What’s ahead for wine drinkers in 2008

The start of a new year is an appropriate time to consider some of the wine trends we’re likely to see in the coming months. I’d like to tell you that there will be a huge shift away from wines that are all about power and alcohol, but I doubt that will be the case. Though I hear more talk about that, I’m still not seeing the evidence in the bottle. But here are four trends that I do see on the horizon.

1. Domestic wines should look more attractive as prices rise on many imports.

If you’ve done any traveling lately or watch the financial reports, you know that the dollar is very weak these days. The euro is worth about $1.45; two years ago, it was worth close to $1.20. The dollar is falling against other currencies, too. The Australian and New Zealand dollars have become stronger against our dollar, as has the Chilean peso. The main wine-producing country whose currency has become weaker is Argentina; maybe we’ll all be drinking more Argentine malbec.

Complicating things in Australia is a tighter grape supply, the result of frost damage to the 2007 vintage and an ongoing drought. There has been a wine glut in the country, resulting in some great bargains, but that glut is expected to dry up this year and next. The drought has been a particular problem in areas that rely heavily on irrigation to grow large crops. Those vineyards are the sources of most of Australia’s modestly priced wine.

Currency fluctuations aren’t automatically passed on to consumers, of course. Big wine companies, in particular, tend to absorb some of the pain. But some price increases seem inevitable.

I hope California wineries hold the line on prices. They may feel tempted to raise them. Domestic sales of California wine have been on the rise, and the 2007 harvest brought a smaller-than-normal crop, especially in the better growing areas. But grapes were plentiful in 2005 (a lot of wines being sold now, especially reds, are from that year), and it will take a couple of years for most of the 2007 wines to hit stores.

2. More companies will start touting how “green” their wines are.

For years, some wineries have labeled their wines as being made from organically grown grapes. More recently, there have been statements about vineyards being certified as biodynamic, a cousin to organic farming that emphasizes the influence of cosmic forces and involves the use of specific “preparations” in the vineyard.

Now there’s also an emphasis on “sustainable” wines. Sustainability encompasses not only the way the grapes are grown (minimal use of chemicals, though not strictly organic) but also such practices as energy and water use, recycling and worker safety. Regional certification programs are slowly being set up. The Lodi-Woodbridge area already has one in place and has received federal approval to include the certification on wine labels; the Napa Valley has started a certification process, and the Central Coast Vineyard Team will begin one soon.

Fetzer Vineyards, which has championed organic and sustainable practices for years, last year took its message on a “green tour” to tout what the company is calling its “earth friendly” wines and to educate consumers about sustainability. Australia’s Banrock Station, part of the huge Constellation Brands portfolio, publicizes its commitment to wetland conservation; labels bear the slogan “Good Earth Fine Wine.”

Other companies are publicizing how eco-friendly their packaging is. Bag-in-box packages, for example, weigh less than glass bottles, so they require less fuel to be shipped. (The boxes are also recyclable.) Tetra Pak aseptic cartons, which are similar to the cartons used for soup, juice and other liquids, also weigh less than glass, and Three Thieves, which packages its Bandit wines in these cartons, stresses the environmental benefits in its marketing.

In light of the trend toward eating locally produced foods, I’m wondering when we’ll hear the first pitches about drinking locally produced wines to reduce our carbon footprints.

3. We’ll see more wines from ever-more obscure places.

Not so long ago, most Italian wines sold here were from Tuscany (Chianti, brunello di Montalcino) or Piedmont (Barolo, Barbaresco), with the occasional bottle of pinot grigio, Valpolicella or Soave thrown in. Spanish wine usually meant Rioja or sparkling wines like Freixenet. Now Italian wines are coming from the top to the toe of the peninsula, and wines from Sicily are one of the hottest trends. In Spain, whites from Galicia and reds from Priorat are all the rage, and lesser-known places like Toro, Bierzo and Murcia are coming on the scene.

Sommeliers are pushing gruner veltliner from Austria, moschofilero from Greece and syrah from South Africa. Eastern European countries such as Croatia, Bulgaria and the former Soviet republic of Georgia are increasing exports, too.

With table wine production on the rise in China, can it be long before wine is among the Chinese-made products at your local Wal-Mart?

4. Some wine producers will become more transparent about their winemaking practices.

OK, maybe this is mostly wishful thinking, since openness and transparency are things I’ve been arguing for in recent months. Honesty can come back to haunt winemakers, as was the case in the PBS program “Wired Science,” in which the use of certain technologies was derided as manipulation and a “dirty little secret.” But I’ve found a number of winemakers to be remarkably open, describing in detail (if asked) some of their practices. A few years ago, one winemaker even replicated for me an experiment that his winery did with adding powdered tannins to wines.

Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz is taking a big step this year in the direction of transparency: He will start listing ingredients on the back labels of his wines. The labels, which will appear on the 2006 reds and 2007 whites, include all ingredients contained in the wine and used in the production of the wines (even when, in the latter case, none of the substance remains in the wine).

Grahm says he’s adopting the new labels to show his commitment to minimalist winemaking practices. He thinks such a move will be good for the industry and hopes it will start a conversation. “I don’t really want to tell people how to make their wines, and I don’t want to preach,” he says, “but I just want to set a good example. It’s a little provocative, but I think it’s a good thing.”

The first wines to carry the labels will be the 2007 albariño and 2007 muscat, produced under Bonny Doon’s Ca’ del Solo label and made from grapes grown at the winery’s biodynamic-certified vineyard near Soledad. The wines are scheduled to be released in February.

By Laurie Daniel.