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Is your favorite imported wine low in stock? Blame the pandemic.

Disruptions in the global supply chain are causing delayed shipments of new vintages because of a shortage of containers

Sierra Foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California. (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers)
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Spring cleaning of my inbox reveals a few consistent themes: The wine world is not immune to the pandemic supply chain woes roiling the global economy; wineries are eager to stoke our wanderlust for when we can finally burst out of isolation; and, of course, cannabis.

If your favorite imported wines seem to be low in stock, blame the pandemic. Disruptions in the global supply chain have forced U.S. wine importers to delay shipments of new vintages because containers are not available. The coronavirus has hit shipping companies and dock workers hard, creating backlogs at ports around the world. The Ever Given’s six-day fiasco in the Suez Canal last month may not have disrupted wine shipping routes, but its ripple effects will affect the availability of ships and containers for all products for weeks. And let’s face it, wine is not the most essential commodity except for a few of us dedicated oenogeeks.

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Wine importers were already dealing with higher costs because of tariffs imposed on some French, German and Spanish wines by the Trump administration in a dispute with the European Union over airplane subsidies. The Biden administration has since lifted those tariffs, but the economic effects are still reverberating. And as the world recovers in fits and spurts from the pandemic, a boom in demand from Asia has made it even more difficult to secure ships and containers to bring any products to the United States, WineSpectator.com reported. And ships that do arrive here often have to wait outside ports to be unloaded, resulting in higher costs for importers.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard importers are having trouble bringing wine not just from Europe but also from Chile, Argentina and South Africa. Additionally, U.S. wineries are experiencing a shortage of bottles, many of which are imported from China. Even cans and kegs can be hard to come by. Will this force the wine industry to reconsider how it packages its product? Probably not once the global market stabilizes, but maybe some nugget of innovation forged in this crisis will emerge several years from now as the next big trend.

Meanwhile, lockdown restrictions are easing in fits and starts, and we are beginning to travel again. The past year has been virtual — online wine tastings and winemaker dinners, video chats instead of handshakes with friends old and new around the world. Elbow bumps may replace those handshakes for a few years, but cabin fever has me fantasizing about visiting some of my favorite wine regions in person as soon as opportunity allows. For the time being, Web-surfing will have to suffice.

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Enter the California Zinfandel Trail, a new online destination from a group called Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. The site blends California history from the Gold Rush to the present, and stands as a testament to the winemakers preserving and reviving heritage vineyards that embody the frontier spirit of immigrants and their struggle to thrive. Our image of California vineyards today is neat, tightly spaced rows of vines stretching over rolling hillsides, precisely pruned to conform with an ideal of luxury cabernet. These old zinfandel vineyards are often ragtag collections of vines planted as much as a century ago, gnarled with age, their story nearly drowned out by the encroachment of housing developments, highways and strip malls.

Along with an extensive list of wineries that make zinfandel, the Zinfandel Trail website offers three tour plans to take us from the Gold Rush territory of the Sierra Foothills to the urban wineries of the San Francisco Bay area and the heritage vineyards of Dry Creek and Alexander valleys in northern Sonoma County, around Healdsburg. There’s also a page of wineries that will send us wines and schedule online virtual tastings to slake our thirst and whet our appetites for when we can get there in person.

It sounded too good to be true, and it was: The news release landed in my inbox before dawn, announcing that Famille Hugel, a leading Alsace, France, producer founded in 1639, would leap into the modern era by producing a wine from traditional Alsace grape varieties infused with 250 milligrams of cannabidiol, or CBD. The non-hallucinogenic additive would be “extracted in a German laboratory, for legal reasons,” the release said. The wine was touted to combine “aromas of Moroccan leman and Afghan rose with those of cannabis.” The wine would cost 18 euros ($21), “chill effect included.”

It was, of course, an April Fool’s joke, as the winery confessed in a news release the next day. But it was perhaps a bit more credible than a cleverly strait-laced news story on Wine-Searcher.com, written by Oliver Styles, that the French government had copyrighted grape variety names and would henceforth collect royalties from any winery using the words “cabernet sauvignon” or “chardonnay” on their labels.

“It is not the fault of France if our grapes travel well,” a French lawyer named Jean-Philippe Poisson supposedly said. Definitely something fishy about that.

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How can producers secure zinfandel’s future? By looking to the past.

What defines ‘old vines,’ anyway, and why are they worth preserving?

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