Jon Bonné, Weird Wines, and the Post Hoc Fallacy

weird winesIn philosophy there is a logical fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc, a Latin phrase meaning “after this, therefore because of this”. In other words, the fact that Y comes after X does not entail that X caused Y. X might have caused Y but you need evidence of the causal relationship not the timing alone.

It seems to me Jon Bonne’s recent article [behind a pay wall] is guilty of that fallacy. Entitled “When It Comes to Wine, Weird is the New Normal and That’s for the Better” his thesis is that the recent movement away from fine wine and high alcohol fruit bombs toward more diverse styles—natural wine, wine in cans, rose all year, orange wine, and wine from less renowned wine regions—was caused by the great recession of 2008. Before the recession, wine lovers had the money to spend on high end Burgundy, Bordeaux or Napa cult wines. After the recession they had to reign in the spending in favor of cheaper and more diverse offerings. His claim seems to be that, but for the recession, we would still be clamoring for high end conventional wines.

He is right that the wine community is undergoing aesthetic change and these changes gained momentum in the late 2000’s. But the claim that it was caused by the 2008 recession doesn’t quite ad up. There are three reasons for doubting this causal claim:

1. The people hit hardest by the recession were not the people buying Bordeaux and Burgundy. The wealthy did lose a lot of wealth quickly but they also recovered fairly quickly. Furthermore, for the few years in which they had to tighten their belts they could buy good knock offs of cult wines and Grand Crus at a fraction of the cost. Why would they start drinking orange wine?

2.  Most ordinary consumers were priced out of the Bordeaux/Burgundy/cult wine market by the late 1990’s, long before the great recession. Perhaps during the Great Recession the upper middle class had to stop buying the occasional splurge wine but why would they settle on weird wines instead of more modestly priced conventional wines?

3. The interest in less conventional wine styles is driven by Millennials, Gen Xer’s and to a growing extent, Generation Z. Except for early Gen X’ers none of these cohorts would have had the money to buy splurge wines in the 2000s. And thus the recession would not have caused them to change their taste in wine.

It is true that there are a lot of interesting “weird” wines available today in the $20-$40 range. But there have always been good, conventional wines in that price range. I don’t see how the change in economic circumstances explains the aesthetic change. It’s also true that the iconic fine wines are no longer affordable. But that little to do with the recession.

There are two simpler explanations than the one Bonné gives. The first is that baby boomers, who learned to taste when fine wine was more affordable, are aging out of the wine market. They are being replaced by people who lack that background because they never could afford those wines and never acquired a taste for them. They are open to diverse styles because they never acquired the rather staid, conservative image of wine that ruled baby boomers for several decades.

But perhaps more importantly, tastes change because we get tired of the same thing after awhile. I don’t think we need an implausible economic explanation for our need to avoid boredom.

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