What Does the Future Hold for the Wine World? We Asked the Experts

Wither the wine industry? Is natural wine better? What was the most epic wine party at the Classic? A roundtable of experts explores these and other questions about the evolution of wine culture in America.

For our commemorative Classic in Aspen digital issue, we convened a Zoom panel of wine speakers from Classics past and present to talk about the future of wine — and also moments that live in their memory from the years they’ve attended the event. (Memories that include the moment The Little Nell became the epicenter of Aspen’s elite wine scene, uncorking bottles for Julia Child, and doing ice luges of Dom Pérignon. Because it’s Aspen.)

The panelists were June Rodil, Master Sommelier and partner in Goodnight Hospitality; Bobby Stuckey, Master Sommelier and co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine; André Mack, sommelier and owner of Maison Noir Wines as well as restaurants including VyneYard and & Sons Ham Bar; and Carlton McCoy, Master Sommelier and managing partner of Lawrence Wine Estates. F&W Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle moderated the discussion.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Ray Isle: Just to start off on a big note, what are your hopes for the future of wine?

June Rodil: Well, mine would be for people to shed their insecurities about it, which I think is happening. There are more people drinking wine — younger generations and older generations, everything from pre-21 folks (whether they can do it legally is another question!) to centenarians. I think that’s because we’re all starting to demystify it a little bit more, to where it just becomes similar to food. You have to eat to live, so people are more egalitarian about it, but I hope that’s happening with wine, too.

Bobby Stuckey: My hope has more to do with hospitality and wine. I’ve been a sommelier for almost 30 years, and I really loved what was going on, let’s say, 20 years ago. Wine service was very much about the guest. Whereas right now, everyone is so fiery about their point of view as a sommelier. Today, how some people in the business write a wine list may not even coincide with what the restaurant wants; it’s about them instead.

I have 200 employees and sommeliers of all ages working in our restaurants, and I listen to them all the time. But it’s almost like we’ve had an odd swing to where if a guest, no matter their age, doesn’t love the point of view of whatever wine they’re served, that’s insulting or hurtful to the sommelier. I know this attorney from Italy who loves wine, and he feels it’s harder now to enjoy ordering wine in a restaurant — and for 25 years, he’s always been the guy that everyone in the group hands the wine list to. But what he told me was, “Now I feel intimidated because if I point out the wine is flawed, I’ll have some young sommelier tell me that I just don’t know what’s going on. That really has taken the fun out of looking at a wine list.” When I heard that, I was like, whoa, that is not a healthy position for restaurants to be in. We should be great at making people feel good.

Related:Bobby Stuckey: Guess the Glass: A Blind Tasting Game

Carlton McCoy: I learned that lesson when I became a wine director: It’s not really about you. When I got the job at The Little Nell in Aspen, I felt this inclination toward, well, I want to put my fingerprint on this legacy. I’m going to build this list out of wines that matter to me. You can’t not feel that. But I was talking to Jay Fletcher, who lives there in Aspen and is a former chairman of the [American Chapter of the] Court of Master Sommeliers, and Jay was like, “Remember, you’re not the one paying the bill.” Your job is to make sure that guest walks away smiling and has a great wine experience. And that means that often you’re going to be serving wines that you personally don’t like to drink.

André Mack: I guess I can echo all of you. I definitely get what Bobby said, but also I get that we’re in this new age — the era of personal brand. And so point of view, about wine or whatever, turns out to be “my brand” for some sommeliers. And if you push it out a little, it’s like the brand of “wine” itself has changed. Wine’s new brand is that it’s cool. A part of popular culture. And you’re also seeing different communities consuming wine — we haven’t even talked about professional athletes, like all the NBA guys. It’s going to be interesting to see the long trail of what that development means.

But with hospitality, yeah, we get it all the time where someone is like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this dumb person on table 22.” And what I’ll tell them is, look, the guest doesn’t have to like what you like. Right? If you’re an industry vet, you still have to continue to educate and kind of push the momentum in the right direction.

Related:How Sommelier André Hueston Mack Became a Renaissance Wine Man

RI: What André said raises an interesting question. Has wine become cooler over time?

