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U.S. wine consumption surpasses France; Millennials get the credit

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Darek Trowbridge, of Old World Winery, wrote about “Libation, A Bitter Alchemy” on his Facebook page. It’s a 2009 book by Deirdre Heekin, described on this website as “a series of linked personal essays [in which] Heekin explores the curious development of her nose and palate [and] her intuitive education and relationship with wine and spirits…”. Darek wrote that he liked “Especially the chapter on Scent and language where she shows that ‘your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously [al]though the words and references are really useful only to people who have had the same experiences and thus are part of a shared “community” experience.’”

I haven’t read the book so can’t comment on it. There are several concepts encased in the above paragraph, though, that are worth exploring.

1. the curious development of her nose and palate

One’s “nose and palate” do develop over time, but only if one wants them to. As with any other acquired skill, this takes time, patience and effort.

2. Your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously

I never really thought about it that way, but its’s true. The more you talk and write about wine, the more nuanced your palate becomes, which in turn pushes your wine vocabulary to greater heights, and on and on. It’s almost as if you’re creating new areas in the brain related to the understanding of wine and wine-related words. I can’t explain it physiologically, but developing a palate–the discernment of qualities in wine–is directly linked to developing a wine vocabulary.

A “wine vocabulary,” however, isn’t just limited to words describing wine, or even to scientific terms like pH or brettanomyces. If you possess a good wine vocabulary, you are able to talk intelligently about all aspects of wine, including the industry, history and most aspects of terroir.

3. [al]though the words and references are really useful only to people who have had the same experiences

We are tribal animals. This explains why people who are really into wine can’t explain it to people who don’t care about wine. It also explains a lot of the disconnect that sometimes arises between younger bloggers and older writers. We haven’t had the same shared experiences.

4. and thus are part of a shared “community” experience

That disconnect isn’t as large as it used to be, because as the bloggers write and talk more about wine, their palates and vocabulary simultaneously expand (cf. #2). As that happens, their experiences more nearly match the experiences of the older writers (cf. #3), which brings us all into a community, sharing a common experience.

As if to underscore this fact, yesterday Gomberg, Fredrikson released a new finding that,  for the first time ever, “the United States just surpassed France in total wine consumption.” They attribute this to “the Millennial generation com[ing] of age, pushing aside their Generation X predecessors, who tended to prefer fancy vodkas and tequilas.” Millennials like their wine. To me, this has implications for the kinds of wine California is going to produce in the future. As the Millennials get more discerning (see #s 1-4, above), their palates will expand. That’s another way of saying they’ll demand quality, as opposed merely to low price. I think it bodes well for wines that are more balanced. One of the things you acquire as you develop a palate is an acute dislike of imbalanced wines, of which California produces too many. Wine after all is a commodity that must give consumers what they demand. Discerning Millennials are demanding better wines and I for one am ready to give credit to the bloggers (and, yes, social media) for leading the charge.

  1. The Heekin book sounds fascinating. Reading about it here prompted me to Google her name, which was vaguely familiar as a byline. Found a nice piece (http://bit.ly/grWjbW) from Palate Press a few years ago about her — she and her husband have a small restaurant in Vermont as well as a vineyard that should be coming on line about now. I think I’m going to grab a copy of the book.

    (On the U.S./France consumption data, no big deal, but that news actually came out a few weeks ago. http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-03-16/business/28693622_1_wine-shipments-wine-consumption-wine-industry)

  2. We are still way behind France when it comes to per capita consumption. Still, it’s very good news because not only are the Americans drinking more wine, there’s also much more room to grow.

    I feel like Americans still have so much to learn overall when it comes to wine. I see so many people buying wine because it has a cute name or an interesting label. Hopefully the days of purchasing a bottle for what is inside as opposed to what is outside is not far off.

  3. J.R. Wirth says:

    You say millenials will demand “quality” over low price and that will bode well for wines that are more balanced. There is no evidence to support this. Quite to the contrary. How can millenials acquire more “discerning” palates when half their taste buds have been burned off smoking crystal meth? How can the most unbalanced generation in history discern a balanced wine from horse piss? Given this generation’s taste in music, I can imagine auto-tuned wine coming soon. The wine they prefer will most likely go down as rough as bubblegum kerosene.

  4. Credit given to Bloggers and Social Media? Totally agree with that … Wine is a cool thing in that age also right now. The down side could be … Fad with them?

  5. Dear J.R. Wirth, how old are you? You sound a little grouchy.

  6. Michael says:

    Split between Steve’s and JR’s assumption on millenials demending quality. NO, the bubblegum/kerosene thing, not likely and a little too extreme (hence, I agree, the grouchy comment). I do think that it is possible that more millenials will want good wine versus Gen x’ers. With that you might expect to find a slight increase in quality out of CA.

    RE: labels and cute pictures motivating purchases…has anyone studied this buying habit in misc European countries? I bet there are plenty of people in every country around the world, not just the bag on the US types. AND, I would best in France, as an example of their blind buying, you have people in Beaujolais (as an example, but this would apply to Bordeaux, the Rhone, Alsace, etc) who buy Beaujolais just because they live there and it’s the local wine, not because it is good because of XYZ reason we assume makes a good wine purchase in the US. We have consumers who buy blind based on a cute animal on the label, and other countries have consumers buying blind based on their own personal appellation.

    Just a thought,
    Michael

  7. Love the conversation you’ve started here Steve and I would guess it is in line with the intensions of the book, to create an interesting conversation about the root of our palate. I think being willing to experiment is one of the most important factors in a developing palate and it occurs to me that Millenials show a voracious appetite for experimentation and that may have started at an early age. My kids get to put a finger in my wine to taste and it’s interesting to see their perceptions of the flavors as their experience increases, and as that happens their vocabulary on the subject increases. I would love to study the palate “experience” if I were to go back to college but that ain’t happenin’ so I’ll settle for on the job training!

  8. Until restaurants in the States stop charging $9 per glass, and people forget the notion they are somehow more sophisticated for consuming it, America will never truly understand wine. Just like tourists in Italy and France are perfectly happy to spend that kind of money next to some landmark without realizing the locals get half a liter for 4 euro.

  9. Young Cakk says:

    J.R. your just mad your generation didnt do sh*t but bring the wine industry down as millennials past france to be the #1 consumer in the world.

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