The Wine Year in Review: The club grows, corks get screwed, and Ken Starr is stirring

It feels so healthy to look back and reminisce over the past year’s lessons. With wine, it might mean you experienced a new taste, uncorked a new varietal, or discovered a new country to broaden your mind with fresh choices. Over the past year, we’ve had plenty to explore, with great news for our wallets, but also for our mouths. One encouraging announcement: more people are partaking of the vine. A report released in March by the Wine Institute, the public policy advocacy association of California wineries, indicated that we’ve increased our wine consumption from 476-million gallons in 1992 to 595-million gallons in 2002. We still lag behind France by several million gallons, but we’re becoming fond of the wine buzz.

This budding wine audience probably has Australian wine in their glass. Growing faster than anyone else in sales — by some accounts 900 percent this year — the fruity and approachable Aussie reds and whites seduced the American palate. Their delicious shiraz, a versatile grape both wine novices and enthusiasts embrace, has left traditional American varietals like merlot and cabernet sauvignon begging for attention. Coupled with the profit-crippling grape glut in California, domestic producers also had to deal with Australia’s low prices. And consumers all asked, “Why should I pay $10 for domestic wine when a $6 Australian will do?” Indeed.

On these tasty, inexpensive wines are screw tops. More and more wineries, especially in Australia and New Zealand, are turning to Stelvin closures to solve “corked” wine syndrome, afflicting up to 10 percent of bottles on the market. Wines become corked when the liquid comes into contact with a tainted cork, polluting the wine with a damp, cardboard-like smell and flavor. Although around for a couple of years, screw tops started arriving in force early this year, sealing mostly white wines but also some drink-now reds. Most American wineries are a bit skittish about making the plunge, since screw-offs have long been associated with the glamorous likes of Mad Dog 20/20 and Boone’s Farm. But I see a long future with these convenient closures.

I was also surprised at how many wine tastings I ran into this year. In fact, unless you’re a hermit, you couldn’t escape them — at the grocery store, at the mall, in restaurants, or at your best friend’s house. A tasting provides an opportunity to try new stuff, mix with like-minded wine learners and get relaxed. Sounds like a good night out to me.

Meanwhile, in our labyrinthine court system this year, small wineries and adamant consumers have been rallying against the unconstitutionality of direct shipment laws. Most states’ laws don’t allow individuals to order product directly from a winery, but Internet sales have pushed the issue to the forefront. This year the tides turned in the right direction: Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina courts ruled that bans on interstate shipping were unconstitutional and anti-competitive. Several others states, like Florida, Michigan and New York, also made headway as lawyers joined forces with consumers seeking rare, boutique wines not currently available on local shelves. Watch for mounting news in the coming year, since former federal judge and special U.S. prosecutor Ken Starr joined the fight on the direct shipment advocates’ side.

So we get to plunder through another upcoming year, popping or unscrewing more bottles of wine to make our lives a little easier to bear. It’s nice to know other wine drinkers are there with you.


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