Poetry in the Glass
The next generation of wine drinkers — that is, those currently under age 30 — have more knowledge available to them than any other generation in history. The Internet, by globalizing information, has done a great disservice to people like me: it has rendered wine books obsolete. Consumers all over the world now have immediate access to the same wine reviews and vintage reports with a few keystrokes. So wine books that offer tasting notes are out of date even before they hit the shelves. We wine columnists are becoming more and more marginalized as the under-30 consumer relies on his or her peer group for recommendations, which they pass along through text messaging, Facebook and Twitter.
And we of the wine press, along with sommeliers and indeed the wine producers themselves, have only ourselves to blame for making ourselves redundant. Generation Y has become Generation Why? They question old assumptions and are bored by marketers’ hype. They are also greener than their parents and are offended if they have to heft bottles that are as heavy as barbells.
Research in Europe has shown that Generation Y is taking to wine earlier than their parents did, viewing it as the beverage of sophistication — particularly red wine. They tend to see red, white and rosé, not under the broad category of wine, but as distinct drinks on their own, as different from each other as cider, beer or spirits. But like their parents, they are concerned about their lack of knowledge and appearing wine-illiterate in front of bosses, partners or their peer group. The same attitudes I would say are exhibited by North American Millennials.
For the future of the global wine industry, it’s imperative for wine professionals to engage these consumers, who would sooner trust the advice of their circle than the pronouncements of ‘experts.’ What has turned them off wine writers and sommeliers? I suggest it’s because we have made the enjoyment of wine too complicated. The way we communicate our pleasure in wine is cloaked in language that sounds like professional jargon designed to exclude rather than embrace the entry-level wine lover. We complicate what should be an immediate sensual experience by vying with each other to find as many adjectives as possible to describe the bouquet and flavour of a wine. My friend Tim Hanni MW, the first American to achieve the wine industry’s highest academic degree, has the right idea. Tim is a great champion of White Zinfandel, defending it on the grounds that this semi-dry, pretty-in-pink wine has introduced more of his fellow Americans to the delights of the fermented grape than any other (and that it also makes a great match with Asian food). Tim understands that all the average consumer wants to know is whether the wine taste good or not; and to this end, he has devised his own antithetical descriptors — ‘Yum’ or ‘Yuck.’
In a sense this thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach is similar to according a wine a numerical value judgment. If a wine writer gives a wine 92, you know he or she thinks it’s a good wine; if the number is 85, it’s drinkable and if it’s below 80, you might was well use it to wash the car.
Robert Mondavi did the world a great service in the mid-1960s when he began to label his wines by grape variety rather than by the region or commune where the grapes were grown. This simplified the consumer’s need to study geography before they selected a Chardonnay, for example. Consider France. Wines labelled as Chablis, Puligny-Montrachet, Mercurey, Pouilly-Fuissé and white Beaujolais are all made from Chardonnay grapes, but there is a distance of some 250 kilometres between Chablis and Beaujolais. So you have to have more knowledge just to get into the game.
Basically, what the average wine consumer wants is poetry in the glass, not in the wine column. Does it taste good? Is it good value? That’s all we need to know. Am I arguing myself out of a job?