by Charlie Leary

The Disenfranchised

If you search in Google  for “countries without a wine culture,” it returns an entry for “What countries are dry?”: “Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Mauritania, Libya, the Maldives, Iran, Kuwait, Brunei, and Bangladesh […] have alcohol bans, as do some states in India.” This, of course, was not my question. My concern was places where the indigenous culture overwhelmingly favours consumption of other kinds of alcohol than wine. I do not expect the modern wine industry to have actively marketed in Brunei or Mauritania in the past.

In giant India with its growing middle class, though, yes. Where I live in Panama and the rest of Central America (population of over 185 million) too. Those are just two examples where I perceived a lack of appropriate industry attention to creating a “wine culture.” Historically, wine has unsurprisingly instilled itself in wine producing countries or their neighbours: South Africa, South America, most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America.

In Asia writ large, much of Africa, Central America and the Caribbean, not so much. These areas consist of vast, alcohol consuming markets. The international wine trade has existed for centuries. Marketing and education skills are advanced. What happened?

No sustained effort has existed to engage these populations with wine, something that has also recently proved true of younger generations (known as the Millennials and Generation Z) even in countries with sophisticated wine cultures like the US, France, and Germany. I asked Rob McMillan, author of the annual Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Industry Report, about this. “Younger consumers aren’t adopting wine as older consumers did,” he affirmed. His 2023 Report concludes that “the wine industry isn’t working together to solve the obvious demand problem for the wine category.”

Panamanians drink plenty. A recent newspaper headline was “Panama, the King of Beer in Latin America,” including numerous artisanal breweries. But wine? There’s a disconnect with the majority of the population.

I pondered why, now that the wine industry’s “demand problem” has dawned, were these huge swaths of alcohol-consumers ever left off the wine train? I tentatively called these souls, defined here by geography and by generation, the wine “disenfranchised.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s first definition of the word is: “deprived of some right, privilege, or immunity.” The first example: “Tough, resourceful, and determined to help her disenfranchised and disenchanted students learn how to learn and love it, Johnson employs a barrage of techniques.” I would insert: “learn [wine] and love it.”

I hypothesized that the world has these two broad, overlapping disenfranchised groups — youth and denizens of countries lacking a wine culture — and that the cause was the same for both. I decided to inquire with a few experts about it. Regarding the former group, Rob McMillan told me, “The reasons are manifold but no matter how we slice the reasons, we have to accept the young consumer isn’t engaged with wine as a favoured beverage. And when I say, ‘we have to accept,’ I’m referring to a number of commentators who continue to say we just need to wait until the consumer is older, and they will come around.” Misguided trust in an effortless inter-generational transmission of wine habits has failed.

Rob revealed he has “not tracked small market countries” like India and Panama, so I also turned to Sonal Holland, India’s first and only Master of Wine, to ask what she thought of the “disenfranchised” concept.

Sonal did not disagree, but focused on who has done the disenfranchising, with a slightly different take from Rob. “When you say, ‘disenfranchised,’ who do you mean? It’s unfair to expect the wine producers to carry this mantle. They’re not in the business of education. It’s the wine professionals like us, the wine communicators, who have disenfranchised people. The more we’re experienced, the more we choose only to speak with each other. I’m not sure if it’s ego or a disconnect with the root, the fundamentals, from ground level knowledge. I don’t think anyone really writes for consumers; it’s for the trade. There’s a secret language that’s only understood among this qualified fraternity.”

Sonal and I talked about India, but she sees a global failure. “There’s a need to bring the audiences from the ground up because wine is not understood by a vast majority of Indians. But I find that true of every population and every culture and every country.” She then used the example of the UK.

Finally, I spoke to the very knowledgeable Mike Veseth, “The Wine Economist.” Mike likes to break things down into their component parts, avoid generalities, and pursue precise quantifiable comparisons, like between board games and wine. Regarding nations left behind in past years without a stop on the wine train, such as India or Panama, he said, “I am reminded of Tolstoy’s observation about families. All happy families are happy in the same way, but each unhappy family is unhappy for its own reason. Substitute ‘wine culture’ for ‘family’ and I think it tells a story.” There’s a need to analyze each case, and my thesis is perhaps too general. We can very capably segment markets, so let’s do so. “I think there are often active wine cultures embedded with countries that we think of as non-wine and how they survive and sometimes even thrive is perhaps as interesting as why wine doesn’t dominate.”

Mike also demanded more precision regarding Rob McMillan’s “younger consumers,” saying, “It is important to ask the generational question about wine, but equally important to understand the diversity within each generation as well as the differences between and among them.” He provided the example of the US Baby Boomers, a generation labelled as “wine drinkers,” but that also consists of people “who don’t drink wine and often don’t consume any alcohol. Maybe what’s important is not that they are boomers but that they are different from the majority of boomers?” He suggested applying the same question “to other generations,” including the Millennials and Gen Z.

Overall, Mike Veseth suggested less doom and gloom as long as the wine industry’s appropriate focus is on defining the potential bright spots in each group and encouraging them. Basic education is key. Meeting them where they are.

The Wine Industry Report contains plenty of good news too, including some international “tailwinds”: “Good, approachable and continuously improving wines are being grown and made throughout the [US] in each state, as well as in Canada and even northern Mexico. With dedicated colleges and capital available to fund more growth, these non-traditional regions are making hand-crafted wines at affordable prices and bringing in younger new consumers to the category.”

Sonal Holland MW also has plenty of optimism, including for India, “A lot has changed in the past 10 years. Consumption of domestic wine has really taken off.” She reminds me that “more than 50% of India is below 25 years of age. 700 million people are under 25 years of age. Every year we have 20 million people who join the legal drinking age population. We have to build them up, to mold them, in the right way: moderate consumption, responsible consumption.”

Extremely active and internationally successful with wine ed on social media as well as with her eponymous wine academy in Mumbai, Sonal says, “What do I need to do, as a Master of Wine, to be able to make a meaningful contribution in the demographic of the market where I exist? That’s all I think about. It’s a very simple question in my head. Even if I’m a MW I must be able to make wine affordable, accessible, and affable.” She determines: “I’m not so concerned about the Indian youth. We’re 10 years behind [in wine market trends], which is probably a good thing. We have 10 years to act.”

In my home of Panama, too, there’s been a heartening flurry of post-pandemic activity in the wine sphere. I can count at least three new wine bars in Panama City, various new fine wine importers (in a market where previously one family dominated 80% of the market), a wine festival in the bastion of coffee growing, Boquete, the second year of a new wine diploma program from the country’s top university, and “The Wine Bar,” founded by a Swiss chef long ago, has new life with dozens of introductory wine classes. “Non-traditional regions” and “younger new consumers” give me faith in extending the franchise.

Photo by Angel Silva and Unsplash

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