Will the Taste Revolution Survive?

by Dwight Furrow

I’m sitting in front of my window on the world sipping a disappointing Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and thinking about travel plans for next summer and fall. I’m proceeding as if everything were normal knowing full well they won’t be, especially not with our “leadership”. Every time I try to write something insightful about wine, these lyrics from the bard of Duluth run through my mind:

Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

—Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

There are many tragedies unfolding as Covid-19 ravages the planet. With the massive loss of life and livelihood, the fate of the wine and restaurant industry is not among the worst outcomes, but it nevertheless saddens me when I think about it. Small, artisan wineries, independent restaurants and their employees are going to take a big hit. That’s a lot of skill, creativity, imagination and determination gone to waste. The chains and mammoth, commercial wine companies will survive by doing what well- financed firms with market power and lobbyists do. But it will be hard for the little guy to survive in a business as tough as the restaurant business or the artisan winery business. (I’m writing from the perspective of the U.S. but I imagine the situation is similar worldwide.) These small businesses are the heart and soul of the wine and restaurant industries and they face an uncertain future.

No one knows what society will look like on the other end of this. There are too many contingencies to make firm predictions. But the food and wine revolution that has transformed the taste landscape in the U.S. over the past 50 years may well be over, or at least on hold. It was driven organically by creative individuals with drive, courage, and an idea. But it was enabled by upper middle-class wealth and a global consciousness open to new influences. I suspect both will be in short supply in the near to mid-term future.

I hope I’m wrong. Maybe in 18 months with a successful vaccine in hand, the innovation economy will come roaring back with investment capital thrown around like confetti and consumers flush with government checks and a new job. Maybe I’ll get a pony for Christmas.

Changes in the Wine Industry

One thing we know. People will continue to drink wine. As state and local governments order people to stay home to limit the spread of the virus, wine sales at some wine shops are soaring and large, highly-distributed wine brands are struggling to keep wines on the shelf. Meanwhile, small wineries that depend on restaurants and on-site sales are trying to figure out how to survive. The question on the mind of everyone in the wine and restaurant business is how things will look when social distancing is relaxed. According to most epidemiologists, even if we succeed in reducing the transmission rate of the virus, we are likely to see waves of resurgence until we get a vaccine. As soon as we stop the social distancing, the virus might well go on the rampage again. We are likely to be playing whack-a-mole with the damn thing for many months.

Under such conditions, are people going to be willing to repopulate restaurants and tasting rooms? Unless we have comprehensive testing abilities including antibody tests and massive contact tracing to spot outbreaks before they take off, many people will be reluctant to resume their social activities. Our capacity for testing thus far doesn’t inspire confidence in that scenario. In addition, we are now in a serious, probably prolonged economic recession.

Given what we know, there are a few conclusions we can draw about the future of the wine business.

—Consumers will trade down. People will continue to drink wine but with limited incomes and persistent unemployment they will buy less expensive wines. Premium wine brands that depend on selling bottles over $30 will struggle. Boutique wineries that depended on fine dining restaurant sales will have to find new markets.

—Wineries that depend on tourism, events, and weekend traffic cannot get that lost income back. Even if some semblance of “normal” returns next year, many of these businesses will not survive.

—An online presence will be essential. Many people are buying wine online for the first time and those habits are likely to continue. Wineries and retail outlets with an efficient online operation have a better chance of surviving.

—-Industry consolidation will explode. Money is likely to be cheap but looking only for safe investments, so large, established wineries will be snapping up smaller wineries with good reputations. That will lead to a general decline in wine quality, since large wineries are usually indifferent to quality.

The wine industry will survive but it will be smaller and will take several years to return to a focus on quality.

