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Making wine sexy


Any article with the headline Time to sex up wine is going to get my attention!

That’s how Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight Daily News Fetch put it last week, in reporting on an article in Harpers’ on a Spanish M.W., Pancho Campo, who told a Hong Kong [where else?] audience that “wine’s image should be ‘simple and sexy’.”

Here are some of the money quotes from Señor Campo’s speech: “The biggest problem of the next generation is that we are losing millennial consumers [aged between 18 and 25]…Too often young people prefer to drink beer or spirits because they think that wine is too expensive and snobby.” These hot-blooded young things “want their first experience of wine [to be] exciting and sexy.

Well, who doesn’t? I suppose an 18-year old’s first experience with a bottle of sweet Moscato, in the back seat of a car with an ardent love partner, would be exciting and sexy. No wine glasses required, just tippling straight from the noggin so to speak, maybe spilling a little here and there, but hey! you can always lick it up and off…

But I digress!

Seriously, Pablo is just advancing the latest installation of the “wine for dummies” argument, according to which we [writers, critics, snobby sommeliers, bass-ackwards merchants and winemakers themselves] have made wine hopelessly complicated and snooty for the average young person. In fact, here’s the Harpers’ article’s lead paragraph, by their writer, Helen Arnold, who, I imagine, felt she was paraphrasing what Pablo meant to say:

“Besuited fat old men with black teeth droning on about malolactic fermentation is the last thing the wine industry needs if it wants to educate and attract younger consumers.”

Wow. Is she referencing me? I do talk about malolactic fermentation, I’m afraid (although I don’t believe I drone on), and I suppose I am considered “old” in relation to the Millennials. But I emphatically reject the notion that I am “besuited”!!! Ms. Arnold, I do not even own a suit! Hell, there’s only four or five days a year when I deign to put on a sport jacket. And “black teeth”? Mine aren’t, thank you, although I have often seen purple-stained teeth, especially after a Petite Sirah tasting.

And I am not fat. But I concede Ms. Arnold’s point that many years in the wine and food writing biz can pack on the pounds! Which is why I hit the gym everyday, about the only advice I would give to novice wine writers.

I sometimes sigh when I see this anti-intellectual streak that runs through wine writing like a vein of sludge in Alberta shale. Even Joe Roberts, at 1WineDude, taps into it, in his header: Serious Wine Talk for the not so serious drinker. Joe, at least, tries to have it both ways: he wants to play at the level of the professional critic, yet at the same time reassure his readers that he will dumb his knowledge down, lest he wade into swamps of malolactic miasma and drag them along with him. (Don’t get me wrong, I know what Joe’s trying to do, and I respect it. I just am predicting his shtick will change and get more “knowledge-y,” the older he gets.)

I know a lot of 18-25 year olds, and while I’m sure they think about sex a lot, it’s an insult to suggest that’s all they care about. They have pre-frontal lobes, too, and are concerned with knowledge, wisdom, spirituality and all sorts of other good things. They want to learn more about wine (assuming they like it to begin with), and they don’t want to be pandered to, the way beer and spirits (especially cognac) manufacturers do, by throwing the possibility of sex in their faces if only they’d buy the right booze. Far from finding a “simple and sexy” message for young people, wine should show them that a better, more meaningful life awaits when they graduate from chug-a-lug to the true intelligent appreciation of the world’s oldest and finest beverage.

  1. I don’t believe shallow and sexy will cut it either and certainly not for generally more inquisitive minds in the east…however I do think that putting the intellect at the forefront of appreciation can sometimes spoil the spontaneous fun.

  2. Steve, this essay hit some sensitive spots.
    I get the dumb-down thing, every generation faces its own awakening (New Dawn), but a wise old man once said to me that all societies evolve then devolve with art leading the way (Aaron Copland to “F@#K that B!&ch”), but it’s a food-thing when it comes to wine (Europe understands this), not a “feeling good” thing; there is whisky for that. The perception is that wine is something you HAVE to appreciate, and the young, for the most part, don’t have time: let’s just get this experience over so we can get to the next one.
    As for the sweet Moscato, you are right on. However, what I find with my generation (61) is not the “fine” wine, but how cheaply the wine can be bought; anecdotally speaking, 90% of those I talk to buying wine in the supermarket are looking for the price label not the sexy label. I am told though that the “Bitch” wines did sell well for Mother ‘s day (;-/

  3. Steve,
    One other side of the coin to think about: do you have to use sex to sell beer and liquor. It’s too bad that those marketing techniques or approaches are assumed to be the standard, and wine marketing is just not there yet. Why can’t we sell infant formula using some 100 lbs super model, barely dressed, puckering at the camera, high heels digging into the onesies on the floor…sometimes the standard is the wrong standard. And then, let’s just be honest: it doesn’t matter how sexy you look or act: describing to the hottie next to you the difference between Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo…well, it looks like I just lost another one.