CM: It absolutely has. But building wine culture is a multigenerational venture, right? It’s not like, oh, well, all of a sudden everyone in the country’s just going to be drinking wine. And, realistically, a wine culture is also not built at the top of the pyramid. No one has their first glass of wine at the level of a top sommelier. So I think a lot of the work toward building the next generation of wine drinkers really has to happen at that under $25, even under $20 bottle. But that’s great because I’d also say there is no more exciting time to be drinking wine at that price point. Just look at the range of what you can pull from a shelf right now for $25.

Plus, wine in general is definitely seen as being cooler. When I first started studying wine, I was 23, and I didn’t know a single 23-year-old who even cared about wine. I was the weird kid. Even working in a restaurant with a lot of servers — they served wine, it was part of their jobs, but they didn’t study it and they weren’t really into it. Now, if you look at social media and the sheer amount of young people in their mid-20s who are engaging with wine, it’s completely different. It’s not about whether some critic liked it, or a somm at a Michelin-starred restaurant. If someone is really pumped about a wine spritzer or a wine in a can and they pose by the pool with it on Instagram, that’s building wine culture. That’s making wine cool.

I mean, look, when you see all these reports about certain age groups not drinking wine, I always question that data. Because when I look at restaurants, the number of bars and restaurants and wine bars that are jam-packed with people under 35 who are drinking wine is far greater than when I first started in this business.

RI: What about natural wine? What do you think the future is there?

[Literally everyone laughs.]

Related:Natural Wine for Naysayers

CM: Oh man. We could probably go on for hours here discussing the merits or the lack thereof in the natural wine movement. But one thing they definitely nailed is marketing. What they got is that their audience — which is younger and more irreverent — wants wine to be more fun. Wine’s not meant to be so serious for them. And they’re not fooled by packaging that tries to make a $9.99 bottle look pricey. They know it’s a cheap bottle of wine. They just want to drink a glass of red wine. And natural wine labels, some of them are brilliant, just in a graphic design sense. The rest of the wine world could really take some cues from the natural wine movement.

RI: Bobby, do you get people in your restaurants asking specifically for natural wines?

BS: All the time. Especially at Sunday Vinyl, which has a much younger audience. But I think there will be a pendulum swing. Eventually people will be like, “Hey, yeah, I want natural wine, but it also has to be wine. Not something that tastes like a mouse cage.”

A prime example of that is this famous natural wine we tasted at Frasca last week. It’s super allocated, blah, blah, blah. I don’t want to say what it is because I don’t want to bash the producer, but that wine was totally messed up. And it was a really revelatory moment because most of the time when I taste with my staff, I just sit there and listen. And one of my really talented young sommeliers, who maybe a year ago would’ve been seduced just by the fact they were getting to taste this wine, looked at me and said, “Bobby, wait a second — does this have residual sugar?” I said, yes it does. “Does it smell flawed?” Yes it does. And that’s because they gambled and lost. Which is OK in some ways. But you can’t give a winemaker a pass if their wine has 18 grams per liter of residual sugar and it’s supposed to be dry.

CM: You know, with that type of winemaking — and I know this 100% from experience — you will lose whole barrels of wine. That much volatile acidity or Brettanomyces, just don’t put it in the bottle, right? But to have an entire category of wine that finds it completely fine to bottle wine that should be gotten rid of, sold on the bulk market, whatever — for me, that’s where the problem starts. But trends are called trends for a reason. They roll in, people get excited, and then tastes sort of move on. So, whatever else, natural wine has been a great catalyst. It’s made a lot of new people get interested in drinking wine, which in the long term is a good thing.

RI: If you look to the future, will every restaurant have a natural wine section, the way it has a rosé section now?