Changes in the Restaurant Business

The restaurant business is another story. Food world icon David Chang, owner of several restaurants and founder of Manhattan’s Momofuku Noodle Bar,  was interviewed in the New York Times Magazine about the threat to the restaurant business from the coronavirus. It’s not a pretty sight:

…I do not want to incite panic and hysteria, but I think for restaurants and the service industry, there is going to be a morbidly high business death rate. My fear is the restaurants that survive are going to be the big chains, and we’re going to eradicate the very eclectic mix that makes America and going out to eat so vibrant and great. And there is a lot of feeling that even in good times, if chefs can’t make their numbers, they’re going to lose everything, so imagine what they must be feeling now. When the economy is booming, it’s hard for restaurants to get loans from the bank because there’s no assets to back them. I don’t know if it’s going to be feasible for the government to give out a stimulus loan to a restaurant or restaurant groups the way they were able to do in 2008 to the auto companies. So I’m trying to figure out what the best way is. The government should give a greater bailout package to real estate owners so that there can be relief for restaurant owners. It has to move up the chain.

To save the restaurant business we would need immediate income support to last for months for ownership, chefs, and top talent extending all the way though the supply chain. I don’t see this happening. As Chang points out “There’s a lot of successful chefs I know who have five to nine days left of money. And then what do you do? I don’t know.” And of course the situation for restaurant staff is even more dire.

I hate to be pessimistic, but I think Chang’s worst fears will be realized. For the next couple years, even once we have the virus under control, for too many people, going out to eat will mean heading to Olive Garden. I recently reviewed a book on this site entitled Drink More Wine: A Simple Guide to Peak Experiences Now by Jon Palmer Claridge in which the author displayed a wonderful, infectious enthusiasm for a globe-trotting, expansive life of good taste and good cheer. It is hard to imagine how the economic infrastructure of that world will survive. For far too many people in the hospitality business, even if they survive with their health intact, the world they inhabited a month ago is gone. The best we can hope for is that the idea of that world survives so it can be rebuilt.

The larger, more abstract worry is that social distancing becomes a habit. Food and alcohol are centers around which social life circulates. Hospitality spaces are where we celebrate each other and our connectedness, where conversation has intrinsic value, and sharing is something to be craved rather than avoided. When these spaces become inaccessible that side of us loses its capacity for expression.

Thus, in times like these when lives are threatened and jobs are lost, wine, food and other beautiful things are even more important. Like all beautiful objects, good wine and good food give us pleasure. But the experience of beauty is more than mere pleasure or enjoyment because beauty motivates and inspires us. When we find an object beautiful, we desire to have it in our lives. To find an object beautiful is to love it and to wish to care for it as well as discover its secrets. Beauty inspires commitment because it is an inexhaustible source of meaning.

More than ever we need such things in our lives right now even if they must be enjoyed alone. Whether it is wine, music, nature, art or craft we need beauty to dwell on and dwell within, to be inspired by the promise that in these dire circumstances the world contains such things—we cannot allow the capacity to be fascinated to die as we fight the virus and the loneliness.

Uncertainty, mortality, suffering, change—the coronavirus has dropped all of them on our doorstep. When we face circumstances like this, activities we’ve always taken for granted suddenly become salient in their mattering and urgency, and we confront questions about what we really value. These intruders are unwanted guests to be sure and they may well trash the place before they leave. But sometimes the provocation is just what we need.

Throughout human history we have never changed without a crisis. It’s just not in our nature to evolve in rational, measured sequences. Only when forced to, will we discard old paradigms and cast about for new ones. We have not done ourselves proud over the last few years. The civilization that emerged from the provocations of world war and showed such promise at the close of the 20th Century has been teetering on the brink of a dark, turbulent chasm. This virus will surely push us over. But in the process of re-inventing ourselves there is an opportunity to change our behavior and way of life to give our planet a chance to heal. When the doctors and scientists have done their work, it will be time for the rest of us to step up.

No one would confuse me with an optimist. But suffering and uncertainty have a way of focusing our attention. Eventually we will rebuild and prosper. It’s important to remember that the modern world with its marvelous technology, copious freedoms (at least for the privileged), and extraordinary wealth was built from the rubble of two world wars and a great depression. There is hope but one needs to look to the horizon to find it.

When robbed of inertia, motion is the only option.

For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution