Are We Prematurely Panicking about Selling Wine to Millennials?

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millennialsThe Internet is abuzz with discussions about the latest report from Rob McMillan of the Silicon Valley Bank on the current financial state of the wine industry. According to the most recent data, baby boomers are aging out of the wine market and millennials, short of cash and more focused on cannabis, cocktails and beer, aren’t picking up the slack. The result is slowing growth rates for wine consumption in the U.S. The worry is that millennials (age 22-37) are turned off by wine and its sometimes stuffy image signaling a long-term trend that will harm the industry.

No doubt wineries face an immediate problem if consumption is slowing. But I’m wondering if it is realistic to expect millennial consumption to be the solution.

I doubt that wine has ever been the drink of choice for most young people. It’s expensive and less efficient as an alcoholic delivery system than beer or spirits. Cheap wine is one dimensional and not very interesting. Yet appreciation of better quality wines is not only expensive but requires some experience, education and appreciation of nuance. Wine’s charms are often best appreciated with fine food consumed at a slower pace, and it’s a symbol of the good life and for some people elevated social status.  In other words, the wine experience is more likely to appeal to people as they mature.

This is not to say that wine can’t appeal to young people. Only that as a statistical generalization it is less likely to appeal to them. The median age of the millennial cohort is about  29 years old. That’s a bit young to be jumping wholeheartedly into wine.

The wine industry for the past few decades has enjoyed rapid growth largely supported by baby boomers. Yet the baby boomer generation got a late start in appreciating wine. I didn’t have a lot of time to dig for data today so I couldn’t find an analysis of how much wine was consumed by baby boomers when their median age was 29. Buy I’m quite sure their consumption was meager.

The baby boom generation today is aged 54-72 so they were born between 1947 and 1965. The median boomer was born in 1956 and so she was 29 years old in 1985. It is highly unlikely that 29 year old was supping much Chardonnay.

Why? Well, we know that in the 1980’s alcohol consumption, including consumption of wine, was plummeting. These were the Reagan years, “Just Say No to Drugs” was  the message, and hedonism wasn’t on the table. All of that changed in 1991 when 60 Minutes aired an episode on the French paradox—the French were notorious wine drinkers with a diet high in fat and cholesterol yet they enjoyed low rates of coronary disease. The hypothesis was that red wine was the source of their good health. (It probably wasn’t the cause but it was a good story)

As you might imagine, the French wine industry promoted the hell out of this story, rates of wine consumption skyrocketed even while alcohol consumption continued to diminish, and the rest as they say is history. Obviously, we cannot draw secure conclusions from one historical case. But it does show that 29 year old behavior is not destiny. The boomers were late to the party but when they arrived it became a celebration.

What seems stuffy at 29 can seem exciting at 35. When I was 29 I believed you couldn’t trust anyone over 30. It’s funny how that changed overnight.

There is little reason to think millennials–who after all pursue experiences rather than things, love to travel, and have already shown an interest in authentic food–will not embrace wine when they become more settled. That is, unless the neo-prohibitionists persuade them otherwise.

 

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The Art of Wine: Coturri Winery Petite Sirah Mendocino County 2016

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coturriToday, natural winemaking is the avant-garde of the wine world. That’s ironic since prior to the 1950’s most wines were made without pesticides in the vineyard, cultured yeast, or any of the additives now common in the wine industry. Located in the rugged hills behind Glen Ellen, Tony Coturri started making wine with his father on this property in 1963. Even then they were bucking the trend toward industrial winemaking,  growing organically, using natural yeast with no added sulfites, and no fining or filtering. Tony told me it was cheaper and easier to make wine the old fashioned way—just crushing, pressing and bottling. He’s now an icon of the natural wine movement since he was doing it long before most of the current crop of natural winemakers were in diapers. coturri2

Selling natural wine before there was a natural wine movement was not easy. In the 1980’s Tony would often hide his production methods from potential buyers lest they worry about exploding bottles from revived fermentations. But eventually that art of making natural wine that appeals to conventional tastes earned him plenty of customers along with the respect of none other than Robert Parker, who in the early 90’s gave Coturri wines good scores on several bottles.

