash that is baldly sexist. And this fall, I took a close look at one of Napa Valley’s most popular wineries, the Prisoner, which has long capitalized on the tropes of incarceration in ways that have felt exploitative.
The natural-wine movement splinters. The ambiguously defined category of low-intervention wine continued to explode in popularity in 2021, with seemingly every new hip Bay Area restaurant advertising a natural-wine list. At the same time, we began to see divisions and differences among producers and advocates of natural wine, many of whom have different ideas of what the term should mean. The most extreme form of natural wine, which has come to be known as “zero-zero,” reached a saturation point this year, which we documented. Unsurprisingly, it’s generated backlash from critics who say that this hands-off philosophy is an excuse for poor, lazy winemaking.
That division is evidence that the natural-wine movement is maturing, and I see these differences of opinion as healthy, ideally helping all wine producers define their values a little more clearly.
One thing’s for sure: Next year, the debate will rage on.
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