The future of the wine business — and it’s not what the wine business thinks it is

AllisonThe Wine Curmudgeon has seen the future of the wine business, and it is not like anything that we have imagined. It is not about scores or cult wines or big name critics or even the Winestream Media. Rather, it is about consumers drinking wine because they like it or their friends like it or someone they know through social media likes it — and, most importantly, they really don’t care what anyone else thinks about what they like.

And, with apologies to Jon Landau, at a time when I needed to feel young and positive about wine, and not middle-aged and cranky and full of despair about cute labels and the flavor of the month and wine spelled with dollar signs, developments over the past month or so have reminded me of what wine is and why I love it and why I do this.

The starting point was Allison Davis’ brilliant rant and primer and manifesto on the Hairpin blog, addressed to those 25- to 35-year-old women who like wine but don’t understand why they’re not allowed to like it the way they want. Why, as Davis wrote, they end up “smiling through a glass of something at a dinner party that [they] can’t pronounce and aren’t sure if [they’re] supposed to enjoy, instead of actually enjoying the wine.” More, after the jump:

That moment — and it was a moment that will stay with me for a long time — focused my attention, and I started to notice things: The guy with the tattoos and the piercings at the State Fair of Texas buying wine and drinking it with obvious pleasure; the several 20-something women at a wine tasting I did who listened to what was said and decided what made sense and what was hooey; and the look of complete incomprehension on the face of several traditional wine types when I broached this subject, and who told me, more or less politely, that the world I described didn’t exist and never would.

That’s because they live in their own world. Which was the point of Davis’ Hairpin post and its importance in understanding the changes coming to the wine business. Hairpin is a hugely popular blog, attracting more than 340,000 visitors a month. It’s not one of the multi-million visitor Mommy blogs, but it’s big enough, and its visitors are young women without kids who have money — the kind of audience that makes advertisers drool. And those readers loved the post. There were some 300 comments, asking almost every conceivable question about wine and taking the discussion into a variety of wine-related topics. To put that number of comments in perspective: It’s about as many as a Hairpin post about “accidental” bra touching got.

“I got the feeling there was a sense of relief after I wrote the post,” says Davis, a 20-something film and TV writer and producer who didn’t pay much attention to wine until she started dating a winemaker, Ari Heavner of Sonoma’s Idle Cellars. “People were saying, ‘I’m not the only one who feels this way.’ You think everyone knows more about wine than you do when you’re in your 20s. People don’t trust themselves. They don’t know what good wine is and what it’s supposed to taste like.”

Which, as Davis wrote in her post and reiterated in our phone conversation, is exactly the way the wine business wants it. She said the wine business puts up barrier after barrier, including language, in which you need to know winespeak to make sense of wine, and class, in which the impression is that only rich people can enjoy wine.

“There is no safe place to really learn about wine,” says Davis. “There aren’t any places where you can ask a stupid question. If you ask a question, it’s as if the attitude is, ‘Why don’t you know this already?’ instead of ‘Why would you know this?’ Because wine is so complicated, and there is so much to learn and who has the time to figure all this out?”

But, says Davis, this is changing. Trader Joe’s, the specialty retailer famous for Two-buck Chuck, “blew the door open for wine.” she says. “If they sell a wine for $10 or less, you know it’s OK to buy cheap wine, because you trust Trader Joe’s.” Which, actually, is something I had never thought about, and made perfect sense.

Many younger wine drinkers, meanwhile, are “attempting to demystify wine. The attitude is, ‘I love it, so I want you to love it. I want you to appreciate it.’ ” Davis says. “So they’re trying to take the snobbery out of it. They may not like the wine world, but they do love wine.”

Heartening words, indeed. They sustained me during a chat with a winemaker who feels much the same as I do, but who wasn’t as optimistic. He muttered something about the fickleness of the young, but I didn’t let his attitude deter me. Because I have seen the future, and I like what I see.

7 thoughts on “The future of the wine business — and it’s not what the wine business thinks it is

  • By Randy Caparoso -

    Tell me what’s the difference between novice drinkers of today and novice drinkers during the nineties, the eighties and the seventies. Ain’t none — the future of wine insofar as consumer profile is pretty much the same as it ever was: people enjoying wine for social reasons and because it is the thing to consume with food, and always “knowing what they like.”
    Grandma and grandpa may not have had pierced body parts and full body tatoos, but physical appearances don’t make today’s wine drinkers any different than yesterday’s, and I doubt it will be different anytime soon.
    Each generation had their simpleton labels to latch on to, and each generation struggled to understand the labels of finer wines with references to appellations and vineyards. There’s always been “winespeak,” but that’s always been the fun of it, too.
    If anything, today’s consumers are spoiled rotten: not only is there so much more access to information than ever before, there are far, far more wines to choose from around the world than there was 30 years ago, and a lot more than just 10 years ago. Not only that, far, far more wines in low price ranges. If anything, it’s easier for today’s burgeoning consumers to become more sophisticated faster, even if the highest levels of wine have been rendered inaccessible by ridiculous prices and hoarding collectors.

  • By John Skupny -

    Is this all about the Millenials? The generation that learned to drink mocha lattes’ on their way to fifth grade, that had a rainbow of flavor experiences like no other generation, ever, the same folks that have fueled the craft brewing segment with the idea that ‘more is more’?… and they can’t figure out wine???? Advice – if you have a corkscrew – use it – if it has a screw cap- twist it…

  • By Ari Heavner -

    After reading her article in the Hairpin as well, I think Allison helps give confidence to a new generation of wine drinkers. In an industry filled with people telling you what to like, it’s important to remember that in the end what you like is what you like and no one can take that from you.

  • By Jim Wofford -

    From one curmudgeon to another:
    From your mouth to God’s ears.

  • By Lisa Mattson -

    Hi Jeff,
    I really enjoyed reading this. The Parker post was intriguing too. Sorry I’ve lost touch. Hope you’re well.

  • By Stoned Wino -

    You palate will never lie to you…that’s the only thing you need to know about wine. Pop some corks and find out what YOU really like.

  • By Stoned Wino -

    Great post and true. Millenials are the cutting edge in so many ways.

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