Considering we have the good fortune to deal with one of mankind’s greatest creations, we wine people spend a lot of time worrying. Our industry is inextricably linked to nature and the passing of the seasons and we’re all-too aware that we’re the frog in the increasingly warm water of climate change. There’s more. The dramatic imbalance between supply and demand is never truly corrected by market forces, leading to a constant surplus of wine that’s either distilled or sold for pennies on the bulk market. And then there’s the pressure from the anti-alcohol lobby. Perhaps one day we’ll have to seriously confront the fact that five to 22% of the volume of what we’re dedicating our lives to can be toxic in excess.
These are serious issues that we face. So, naturally, we worry about almost everything else instead. A great deal of this self-imposed anxiety comes from the misguided attempts to keep up with the Jones – beer and spirits with their beautifully manicured lawns, new cars and flashy clothes. Don’t let the fact that these are entirely different businesses with significant differences at every level worry you; wine should be more like them. Or at least that’s what we keep hearing from the people unironically styled as Steve Jobs, speaking at one another via wireless microphones at conferences they’ve invited themselves to. That these speakers often offer consultation services to address these fears is probably entirely coincidental.
For example; did you know that young people don’t drink as much wine as older generations? Yeah, me too. Mostly because it’s a dynamic that’s been true ever since we found a way to provide fresh drinking water, but also because it’s a constant theme in the self-flagellation circuit of wine commentary. Blake Gray recently listed the various ways that wine has tried to capture a younger audience over the last couple of decades, mostly with limited success. Wine2Wine, a business forum focusing on the world of wine, takes a similar approach. The issue seems to be particularly relevant in the USA, where only very recently, the wine division of the Silicon Valley Bank worried Alder Yarrow into wondering whether the wine industry is heading for a “self-inflicted decrepitude”.
They´re not wrong in identifying the issue. A younger generation, and “young” is quite generously defined in the world of wine, isn´t falling in love with wine in quite the same way as previous generations. Perhaps we should have collectively marketed more coherently to new tastes and values as a younger generation acquired spending power. Perhaps the adoption of modern technologies would have convinced young adults to delve deeper into the world of wine. Various attempts have been made but so far it’s flummoxed the greatest minds in our industry. How could a 30 year old be happy to spend $20 on a bottle of Jamet Côte Rôtie in the 1990s, but balk at the chance to purchase a bottle of Miraval rosé for the same amount today? It´s the great mystery of our time.
From inequality at every level, exploited labour in its production and excessive alcohol consumption, the wine industry has a few White Elephants stomping around. Let´s introduce another to the herd: wine is actually quite expensive. For the record, it’s important to define wine in this context as “something you’d actually want to drink”. For a generation that is staring down the barrel of their third major recession after barely navigating a global pandemic, unprecedented political upheaval and the rapidly encroaching death of our planet, spending money on luxury alcohol isn’t necessarily a priority. Then, when it is, what’s readily on offer is often enough to turn away the few that actually try.
You see, one of the current difficulties of trying to sell to a younger generation is that what we’re looking for isn’t what you’re selling. The commonly championed line is that “wine has never been better”. Is it really? The bar might have been raised from whichever ocean floor it was resting on in the 1960s, but that doesn´t help if the wines you really want to drink are displaced to the heavens in the process.
The simple truth is, there´s a lot of incredibly mediocre wine out there. How can we expect to capture the attention of new buyers if we’re offering them 13 bottlings of the same Sauvignon Blanc? The majority of modern wine media is so transparently driven by advertisement revenue that it has next to no impact; why would anyone ever spend money on wines when the author clearly has no intention of doing so either? Social media, for its part, has made it very obvious that, for many influencers, the real joy in their writing doesn’t come from the £6.99 bottle of Lidl Minervois they’re posting about.
The only major change in the world of wine that has truly had an impact in capturing the palates, and wallets, of a younger generation is a segment that is usually casually dismissed – the world of natural wine. The wine industry finally rediscovered that long lost, holy trio of factors that snagged the hearts of those currently worrying about it: authenticity; quality; affordability. Like the Burgundy you used to buy before the rest of the world discovered it, the wine was sold to you by a person. It had a story. It was delicious, interesting and you could afford it, even if not in huge quantities. It offered a point of difference versus other alcoholic drinks on the market and it made you want to come back for more.
Selling wine to the young isn’t the conundrum it’s made out to be. We want the same things you do. We just don’t have the same resources and many of the classic producers are now priced in the same category as a trip abroad. So, we look for new wines, new drinks, new ways to enjoy ourselves. The next generations aren’t going to be pre-ordering large quantities of wine at premium prices based on the say-so of critics that we don’t really trust, to be stored in the cellars of large houses that we don´t have.
It’s perhaps inevitable that the world of wine is coming in for a long overdue contraction. The real question is, how will we react? If it really is coming, which wines would you want to save? The delicious, authentic wines that make you want to explore further, or the bottles with a holographic image of Snoop Dogg? If we´re serious about engaging with a younger generation, perhaps it´s time we actually started to take them seriously.
Photo by Gary Tresize and Unsplash