It’s not hard to see why Parker liked these wines. The current trend among natural winemakers is to pick early before the grapes get too ripe, keeping alcohol low and emphasizing fresh fruit flavors. But Tony bucks this trend as well. His wines have plenty of fresh fruit but most of them, like this Petite Sirah under review, are explosive with massive, ripe fruit flavors and great depth.

coturri3But before I get to the Petite Sirah we should consider the issue of ageing natural wines. Natural wines with no added sulfur to act as a preservative have a reputation for not ageing well. There are of course many natural winemakers who don’t make their wines to age. But Tony opened a 1984 Pinot Noir and I brought a 1985 home—both were still vibrant and delicious. The 1985 was loaded with dried porcini mushroom aromas, good fruit power, clean, bright acidity and just a whisper of tannin. So much for the assumption that natural wine won’t age.

As for the Petite Sirah, it’s a glorious melee of generous berry aromas, fig, coffee, cinnamon and a prominent scent that hovered between sassafras and licorice—very intense and striking.

The palate opens with bold, dense blackberry progressing to a rather gentle, elegant midpalate with port-like flavors, and a penetrating finish that is surprisingly acid-driven. Petite Sirah is known for mouth-ripping tannins, but two years in barrel have tamed the beast. The tannins are broad and chewy with good length yet supple and fine grained. All this textural refinement happens beneath persistent, hi-toned acidity that gives the wine a tense, taut line from the opening through the citrusy punch on the finish.

The beat of dark blood–powerful, elegant, edgy, funky—it has an volatile, apocalyptic personality, fiercely euphoric with the mood shifts of a diva. Pair with the relentless, post-punk, otherworldly atmospherics of The Clash, London Calling

Technical Notes: From Poor Ranch Vineyard, vines average over 30 yrs. old, certified organic, elevation is 1176 ft., aged in used French oak.

Score: 93

Price: $35 (Purchase Here)

Alc: 14.5%

To Attract Millennials Try Offering Real Value

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sticker shockBusiness of wine guru Rob McMIllan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank, published his annual summary of the state of the U.S. wine business last week. Despite record breaking sales capping off many years of steady growth, according to the report, the rate of growth is slowing and the future looks challenging. The basic problem:

Baby boomers, who control 70 percent of US discretionary income and half of the net worth in the US, are moving into retirement and declining in both their numbers and per capita consumption.

and:

Millennials aren’t yet embracing wine consumption as many had predicted. Damaged financial capacity is a major contributor, but cannabis legalization is another factor explaining their slow adoption of wine.

Recent negative reports about wine and health, consolidation of distributors making it difficult for some wineries to find a market, the continued emergence of Big Box stores’ private labels, and the increasing cost and declining supply of labor are among the additional factors dragging down growth rates.

But the main issue is aging baby boomers and disinterested millennials, who seem to be embracing craft beer, cocktails and cannabis rather than wine. The Great Recession of 2008 delayed the career prospects of the millennial generation just as they were entering the job market. That loss of income and job experience, coupled with massive student debt and expensive housing in urban areas, will limit their disposable income for many years thus creating strong headwinds for sales of premium wine.

That trend runs up against the pricing strategies that wineries have been using the past few years. Consumers have shown they are willing to pay a bit more for a bottle of wine. Sales of wine under $10 have been flat or negative for some time, while sales have increased in the premium market. So what did wineries and retailers do? They raised their prices without necessarily improving quality. The wine that used to cost $8 now might cost you $12-$15. Of course, not every winery was able to raise prices but enough of them had sufficient market clout to do so and the strategy acquired a name—premiumization.

