Wine may seem like the hot drink of the moment – especially if you ask suburban moms – but as we know, things aren’t always as they seem. According to Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division, U.S. wine consumption is due to decline for the first time in 20 years due to frugal millennial consumption choices. And not only that, what millennials are drinking are primarily generic, American wines.
After decades of European dominance, fine European wines historically defined by region and cultivation practices are falling out of favor. In the old European tradition, and even for fine American wines, it’s all about the terroir and tradition. Today, though, many vineyards are abandoning those roots to compete in this more competitive industry. They can seek attention from a shrinking Baby Boomer population that prefers more traditional wines or attempt to lure skeptical millennials, but it’s hard to do both.
Whether you like new and innovative wines or prefer a vintage European bottle, you can’t deny that something is changing, and some think these changes are disastrous for the traditional art of wine. Will a closer look complicate the picture further? Or will it show wine in 2017 to be a shadow of its past as Eurocentric traditions fade?
The Mark of the Millennial
Although millennials may not be the group most closely associated with wine consumption, as with any other sector viewed to be going downhill, the decline of wine has been placed squarely on their shoulders. Why? As noted above, millennials aren’t drinking a great deal of wine – but they’re also drinking the wrong wine. Yes, as (millennial) sommelier Jason Jacobeit of Bâtard explains, millennials buy wine based on the story, not necessarily the taste. That means they drink a lot of subpar wines, rather than the best the market has to offer, just because they think the narrative is interesting.
Millennials may not be eschewing wine entirely but it may be true that what they are choosing to drink is dragging down the art of wine as we’ve come to know it, both in the American and European markets. Where wine lists have historically leaned heavily on offerings from France, Italy, and even Napa, millennials are opting for less established wineries. Can a Washington syrah really compare to a classic Bordeaux? Maybe – but Jacobeit wouldn’t put his money on that Slovenian Chardonnay that he says millennials keep requesting.
A Matter of Taste
Like any other aspect of culinary culture, wine choices are matters of taste – but wine is both an acquired taste and one often associated with a lot of education. Participating in sommelier-led wine tastings, for example, is often considered key to understanding how to drink and appreciate wine, but many millennials aren’t interested in that process. And those who are tend to head for tastings that center on new approaches to wine culture, leaving mainstream sommeliers skeptical.
Consider Oregon’s burgeoning wine culture or organic and biodynamic “slow wines” as seen on display at a recent New York wine tasting. Those are two entirely different takes on modern wine. Organic and biodynamic slow wines, sourced around the country, are popular with people who are interested in blending quality products with modern and classic techniques and less concerned with region. Are they privileging process over terroir? Perhaps, but that may not be a bad thing.
Then there’s Oregon, home to a particularly independent branch of wine culture. Oregon is not only an atypical wine country, it’s full of vineyards that aren’t especially interested in being typical in the first place. That’s how you wind up with products like Teutonic’s unusual gewürztraminer spiked with pinot noir – it may not be traditional, but it’s definitely a unique, Oregon-style product and one that locals are snapping up. It suits their tastes.
Art, Wisdom, and Modern Wine
Today’s wine culture may not hinge on Tuscany’s Sangiovese grape or the bold flavors of Amarone and classic Spanish Riojas, but that doesn’t make it a spoiled culture. Perhaps rather than considering the classic art of wine ruined, a more accurate assessment would say that it’s evolving. Major French and Italian vineyards aren’t going anywhere and a slowdown in Napa is unlikely to devastate the industry, but there are certainly new players on the scene that come across as more accessible. Striking a balance between the two will give wine a rich future to complement its extraordinary history.