Scott Zapotocky and Megan
Baccitich lead winegrowing and winemaking, respectively, for Geodesy Wines based in Napa Valley; Zapotocky oversees
two Oregon sites: Eola Springs and Chehalem Mountain vineyards. ##Photo provided

Predictions for 2021

Looking ahead to (fingers crossed) a bountiful year

By Paul Omundson

It’s a risky business making predictions. Consider COVID-19 and the wildfires of 2020. No one saw those coming. But the exercise of speculating on what’s ahead in 2021 for Oregon wine sheds a revealing light on the indomitable spirit of the industry’s practitioners. After weathering two major crises in 2020, they’re ready to face 2021 with lessons learned and boldness ahead. COVID-19 vaccinations are here. Virus restrictions could ease by summer, creating a huge boost in on-premise sales.

But smaller yields in the 2020 harvest have been made even smaller by fruit not used because of wildfire smoke. That’s contributed to a supply-restricted 2021. For this, and a number of other factors, demand for Oregon wine will outstrip supply for the next few years.

Issues and Trends

In 2020, virtual tastings took Oregon wine to places it’s never been before. This year, look for a concentration on online sales and marketing. The proposition is simple, Tom Danowski, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board (OWB), pointed out: “To be successful in this business environment, the most agile Oregon wineries are embracing more digital tools and platforms.” It’s connectivity that allows wineries to channel partners and emerging consumer segments, giving them more data reporting capabilities to enhance their supply chains.

Last year brought wildfire and smoke lessons. It was the first time smoke blanketed the entire state — for two weeks starting Labor Day. In 2021, look for a combined effort from Oregon State’s Oregon Wine Research Institute, Washington State University and UC Davis to provide needed technical benchmarks and some new Oregon-specific research to help growers unravel the mysteries of wildfire smoke-affected grapes.

Then there’s the case of a change in fruit hierarchy. The king is and always will be Pinot Noir. But the queen is new. As Pinot Gris slips from Oregon’s longtime top white varietal, Chardonnay takes the crown. Soil and climate in Oregon have proven ideal, and growers using the right clones are hitting the mother lode with Chardonnay. Wine buyers in Canada and Asia already know this. An emerging one-two punch of Oregon’s world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay paves the way for significant inroads internationally.

Look forward to a recovering on-premise sector around mid-year as virus restrictions are expected to ease following widespread vaccinations. Expectations are high for eventually being able to refuel the outdoor wine season after a year’s absence with a fully unfettered blast of normal wine activities, food, live music and large crowds. 

Word from the Field

“Our compelling theme for 2021 is celebrating joyful gatherings,” said Danuta Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Winery in Junction City. “We plan to have as many public events as we can. There will be live music, winemaker dinners and collaborative efforts with local restaurants, caterers and lodges.” She added that as restrictions lift, the winery’s popular Friday Burgers and Blues in the water garden and its Casablanca Dinner and Jazz Club on Saturdays will once again light up the grounds. “The big trend I see this year is social gatherings,” Pfeiffer added. “People have been so deprived of friends, parties, celebrations, holidays, families, you name it. I think we’re going to make up for that deficit in 2021.”

Janie Brooks Heuck, whose brother founded Brooks Winery, shares Pfeiffer’s same swagger going into 2021.  “A major new trend we’re investing in heavily is replacing revenue lost in wholesale with virtual events,” she said. “That’s the future.” Brooks was one of the first wineries to decide not to make a 2020 vintage due to smoke impact. Instead, it honored the contracts with growers and has re-refocused on creating virtual packages for individual and group customers.

“The excitement is just beginning,” replied Chris Hermann, referring to his accelerated use of virtual tastings. He’s owner of 00 Wines, an enterprise producing 2,000 to 3,000 cases a year of high-end Pinot and Chardonnay in Oregon and France. Hermann’s worldwide client base enjoys collecting the best wines on the planet. He keeps in touch virtually. “I do Zoom tastings with them and their families,” Hermann noted. “It’s an ideal way for them to experience the wine and for me to have one-on-one [interaction] with them. In some ways, it’s more direct and personal than an actual tasting room visit.” In 2021, he predicts targeted virtual tastings will become one of the industry’s most important marketing tools.

Earl Jones at Abacela Winery has produced Spanish varietals in the Umpqua Valley for 25 years. Last year, coronavirus prompted some of his biggest changes to date. “COVID-19 changed points of sale for us. Web sales have increased hugely; tasting room traffic has declined but purchases per customer are up; we’re attracting more wine club members with sales rising for that group; fine wine sales to restaurants are down but up for bottle shops and grocery stores.” 

“The elephant in the room is smoke effect from the 2020 vintage,” said Scott Zapotocky, vice president of winegrowing for Geodesy Wines based in Napa Valley; he also oversees two Oregon vineyards: Eola Springs and Chehalem Mountain Vineyards. “If winemakers don’t make that much Pinot Noir because of the smoke, Chardonnay may come out ahead. Maybe we’ll see more sparkling wines. It leaves the door open for a lot of contenders.”

Evan Martin of Martin Woods Winery added, “Boom-and-bust cycles and risk are part of this business. Nature is finicky and the economy will always rock and roll.” In that constant sea of change, he stressed a few anchors for wine producers: “relationships to the community, to growers and to customers, and dedication to the craft.”

“Next year, [2021], will uplift us all,” predicted Brooke Delmas Robertson of SJR Vineyard and Delmas. She and her father, Steve Robertson, remain bullish partners on “brand Oregon” and feel the state’s wine industry will “come out of its economic malaise with gusto, but probably not until 2022,” he added. “One increasing trend is California winemakers coming to Oregon to make their wines. In five years, I think we’ll finally have more wine producers here than in the state of Washington.”

For OWB’s Danowski, “There’s foundational change we’re dealing with now. The center of gravity for wine and fine food consumption this year has shifted to the home,” he explained. “It’s going to be an especially challenging time for restaurants, even as they open again in 2021. People are purchasing their food and wine at grocery stores and doing their preparation and eating at home. That makes shelf space at grocery stores all the more important to us, and many Oregon wines are performing well off those shelves.”

Steve Thomson, Cristom Vineyards CEO and longtime marketing adviser to the food and beverage industry, points to a growing predicament. “We’ve done such a great job of building a successful and profitable global brand for our Oregon wines, and now, all of a sudden, most of us may not have enough wine to sell over the next two to three years to deliver the revenue we need to fuel our growth.”

He added, “The stage is set for well-earned pricing power for our wines. We’ll need it as fruit and packaging costs will soar over the next 24 months. What we make of this opportunity will truly define Oregon on the global stage.”

ABOVE: Scott Zapotocky and Megan Baccitich lead winegrowing and winemaking, respectively, for Geodesy Wines based in Napa Valley; Zapotocky oversees two Oregon vineyards: Eola Springs and Chehalem Mountain Vineyards.

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