But that doesn’t seem like a wise strategy if you’re trying to sell wine to cash-strapped millennials. Might that have something to do with their reluctance to embrace wine? $15 is a lot of money to pay for the simple, sugary cough syrup that the big distributors are putting on supermarket shelves. Allegedly, millennials are into experiences rather than things. The only experience many so called premium wines offer is boredom.

Rob McMillan predicts premiumization has run its course and wineries will struggle to raise prices. A return to real value might be a good idea if it’s not too late.

Budget Wine Review: J. Lohr South Ridge Paso Robles Syrah 2016

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j lohrGuaranteed, you won’t hate this wine. It’s hard to hate something so precisely manufactured, perfectly coiffed, with no rough edges, and brimming with the typical flavors of commercial wine.

Black cherry, pepper, and a background layer of vanilla-inflected oak supply the aromatics with a bit of dust to remind you grapes come from the earth.

On the palate it’s quite lush, round and full showing berry and milk chocolate upfront and a blend of cinnamon and pronounced white pepper on the medium length finish. Speaking of the finish, this is where many less expensive wines fail. Not so here. The wine is quite linear until the finish reveals a nice, acid-driven crescendo with some elegance and finesse over soft tannins.

Surely a crowd pleaser, stylish and agreeable but emotionally flat until the lyrical finish. Pair with Hall and Oates’ I Can’t Go for That for an evening of anodyne cheerfulness.

Winery and Technical Notes: J. Lohr is a large producer making over 1.5 cases annually yet is still family owned and operated since 1972 and has long been noted for their sustainability practices. This wine is aged in American and French oak barrels, 20% new.

Score: 88

Price: $15 (Purchase here)

score: 88

Objectivity and Loving Attention

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wine taster 2The key to objectivity, for human beings not gods, is attending to an object for what it is, as something that demands I approach it with discipline. For instance, a difficult piece of music demands of a pianist who wants to master it that she pay attention to each nuance rather than skip over or modify the difficult passages. She allows the object to guide what she does and how she approaches it. She has desires and interests but puts them aside for the moment and allows the object to dictate her standards for acting.

Wine tasting is no different. When evaluating a wine, the first question is not “do you like it?” Instead the questions are “what is this wine about?” Where did it come from? What are the full range of properties it exhibits?”

Those who claim that wine tasting is subjective don’t like this kind of response to skepticism. They ask “How can you be certain you’re not being influenced by unconscious desires or influence?”

Well, you can’t be certain about anything. Why does certainty matter so much to you? The skeptic about objectivity wants a foolproof method, a logical certainty, that we have real contact with the world and is disappointed when none can be supplied. But that demand is misplaced.

It’s perfectly possible for us to achieve a robust connection to objects in the world. But the connection is not a logical achievement. It’s an ethical achievement, the product of discipline, knowledge, self-reflection and a kind of steadfast attention associated with love. These are human scale qualities and it’s all we have.

Often they are sufficient.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives at Three Quarks Daily

Wine Review: Matthiasson White Wine Napa Valley 2014

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matthiassonLong recognized as a innovator in vineyard management and a champion of sustainable agriculture, Steve Matthiasson and his wife Jill began making their own wine in 2003. They are now known for making award-winning Napa wines that are decidedly non-Napa like. They aim for a fresh, low alcohol, elegant style more often associated with France or Italy and using varietals seldom found in the U.S.  This white blend is roughly 50 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 25 percent Ribolla Gialla, 20  percent Semillon, and 5 percent Friulano. (Ribolla Gialla and Friulano form the backbone of the racy, expressive white wines of italy’s Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region.)

Intensely aromatic, tropical notes characteristic of California Sauvignon Blanc are prominent but set off by a powerful whiff of sea shells on the shore when the tide is out. Hazelnut is a background note. Round with some viscosity in the mouth, the long expressive midpalate redolent of lemon and peach gives way to a tart, orange peel and saline finish. The hint of salt sits on palate for several minutes if not interrupted.

The distinctive wine takes you on a journey from exotic and untamed to severe and exquisitely disciplined. The offbeat, vaguely tropical, subtle mood shifting of Bachianias Brasilieras #5 by Wayne Shorter is a good match for this mercurial wine.