BS: To use an analogy from Italian wine, I think it’ll be kind of like Piedmont. There used to be all this fierce debate about “traditional” versus “modern” Barolo. But you don’t see a traditional or modern movement of Nebbiolo on lists anymore. Traditional winemakers have gotten a lot cleaner, and modern winemakers have backed off on the new French oak and roto-fermenters and so on. So I think what will happen with natural wine is people will just look at what they’re drinking and how it tastes. I mean, when you have a star in the natural wine world like Frank Cornelissen now using a consultant from Bordeaux and sulfur at bottling —

CM: Thank God —

BS: Right? Four years ago, when I was quoted in that Daily Beast story, I got destroyed. [Editors’ note: Stuckey’s quote was: “The natural wine movement is the Fox News of wine … People get pissed when I say that … But I’m like, hold on, let’s think about this. The wine you gave me isn’t sound, isn’t delicious.”] Now, the same people who were the ones destroying me are applauding Frank Cornelissen for doing the right thing.

AM: Natural wines will just go back to being wine. What you have now is natural wine being used as a marketing term. But if we section that out in natural wine, just like in the regular wine world, there are people who make shit, and there are people who make good wine. And as for the infighting, I think it’s just like YouTube, where we’re all eventually going to be like, OK, I’m tired of watching cat videos.

RI: What about the sheer number of different wines out there? I can go into an Italian restaurant and see 20 brands I’ve never heard of in my life, and I’ve been writing about wine for almost 30 years. Do you think that will just continue? Will there be more and more and more and more and more wines out there? And is that a good or bad thing?

JR: Oh, yes. It’s definitely not stopping. Or even slowing down.

BS: Think about this. Sicily at one time was really run by the mafia. So every farmer had to give their fruit to these big “cooperatives” owned by the mafia. Then that broke up. And now, just in Sicily alone, you’ve seen this explosion of producers. I mean, 20 years ago, Mount Etna had Benanti and maybe four other producers. Look how many producers are on Mount Etna now — literally dozens. It’s really exciting.

CM: If you buy wines in auctions, old cellars, it’s fascinating because you see how few producers they were drinking. How few were even imported. In France, in Burgundy, it’s like, “OK, here are the 10 producers that everyone was drinking in the ’70s and ’80s.” What you have access to now, on the other hand, is just insane. It’s super exciting.

JR: There are just more and more people appearing out there every year, more winemakers who are brave enough, or have the access, the money, the backing, or just the guts to be able to start their own brands. We saw this early on with grower Champagne, right? Now, look at what’s happening in Burgundy with the younger generation. It’s f-ing amazing. And there are so many other regions like that right now.

RI: Let’s talk about diversity in the wine space. Has it gotten more diverse? Will it keep on that path if it has?

AM: The wine world is obviously different than it once was. It’s not just, you know, older Caucasian men. But will that change slow down? I’m not sure. There are definitely opportunities for more people, a lot more organizations, a lot of things that were put together during COVID, all of which have really helped propel the industry forward. And more information is being passed to people of color. So I feel like it is going to keep expanding — at least I hope so.

It’s funny — during the whole black square moment, there were so many people reaching out to me, you know, sort of making sure I knew they were out there, and I’m like, no, it’s cool, you’re a good white person. It’s OK. [Everyone laughs.] You know, everybody wanted to check in with me. “Hey André, how’s it going?” I’m like, don’t worry about it, brother. You’re good, you’re good. You’re good in my book. You’re a good human. [More laughter.]

JR: Sometimes I feel there’s this complicated line between progress and then a kind of showmanship behind it. It’s hard to make sure that you’re on the right side of that line. And then it’s hard to be like, well, f--- you if you think I’m not progressive enough [laughs]. Which happens.

RI: What about the wine-buying audience, as opposed to people in the business?

CM: You know, 2020, early 2021, I got asked to be on this Zoom panel about how to get people of color to engage with wine. And this one lady said, “Well, you know, Carlton, how do you feel that we should go about marketing wines to African Americans?” I said — and my intention wasn’t to insult her at all — but I said, “Well, how do you market wine to white people?” [Laughter] Like, come on. You’re the chief marketing officer of a very large wine company. Every day you create marketing campaigns for very specific demographics. So just go and research whatever demographic you want to approach, and meet them where they are! That’s all you do. It can be very simple. In that wine video where you have someone swirling a glass of wine real slow on Instagram, make it a brown hand. That goes a very long way.

