Recently, wine critic, author, master sommelier, and, by extension, highly opinionated wine drinker Evan Goldstein was preparing to have guests over for dinner when he had a thought. “Hey Alexa,” he ventured. “What’s your favorite cabernet?” He didn’t need the advice, of course. But he couldn’t help but wonder just how soon it would be until a robot put him out of work.
The answer: Maybe sooner than he thought. “The cynical Evan Goldstein expected her to answer with whatever mass brand had bought its way to the top of her search function,” he says. But her choice of Chateau Ste. Michelle was nothing to scoff at. When he challenged her to come up with something more esoteric — her favorite German riesling — she had what he thought was a fairly astute answer for that, too. That’s when he began to sweat.
Purists, of course, will always root for the rarefaction of wine. It’s an art form so complex that even the professionals will never fully understand it — which is part of the fun. “I hate it when people say, I want to demystify wine,” says Karen MacNeil, the James Beard-award winning author of The Wine Bible. “Like, really? That would be the worst possible thing.” But even wine can’t stave off technology forever — nor can it afford to.
For one thing: The planet’s a mess. Climate change has forced the wine industry to evolve more in the last 20 years than the 500 before it, says MacNeil. In 2017, wildfires destroyed nearly 250,000 acres of land across Napa; all over France, extreme freezes are the new normal. Will Helburn, the longtime manager of Rosenthal Wine Merchant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, says it is now common for Burgundy — one of the most storied regions for winemaking, producing some of the best, and priciest, vintages in the world — to lose a significant percentage of its crops; according to a 2016 Wine Spectator report, as much as 90 to 100 percent, in some cases. By 2069, the area will likely be too warm to produce what we now think of as a Burgundy at all. (“Perhaps more like a California pinot,” says Helburn.)
This could result in an end to the concept of vintages, in Burgundy and elsewhere, as more winemakers are forced to create blends to compensate for bad years. It could also lead to an increasing reliance on man-made production technologies — currently anathema to high-end producers.
Fifty years from now, wine will be more accessible than ever, even as it has become harder and harder to produce.
Foreseeing a future of severely limited resources, viticulturists at the University of California, Davis’, solar-powered, zero-carbon emission Teaching and Research Winery are working on methods to produce wines without the need for electricity, water, or even soil. MacNeil also predicts the eventual emergence of “test tube” wines, made with genetically modified grapes or not even made with real grapes at all, instead “assembled” from chemical molecules. She points to the current popularity of engineered food products like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger as paving the way. “Once you eat beef with no beef in it, is it that big of a step to drink wine that has no grapes in it?” she asks. “Maybe not.”
Global warming will also move the range of latitudes where it’s ideal to grow grapes, sending wine production increasingly northward — already, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands are making wine, and not terrible wine — and to unexpected regions, including China, India, and Tibet. “The world of wine will blast open,” says MacNeil, because it will be forced to. “Twenty years ago, most people assumed all the great terroirs were known, that the list was finite. Now, though, we’re wondering, what if all the greatest places are yet to be known?” (That’s the optimistic view, anyway.)
Harvesting, meanwhile, will also become far more reliant on machination, with machines that can do everything from pick grapes to prune vines already in development to compensate for a sudden shortage of workers, some lost to immigration policies and some to the higher-paying cannabis industry. As MacNeil puts it, why pick grapes for $15 an hour when you can pick pot for $35?
It also won’t be long until we see the end of cork, which is made from the bark of a particular kind of oak tree that only grows in certain regions of Europe and Northern Africa. It is by definition a limited resource, already way past its prime. “If you told people 300 years ago that we’d still be using cork today,” says Goldstein, “they’d have laughed and said, why haven’t you come up with something better?” What’s more, points out Kate McManus, the VP of Brand Marketing for Delicato Family Vineyards in Northern California, the wine drinkers of 2069 will have grown up in a world where consuming wine outdoors — or anywhere beyond the dinner table — is entirely common, making screw caps and glass cork replacements more appealing. Future wines are also less likely to come in glass bottles. Glass is heavy, and expensive to ship — especially by drone (Alexa’s not just educating herself for fun). Glass bottles will increasingly be reserved only for high-value wines likely to be collected and stored. For the rest, we’ll see wine in cans, tetra paks, PET plastic, aluminum bottles, kegs, and even edible bottles made from a sugar substitute, according to a 2018 report from Armit wines and futurologist Morgaine Gaye. In other words, the death of the corkscrew is imminent.
All of which means that 50 years from now, wine will — by nature and by necessity — be more accessible than ever, even as it has become harder and harder to produce. To that end, wineries will focus as much on the experience of drinking as on the drink itself. Already, many are following the brewery model and setting up tasting rooms in big cities, eliminating the need for consumers to travel to wine country. They are starting to experiment with utilizing virtual reality to offer tours and tastings. In South Australia, winemaker Chester Osborn’s five-story, multi-cube shaped “d’Arenberg Cube” features an immersive art gallery, wine inhalation room, and other tactile experiences. At Napa’s JaM Cellars, “JaMbassadors” serve “easy-to-love” wines, with names like Butter, Toast, and Jam as part of movie and music nights. It’s not villa-hopping in Piedmont, Italy, and that’s the point.
That doesn’t mean that wine as a status symbol will disappear entirely, says MacNeil. But there will be a clearer split between those who make and drink premium wine and those who make and drink what she calls “beverage” wine, the $10 or $12 bottles with catchy names and cute labels that satisfy consumers who care less about things like appellation or fermentation so long as it tastes good. As wine production, in the traditional sense, becomes more difficult, premium wines will, in fact, become rarer and more expensive, increasing their status, and no one sees wine collecting going away.
“Wine, at the end of the day, is liquid art, and there will always be people interested in collecting it,” says Goldstein. “But in order for fine wine, and the market as a whole, to survive, more people need to drink it, in whatever form.” Right now, he says, four out of 10 Americans of legal drinking age consume wine. “If we can bring that number up by 10 or 20 percent, that’d be great, and those people are not going to be drinking a chateau-bottled Bordeaux,” he says. “But at least we won’t be losing market share to craft beer.”