Technical Notes: All varietals were co-fermented in 20% new Boutes barrels, aged on the lees (no stirring) for 10 months.

Score: 92

Price: $43 (Purchase Here)

Alc: 12.5%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crisp, refreshing and uniquely spicy and mineral-driven, this blends 50% Sauvignon blanc, 25% Ribolla Gialla, 20% Sémillon and 5% Tocai Friulano—all unusual varieties in the Napa Valley. Light, bright and fleshy, it tastes of lemon, mango and the sea.

The first thing that jumps out on the nose is pine sap followed by starfruit, under ripe honeydew, apple skin and white flowers with wet flinty gravel, fresh straw, hand cream, licorice and allspice. In the mouth white peach, sweet lemon curd and quince with toasted almond, bee’s wax, and oyster liquor from the shell. Juicy finish of orange pulp and cherry stone. Brisk acid and round creamy body a bit at odds.

 

The Sauvignon blanc brings a clean fresh citrusy acidity and some tropical character. The

Ribolla gialla brings seashell minerality, n

uttiness, and structure to the blend. The Semillon

contributes viscosity and

waxiness that adds gravity and weight. The

Tocai friulano adds spicy

aromatic notes. The acidity and fruit expression is balanced by a rich lees character and a

faint backdrop of

creamy

oak. There is interplay in the wine between lightness and richness,

and focus and complexity.

 

Flavors include the trademark white peach, kafir lime, lychee

nut, beeswax, ripe fig, and pineapple, but with much more prominent stones, oyster shells,

and freshly baled straw.

 

All four varieties were co

fermented in

20

%

new Boutes barrels, and

aged

on its lees, with

no stirring, until bottling (often we stir a bit to

help the wine flesh out, but this vintage didn’t need any more weight

we

wanted to

maintain freshness)

.

To preserve all of the acidity the wine was prevented from going through

malo

lactic fermentation

. After

ten

months of barrel aging, the wine was filtered to prevent

further malolactic fermentation, and then bottled

https://www.matthiasson.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Matthiasson-2014-White-Wine-Tech-Sheet.pdf

Ga Ga Over Glou Glou—Yes It’s Baby Talk

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person chuggingFrom “terroir” to élevage” to “sommelier”, the French have given us a wonderful vocabulary for denoting various elements in wine production and consumption. Their most recent linguistic import, despite the onomatopoeia, will hopefully have less long term significance.

You may not have heard the phrase glou-glou yet. It hasn’t quite hit the mainstream although it’s common in natural wine circles. Roughly translated, it means glug-glug mimicking the sound liquid makes when you chug it down your throat. It has come to refer to wines that are so refreshing you want to grab the bottle and keep drinking. It’s the hip version of porch pounder and among some natural wine aficionados, it’s become almost talismanic. Here are just a few encomia to the glories of glou-glou:

From Helen Johannesen, who owns the LA bottle shop Helen’s Wines:

It’s easy; it’s casual; it’s a vin de soif,” she said. “You’re not going to be swirling it in your glass over three hours trying to extract the tasting notes … It’s also a vibe—like: It’s a party! It’s cool! Life is for the living! (She said “living” in a Frenchy way.)

From Italian winemaker Stefano Bellotti:

So I decided, instead of making serious wine, I just wanted to make wine. Wine to drink. I make a red and a white. It worked out really well because instead of making wines that you have to intellectualize, I’ve also produced ones that just win you over, a wine you don’t think about, that you take great pleasure in drinking. You don’t need to worry what about the region or the varietal or the nose or whatever. When you do this you are intellectualizing wine, and wine doesn’t give a shit about being intellectual. So it’s “Simply” red or white: you bring them to the table and you don’t think about it, you just drink it. That’s it.

Summing up the general tenor, Louis Dressner finds this gem of hyperbole:

It’s more than just drinking. It’s a lifestyle.” said some bearded hipster.

