The wine community has been abuzz lately about its difficulty attracting young consumers. It’s a bit like drug pushers hanging around the school yard wondering where the kids are.
Okay, that’s unfair. Every consumer industry wants to attract new consumers and frets when its core demographic starts dying off. For wine, that core demo is us Boomers, who are beginning to fall off the actuarial table. Or at least, we are theoretically contemplating our mortality by slowing down our purchasing because we realize we’ll never be able to drink all of it. (There’s an essay there about whether we ever really intended to drink it or if we just bought it to admire in our luxury cellars and congratulate ourselves on being affluent and smart enough to buy it.)
The catalyst for all this wringing of hands and gnashing of purple teeth was the Silicon Valley Bank’s annual report on the state of the wine business, released in January. Rob McMillan, the report’s author, has been sounding the alarm for years but the industry hasn’t paid attention. Until now. I suspect his predictions in past annual reports are finally showing up on winery sales ledgers. We see the light of the oncoming train in the tunnel, but we don’t panic until it’s right in front of us.
I’ve written up past SVB reports, in years when they didn’t get the End is Nigh response of this year. I won’t summarize McMillan’s 2023 analysis — you can find it everywhere on the vinoweb and in the original here.
But I do have some thoughts on the generational shift issue, from a left-field perspective. My lens is a book published in 2012 called “Inventing Wine,” by Paul Lukacs. I reviewed it back then for The Washington Post, part of my only appearance in the book review section (aside from my annual writeup of wine books in my regular column). But Lukacs’s thesis has stayed in the back of my mind all these years, because I believe we are re-inventing wine now, in so many ways. More on that in posts to come.
Lukacs got right to his point in the first paragraph of his introduction: “So while people in different times and places have long drunk the same basic chemical substance, they have done so for a wide array of social and cultural reasons, in the process coming up with very different uses for it. Through its extensive history, wine has played various roles, being everything from a vehicle for spiritual communion to a source of bodily nourishment to an object of aesthetic appreciation. In virtually all of them, it has brought pleasure, but pleasure conceived of in a wide range of ways.”
How did Boomers conceive of wine? It was part of the good life, growing out of post-World War II travel to Europe, culinary exploration ignited by Julia Child. The real Boomer boom came in the late 1980s with the growth of the American wine industry. That’s when I got hooked on wine, in my late 20s, as the Cold War was ending and we appeared headed to an era of global peace and prosperity. The Greatest Generation may have won the war, but we won the post war. Time to party.
Wine was part of the good life. The best, as defined by arbiters such as Robert Parker and other critics, were to be collected and enjoyed, if not consumed, as symbols of our success. Wineries and vineyards became the playgrounds of the wealthy who sought to return to the land, whatever that means. Even “returning to the land” was a symbol of luxury. Magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast amplified this aspirational ideal of wine as the ultimate lifestyle. As Lukacs wrote, “an object of aesthetic appreciation.” If you’ve never participated in a “100 point dinner,” you’ve no doubt seen people bragging about them on social media. Wine appreciation at its worst.
Our children see all this as excess. The 2008 Great Recession was a blip for Boomers, but a formative experience for generations hanging on for dear life at the end of the alphabet. (Even that nomenclature hints of the End Times. What comes after Gen Z? Gen Alpha — as in “I am the Alpha and the Omega”?) They don’t envision a secure economic future, even if they will inherit whatever we don’t squander. They haven’t seen the world moving toward peace and stability — their world is school shootings, police brutality, systemic racism, insurrection and disfunction in Washington. They’ve lost faith in their national leaders. (I remember my father saying, “Wow, Nixon lied to us.”) They don’t expect Social Security to help them, and they may not believe the Earth will be habitable when they reach our age. They see us building our wine collections instead of trying to solve these problems. Why should they be interested in overpriced luxury wines? Why would they want to be like us?
Okay, I’ll stop here before I go totally off the rails. When my wife and I got hooked on wine back in the ‘80s and sought out other oenogeeks, we wereamong the youngest by far in our friends circle. Now we’re among the oldest. Today’s 20- and 30-somethings may or may not discover a love of wine, but it’s not likely to be our wine. It will be wine reinvented on their own terms.
The main issue is not just age but also the ethnic demographics of youth have changed. We are a more diverse nation with greater influence and consumption of non European foods. These non aeurooean foods rely on traditional alcoholic beverages that are not wine. Expect a lot of morphing!