On the other hand, you have to help people from communities that maybe haven’t grown up with wine on the table at home get into the business, too. Organizations like Wine Unify, which does a good job; the Roots Fund, which I’m part of … there are three or four that have really committed themselves to doing that work.

Related:16 Programs That Support a More Diverse Wine, Beer, and Spirits Industry

I had a Black kid DM me in early 2021. He’d gotten laid off his job a sous chef, and he told me, “I took my level one exam for the Court, and I’m really interested in wine, and I don’t know what to do with the next stage of my life, but if you have any guidance to give, I’d love it.” So I put him in touch with one of our winemakers in Napa Valley. He ended up coming out for harvest, and three harvests later, we got him in at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. He did a harvest at Dujac, and then he went down and did one at Vietti. Then, while at Vietti, he met his now partner; her family owns a winery in Italy. That’s completely changed his life, but here’s the thing — his presence has also probably made an impact on everyone that’s been around him in Burgundy and Barolo. Maybe they’ve also changed their perceptions. It’s slow work, sure. It takes a long time. You’re talking decades and decades. But with gentle, consistent pressure you can eventually change an entire industry.

RI: Let’s talk about the environment. Do you see growing interest from wine drinkers in environmental issues?

AM: They care. Definitely. They care, and in our restaurants, they ask. Especially organics, and especially for food.

CM: But there are limits. Just for one example, in our no-till rows at Heitz, we’re looking at testing how much carbon is being suppressed in the soil. We’re looking at bottle weight and sizes and the impact all that has on carbon footprint. But will the consumer notice that we’ve gone to no-till farming? No.

Related:Best Practices: How Carlton McCoy Is Shaping a New Wine Movement in Napa Valley

BS: There’s just so much that’s connected to bad farming that can mess things up. I remember 23 years ago, when I was living in Napa Valley, working at The French Laundry, and there was a big uptick of people who I knew whose kids got cancer. Well, think about it. You live in a valley, and when you have that much chemical-based farming, it has an effect.

CM: If you farm for 50 years with every chemical possible, well, these are things that actually go into the groundwater, right? You can test the groundwater in Napa, Sonoma, and so on, and you will find Roundup in it. So this is what you’re consuming. It’s a much bigger issue for the environment than some of the things the natural wine movement cares about, like if someone adds acid to a fermentation because the pH is off.

Related:How Does Climate Impact Wine?

RI: Let’s take on a lighter subject for a minute, and talk about the Classic — a really great subject, in fact, as we head into our 40th anniversary of the event. What I want to know is when did The Little Nell become this epicenter of the wine, of everybody hanging out late at night and drinking wild bottles into the wee hours and so on?

BS: It was after me. [Editors’ note: Stuckey was the wine director at the Little Nell from 1995 to 2000.] Because when I worked there, where the bar is now was what we called the kibbutz. It was a seating area. You entered the restaurant from the top, you went down, and you either went to the left to the main dining room or right, to the kibbutz. But we really only used it when it was very, very, very busy. Guests hated sitting there. So, I think on the day I put my notice in to go work at The French Laundry, I said to the owners, look, we just won the Wine Spectator Grand Award for our wine list. You should get rid of that seating and create a bar where people can come have a drink at The Little Nell restaurant.

CM: When I started, the flow during the Classic was people would go to their dinners, and then they would come over, but just for a nightcap. Like, Dana Cowin [former editor in chief of Food & Wine] would be there with a few winemakers, and they’d order a couple of nice bottles. But my first year or so, that was it. Then we’d be done with service, and we’d go out and party. What changed things was when we opened the Red Light Lounge downstairs, which essentially was the garage. We threw this party, and José Andrés showed up with this guy from the ham company that he was partnering with in Spain. So then we’ve got José slicing amazing ham and feeding it to people, and the guys from Del Maguey turn up, so we’re banging back shots of mezcal … and, well, it’s a small town. Word gets out. And the next night, everyone wanted to go. But that underground space is tiny, so everyone had to hang out at the bar or by the fireplace waiting to go down, and the sommeliers just started selling them wine. And it became this hub where everyone wanted to go.

