‘Wine Culture’ is a pretty difficult thing to define, especially in our constantly changing, modern, technology-driven world. When we think of wine culture, we tend to romanticize a little and think about a family somewhere, probably in Southern Europe, sharing a bottle or two of good wine over a table heavily laden with stunning fresh produce, preferably overlooking an area of natural beauty. Or a group of friends sat on a terrace in the middle of Paris or Barcelona, passing glasses around to be refilled during a quiet summer evening; if you have no imagination, fear not for a Google image search yields almost exactly this! However, when it comes to wine consumption Europe isn’t necessarily the pace-setter anymore and according to this article by Decanter, the USA is now the largest consumer of wine in the world and to add to that, they’re also the worlds largest importer of wine. It’s therefore pretty easy to see that the world of wine is changing in more than just production methods and grape varieties around the world; the consumer base is shifting quite drastically as well. This is also true for age groups, with the younger generations tapping into wine at an early age and making something of a splash when it comes to purchasing habits.
A while ago I read this article on the WSJ, which gave me a lot to think about with regards to how I see wine consumption within Spain itself. I interact with a real mix of people in the wine tastings I organise in Barcelona; from the younger ‘millenial’ generation all the way through to people in their 70’s, from all over the world. Is there a difference in their buying patterns and preferences; the what and the why? Absolutely. Is there a difference in styles and priorities in wine? Yep. Have we both at some point fallen for the trap of clever marketing, just in different guises? Unfortunately, I think so. People give the older generations a hard time due to their supposed reliance on expert opinion and wine scores but I believe my generation is just as gullible — we’ve simply traded scores and wildly bombastic tasting notes for cute narratives and forcefully expressed opinions that happen to coincide with our own way of looking at the world. It’s been expressed many times, and I believe it to be true, that this is largely in part to the ”classics’ of the wine world now being so outrageously expensive that they’re no longer affordable to the vast majority of consumers, especially for younger people and so other options are being sought as alternatives.
Technology has been a huge factor in this, with more blogs, videos and websites dedicated to the love of wine than ever before. Instead of subscribing to magazines, mailing-lists and conferences/fairs, it’s far easier to access the wisdom of thousands through websites and applications such as Cellar Tracker and Vivino. Wine Folly has also been hugely successful with its easy to digest infographics and aesthetically pleasing presentation, although sadly hamstrung by a lot of misleading and incorrect information along the way. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the recent shift in wine-writing or how the ‘old guard’ is changing and that there isn’t really an obvious replacement in this now very convoluted space. Is this an inherent problem? No, in fact I would say that diversifying opinions and challenging long held conventions has not only allowed people to explore the world of wine more easily but also encouraged the industry to move into the 21st century, at least from a marketing standpoint. This in turn has made wine more attractive to younger drinkers who then invest time and money into engaging with it, albeit at the expense of making an already confusing industry all that much more so.
However, with technology and fashion moving at a far faster pace than wine, this has led to a potentially worrying shift in priorities for younger drinkers. Instead of starting with the basics of viticulture, vinification and ‘benchmark’ wines from countries and regions with centuries of high-quality production, more and more people are jumping into wine at the ‘cool’ end of the spectrum. In Barcelona alone, there are 3–4 bars in the old part of the town that cater to only ‘natural’ and organic wines exclusively, all of which have sprung up in the last decade or so. Whilst there’s no inherent problem with this, it’s marginally worrying that certain narratives are becoming so strong amongst the younger generation of wine drinkers, most of which have very little to do with the quality of the drink itself. This is worrying because as the narrative grows stronger, so does the opportunity for marketing and manipulation rather than people choosing a wine because they truly enjoy drinking it and have the confidence to choose it, which is the goal of wine based education across the world.
Fortunately most of these trends are, like all things that are very loud in media, followed by quite a small minority (although here is an interesting report on the true market value of ‘natural’ wines) and even so, is it so bad? If wine-makers are finding that their audience places value in long term environmental solutions, so what? This has to be good for the industry as a whole and frankly, the narrative of the wine is also important; I give wine tastings for a living, I would be crazy to deny this. What we need to strike is a balance. Wine, like all things, is more enjoyable when properly understood, even at a very basic level. Buying a bottle after hearing a story about a monastery that produces a nearly extinct grape variety in India and contributes all profits to the ‘Before it was cool’ association is not understanding wine, it’s buying a story. The same way that people bought the story of the ’99 point’ wine that had ‘a tactile sense of seemingly schistic, crushed stone impingement’ do not understand wine, they are buying a story as well, just in different , and often very amusing, words.
As wine starts to redefine itself in modern culture, education will need to work hard to keep up. In fact, it seems that the general level of wine education is increasing, particularly amongst younger people and that is a real cause for celebration. Ultimately, it’s down to us how we interact with wine — we have the potential to take wine to the next level and open more doors for more people. Conversely, we could screw it all up and go back to the hostile, inaccessible mess it was before. As I said in a previous article, anyone who works with wine becomes an ambassador whether they realise it or not; it’s part and parcel of the social nature of the industry we’re in.
I’ll finish by quoting Lettie Teague, author of the aforementioned WSJ article, who sums it up rather succinctly:“Will millennials in the end “revolutionize” wine — or banking or dining, for that matter? Will they render wine scores obsolete and classic wines like Bordeaux and Burgundy mere runners up to…Slovenian Chardonnay? Perhaps. They’ve certainly done their part to promote small producers creating interesting wines in odd corners of the globe. But to truly claim their position as the most powerful consumers in the world, they’ll need to develop a broader context and a deeper understanding of the entire world of wine — and not just an appreciation of a good story or a few obscure grapes.”