It sounds like someone’s been drinking the adult Kool-Aid.

There are many methods for preserving freshness and fruitiness in wine. Glou-glou specifically refers to the use of carbonic or semi-carbonic maceration in which whole grapes are fermented in a carbon dioxide environment that allows the juice to ferment while still inside the berry. The result is a very juicy wine with low tannins. This is the method of fermentation that gives the wines of Beaujolais their distinctive bubblegum and banana aromas, which finds its most sublimely ridiculous expression in the cheaply made, expensively marketed, insipid Beaujolais Nouveau.

That this has become the cause célèbre of the natural wine movement is a shame.

Wine is of course many things. One of those things is a simple, inexpensive thirst quencher that we can drink while relaxing or occupied with other tasks. There is always room for this sort of wine and glou glou wines are more interesting and drinkable than most of the plonk you find at the supermarket.

But that is not all wine is. Wine is also a deeply complex, fascinating intellectual terrain as well as the source of great beauty, and an emotional lure connecting us to the land, the community, and to history. Anyone who thinks the future of wine lies in wiping out those deep resources in favor of weeknight chug-a-lug fundamentally misunderstands the scope of wine’s attractions. The glou glou wine style has a place; the excitement surrounding it is just juvenile.

As Simon Woolf, an expert on natural wines wrote recently:

Glou-glou dumbs wine down. Our thirst for juice light and bright with not a tannin in sight is being quenched at the expense of other qualities. Why should a winemaker sweat about structure when what’s most prized is fluidity? How many natural wine drinkers still care about longevity? How many importers or bars have the sitzfleisch to lay wine down? Why would they bother? When a market thirsts for something juicy and new and asks no questions (“don’t think” is another tenant of glou) such as whether a wine might be better given a year or two, what the market gets is you-know-who.

I’ve been drinking a good deal of natural wine lately and have visited several winemakers devoted to making wines that minimize interventions in the winery. I only occasionally come across a wine that I would describe as glou-glou. Thankfully, not everyone is on board the glou glou craze.

Natural wine is a fascinating and promising area of wine production driven by sound ethical and environmental principles as well as a search for distinctive flavors and vineyard expressions. If it is taken over by this simple minded pursuit of simplicity it will become just another passing fad attractive to only those unserious about wine. That is neither aesthetically inspiring nor a wise business strategy.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives at Three Quarks Daily

Budget Wine Review: Bodegas Breca Garnacha de Fuego Spain 2016

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garnache de fuegoBodegas Breca is noted for their old vine vineyards in the mountains of Southern Catalyud from which they’ve produced impressive, affordable Garnacha since 2010. Unlike other bottlings from Bodegas Breca that I’ve tasted, this wine is sold under the Spain D.O. (Denominación de Origen) instead of the region of Catalyud and makes no mention of old vines on the label, so I’m not sure of the provenance of the grapes. But the wine has  the signature dark fruit and minerality of old-vine, high altitude, dry-farmed Garnacha—and something more.

Aromas of blackberry, ripe plum, charred wood and crushed rock provide an intriguing,edgy introduction, the aromatic intensity boosted by alcoholic heat. A seam of minerality drives the medium weight palate giving the pure, dark fruit a hard edge. The tannins are expansive and drying and seem to get an intensity boost from the high alcohol while showing some bitterness on the finish—15.5% is almost unheard of in an $8 wine. Beware the sorcery of tannins and alcoholic heat. Darkly defiant, pent-up savagery hidden by a veneer of restraint, this is one weird wine with an occult charm like Ghost’s Danse Macabre

Technical notes: Aged in concrete and stainless steel

Score: 88

Price: $8

Alc: 15.5%

Wine and Politics Are Drinking Buddies

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wine and politics A tweet over the holidays unearthed some residual controversy over wine writer Jon Bonné’s article from last summer on the occasion of Anthony Bourdain’s death. Essentially, Jon Bonné’s point was that wine writing is in danger of becoming “fanboy literature”, ignoring the seamy side of the wine industry, and we need more Bourdain-type journalists who expose the truth.