BS: When did you put Champagne Dave into the outfit?

CM: [Laughs] Champagne Dave was one of our servers — great guy, born and raised in Aspen. He started as a food runner, and we just kept promoting him. And he came up with this idea for the Champagne cart. He was like, what if we did something sort of like an ice cream cart? So we got him this paper soda-shop-boy hat and put him in the whole uniform. He had a bell and a name tag that said “CHAMPAGNE DAVE.” And Champagne Dave became like a fixture. He’d roam around with this full Champagne cart, just ringing the hell out of his bell, and whenever he rang the bell, it was 50% off Champagne. People went crazy.

RI: Any other amazing Aspen memories?

AM: I want to say 2013 was the last time I went before this year. I hopped a fence to get into Paul Grieco’s Riesling House party, and someone came right over, just immediately, bang, and escorted me out. Weird. Right? It’s a Riesling party. So then I went around to the front, and Charles Bieler, who I know, was at the door. They weren’t letting anyone in. Literally no one. When I finally got to the front of the line with the friend I was with, Charles sort of pulled me aside and said, “Look, I’m sorry, I’m just really nervous. See, we just rented this place and there’s $7 million worth of Damien Hirst right here.” He opened the door, and there are these two paintings, just hanging there on either side of the door. Seven million dollars worth of art. And Charles was like [whispers], “And André, man, this is just the front hall.” And I was like, “Man, I get it, but that’s Thomas Keller stuck there at the back of the line, and you might kinda want to let him in. I really don’t think he’s going to destroy millions of dollars worth of art.”

BS: I have to say my most incredible Aspen memory was the fact that I got to open multiple bottles of wine for Julia Child. It was awesome. Not one bottle — multiple bottles, at lunch. I’m this young somm, and I’m like, nice. Julia Child loves wine. Like, really loves wine. I don’t know if she has a seminar after this, but …

CM: What makes the Classic amazing is that it takes over the entire town. So, yeah, you can just be randomly walking down the street, and you’ll walk by a condo where you look in and you see that chef that you always wanted to meet. Or that somm you know, with 30 other people, drinking wines that you would normally only hope to have the opportunity to drink. It’s so hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it. It’s like, we had dinner one year with Piero from Sassicaia, and there’s bottle after bottle of Sassicaia from the ’80s and ’90s and 2000s, super fancy, and OK, that’s an experience, and then later that night I find myself somewhere drinking Dom Pérignon through an ice luge. Because it’s Aspen, right?

JR: We actually started our company, Goodnight Hospitality, at the Classic by throwing this huge party. I was like, nobody’s gonna come. But my business partners are f-ing nuts, and when they throw a party, they throw a party. I remember they asked Carlton, who was still at the Nell then, for the biggest bottle that he had. And Carlton said, well, what kind of wine? And my partners were like, “No, just the biggest one! It can be whatever. The biggest Cabernet. The biggest Merlot. We don’t care. Just really, really big.” And I’m like, look, we are not drinking Napa Cabernet right now. And my partners are saying, “Oh fine, whatever, the biggest bottle of Champagne then.” And I’m thinking, what am I getting into here? I hadn’t even signed anything on the bottom line for our partnership.

Anyway, they had buses from the Nell to this mansion. My job had been to invite people to the party, and I did, but at the very beginning, nobody showed up. I felt like I was 13 years old and trying to throw a birthday party. Then all of a sudden, I look around and it’s become totally insane. Just a rager. The two ladies who had just gotten Best New Chef awards for King, Jess [Shadbolt] and Clare [de Boer], got stuck in the elevator. We had the guy from Kata Robata in Houston breaking down a 200-pound tuna on a table in the kitchen, handing people raw fish. There’s Champagne everywhere. And caviar. And I’m thinking, what the f-k am I getting into? I’m, like, a poor kid from the Philippines! What am I even doing here? And now I’m going back again. I think it’s the fifth time.

Top Illustration by VISBII

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