    Back to my Mastroberardino Agliancio di Vulture, malo included.

  4. As a 25 year old, I couldn’t agree more with this post! Wine is something I found an interest in because it isn’t dumbed down. And frankly, EVERY writer, sommelier, wine blogger, restaurant wine list etc., professes to be the one to bridge the gap between the snobby wine elitist world and the average consumer. I personally feel that it’s a bit of a straw argument these days. The one common thread among all wine lovers I’ve met, real life or online, is a desire to share and enjoy wine with others. Wine, whether intellectual or cheap and simple, is a communal activity and has been since pre-historic times.

    @Mr. Tsiorbias – I resent the idea that my generation can’t and/or won’t appreciate wine over time because they create the illusion that they don’t have the free time. In America (Europe obviously being a different animal with it’s wine culture), what generation of 18-25 year olds DID appreciate wine in a truly deep and intellectual level? There is no way to verify this, but I bet a higher percentage of my generation enjoys and appreciates wine than your generation did when they were 18-25.

    And as the general manager of a French restaurant I can anecdotally say that the criticism of the wine list being too expensive and the request to carry Beringer White Zin or Kendall Jackson Chard (over my dead body will I put that on my list) and other such wines come from the 50-65 generation, not the 18-25 or the 25-40 demographic.

  5. Samuel, “resent” and “over your dead body” are a bit strong, but oh-well.
    My son is 22 years old and has quite a good palate, so it seems when I said “most” you missed my point, but all in good, fun.

  6. Steve, we need to get you a suit. There is nothing sexier on a guy than an up to date designer suit. Particularly if you are young and in good shape. It’s when you get paunchy and don that 25 year old grey business suit with a tie that you become “besuited and fat.” I’d go Dolce & Gabbana, two button, back vent, dark charcoal. No tie please, all you need is a black dress shirt and a white one and you are set. Maybe a nice pair of black loafers.

    Oh, you and Rogersworthe are spot on about not needing to dumb down wine. There’s always someone dumb enough to drone on about something no one is interested in a social setting, so we need smarter people, not dumber wine.

  7. As a young person, you know what I hate more than some old geezer (said with respect and hubris) geeking out of some obscure wine fact? Some know it all wine blogger “dumbing it down” so little undeveloped me can understand. Wine is not candy, it is an impassioned product made by passionate people.

    Kudos Steve for standing up for intelligence in wine.

    By the way, it isn’t lack of sex appeal keep young drinkers away, it’s cash flow. I don’t know why everyone is obsessed with grabbing the 21 year old. For $10, do they want the cheap wine, or a 12 pack of cheap beer? The beer.

    The wine industry to should be targeting the mid to late 20 year olds who are now out of school and looking to try new things. That’s when I came to wine, when I could afford it. Before it was Corona.

  8. Rogersworthe’s post is brilliant!

  9. Pancho or Pablo?

  10. I appreciate the mention but I think I need to clarify a few points to help mitigate what might be some of the impressions one might get about in reading this.

    There really isn’t a schtick – it’s just me and my approach, which is not in any way meant to dumb down the subject of wine; it’s meant to take wine seriously without simultaneously taking ourselves too seriously. In other words, the best of what it means to be geeky (serious talk/discussion, not-so-serious approach by the talkers).

    I’ve said many times on 1WD and elsewhere that I rely on the intelligence of the readers, so I wouldn’t dumb down on them, ever. I also don’t chastise if one of them doesn’t happen to know what ML fermentation is, either (but would encourage them to learn about it! :).

    I have gone on record as saying that wine appreciation itself needs to be dumbed-down – by that I mean the art of learning what you yourself prefer to drink; this needs to be made more accessible to reverse the general trend of making it inaccessible which is exactly what some publications (WS, I am looking at you! 🙂 have done in their approach over the last 20 years or so (that’s a topic for another day – and probably one long enough for a novella!). The unintended message is that much money and effort need to be spent in learning a proper way to drink and a proper way to learn your own preferences, which if they disagree with critical assessment must be wrong. Those are bogus pretenses and they need to be deconstructed. But we should never assume people are dumb in the process of deconstructing that, and we should never discourage them from learning more about the mystery and wonderfulness of fine wine. Please smack me over the head with something heavy if I ever do that, okay?