Amber Lebeau at Spitbucket has a nice summary of the recent tweetstorm controversy which pitted Bonné against one Maureen Downey who was insisting wine and politics should seldom mix.

My initial reaction when the piece on Bourdain was published was supportive but conflicted. There should be more investigation of the political dimensions of wine but I hesitated over Bonne’s claim that we should judge the “moral condition” of the winemakers whose product we consume, if only because in most cases I know little about a winemaker’s “moral condition”.

But the original article implicitly raises a general question that is nicely framed by Amber—”are wine and politics strange bedfellows or drinking buddies?”

It’s important to emphasize that it’s beyond ridiculous to assert that wine writers shouldn’t write about political issues germane to the wine industry. That includes diversity in the wine business, the status of immigration and the treatment of immigrant labor, labor abuses including sexual harassment, climate change, the use of chemicals in the vineyard, and the closeting of great wines available only to the super rich. It goes without saying that writers who discuss politically –charged issues should be competent and well informed.

But I want to focus on the contrary argument alluded to in Bonné’s original article

It is an industry that, because it’s viewed by outsiders as a nice little escapist haven from the real world, has a nearly pathological aversion to its less-than-perfect side.

Many of the tweets, as well as Amber’s post, expressed a desire for wine to be that safe haven that Bonne dismisses as escapist.

Is wine a safe space, an arena of aesthetic pleasure and conviviality which will be inevitably compromised by the conflicts and tensions of politics?

There is no doubt that the wine industry is selling romance. Wine is a symbol of the sweet life, a life of ease, pleasure and conviviality. I don’t think we can fault the industry for selling that because wine quite naturally lends itself to that image. (It is more than that as well, but I will leave that discussion for another day.)Thus, it isn’t surprising that many people see wine as a safe space, a place where the tribulations of the world can be suspended if only for a moment, and we can put aside differences and rejoice in the pleasures of life.

But that portrayal of wine is inherently political.

The enjoyment of wine (and food when enjoyment is the point of consumption) puts our lives outside the time frame of our obsession with the hamster wheel of production and consumption that drives the frantic pace of modern life. Wine prescribes a different use of our time—the time to savor the tissue of moment to moment satisfactions that sustain life’s meaning. With its emphasis on conviviality and good cheer, the wine life puts out of joint the authoritarian production paradigm that pits one person against another in a competitive space with a strict hierarchy in which sharing goes in one direction, toward the top of the organization. By contrast, wine and food occupy the space of hospitality where there is a hierarchy, the carer and the cared for, but relations of reciprocity and interchange are at its essence

The enjoyment of wine is not merely of the sensory properties of wine but the idealized meaning of a way of life. The mythology, the romance, is precisely the point.

But there is a political point to this that cannot be wished away in our zeal to preserve inner peace.

As French philosopher Jacques Rancière writes: “Politics is primarily conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it.” And  Rancière thinks aesthetic objects, such as art but I would guess also wine, play a crucial role in politics so defined. Art defines ways of being together or being apart and changes our assumptions about who or what belongs in the same space. (Think of paintings or films that put people or objects in a shared space quite different from their juxtaposition in ordinary life.)

Rancière calls this the “partition of the sensible”. Aesthetic practice takes part in the “partition of the sensible” insofar as it suspends the ordinary coordinates of sensory experience and reframes the network of relationships we engage in by situating them in a different space and time, and by revising our perceptions of what is common and what is singular.

Wine defines a common stage, a particular way of being together outside the time and space of the production paradigm. But as such it then cannot turn around and ignore questions about who gets to be on the stage and what their relationships are. Or to put the point differently, the romance of wine precludes judgments like “I don’t have time for you” or “my pleasure depends on your pain”.

If wine is about pleasure and hospitality, we can’t forget about the hospitality side of the equation—the question of whose pleasure and how it is being served is just part of the territory.