    As for wine needing to be sexy – it doesn’t; it desperately needs to be cool to the younger gen. of drinkers, though, and that’s where the industry has fallen (way) short in most cases, and is playing catch-up vs. just about every other beverage out there. Cool does not necessarily equal risque, and believe me people are smart enough to know the difference.

  11. It all depends on your audience, no?

  12. Steve,

    You really should buy a suit!!

  13. Tom, He must have a suit. Or is that just a shirt and neck tie he wears in the wine enthusiast head shot?

  14. OK my two cents worth from the trenches of both retail and wholesale wine sales for a number of years, plus 3 years running a couple of family-owned restaurants. Also being a wine geek (CSW) and passionate about knowledge in general and wanting to help anyone interested in furthering their own progress along the wine trail.

    I don’t find that age is the issue, despite the wine industry’s infatuation with demographic slicing & dicing (advertisers in general also follow the Holy Grail of the 18-34 demo). Just over half of the US population drinks alcohol and of that set, about 85% of them are non-core wine drinkers. They go with what they know and generally are satisfied with the best “bargain” wine from the supermarket and the big-box discounters. Usually, they have found their groove and generally stay there — thus the popularity of KJ Chard across generational lines.

    It’s that other 15% of the alcohol consuming public (the lower-case wine enthusiast) that drives the areas of education, wine and food pairing, the search for the Next Big Things, the points, the reviews and the sales of wine magazines, books, movies and the explosion of wine blogging.

    Within the enthusiast community, we geeks are all in different places along the wine trail but search for community; we want to be social with one another, exchange ideas and tasting notes, argue a bit about Napa vs Walla Walla, and generally learn more. Whether the W.E. is 25 o5 55, I don’t underestimate their abilities or desire — I leave it up to them as to how long we’ll talk about M/L, carbonic maceration, the effects of oak aging or any other topic they want to discuss.

    Yes, we all started somewhere and we’re making progress along the path. The beautiful thing about this is that one person can never learn it all — just when you think you’ve got it wired, guess what? Mother Nature throws us all a curve ball next vintage and everything shifts.

    Make the learning curve appropriate to the audience, challenge them enough to think for themselves (with some examples in the glass) and let them make their own progress along the wine trail. Age is irrelevant, it’s desire that makes the difference.

    See y’all there —

  15. Hey! Who says we can’t have intellectual AND sexy? Slowly but surely it’s being done and consumers of all ages are reacting well.

  16. raley roger says:

    Rogersworthe, you are a smart young guy! I really enjoyed your post.

  17. Perhaps making it a little sexy can get the younger folks in the door and then hit that “pre-frontal lobe” once they get a little more acquainted with how wine tastes.

  18. Jayson Woodbridge says:


    The nature of the mass alcohol industry is to try to sex up anything simple and frankly down plays the intelligence of our young people that see right through that bullshit and can clearly identify an experience, wine included. I think the vast majority of them keep their discreet and intimate moments with wine where they belong and that is where you don’t kiss and tell.

    Jayson Woodbridge

  19. I am pretty much in agreement with you on this, Steve. I believe that there is real peril in the dumbing down of wine and in so doing, we are not doing the culture of wine any great favors. Maybe the war between artisanal and industrial winemaking is already lost, but the big victors in the strategy of wine for the masses are the mega-brands with infinitely great marketing resources. One point that is missed is that the true “sexiness” of wine is in fact in its geeky, cerebral nature. I’m not sure if I’m giving out any top secrets about the opposite sex, but women are (or at least seem to be) all about details and passion. And, oh yes, talk. Lots of talk. If one is very clever, one can sometimes (somehow) channel one’s innate geekiness, social awkwardness and emotional immaturity into a passionate discussion of the infinite details of particularly great wine, persuading (a bit) the object of one’s romantic interest that one indeed is a Man of Passion and Depth. Granted, this has only worked for me a few times, and generally one does tend to come off as a bit of that malolactic-obsessed, purple toothed wanker. But you wouldn’t want to get serious with anyone who doesn’t appreciate a great Musigny anyway, now would you?

  20. The sexiness of wine has nothing to do with coming up with a catchy name or sexy label. Those who aren’t serious about wine may be attracted to marketing gimmicks.

    Serious wine drinkers are looking for more…they’re actually looking for great wine. If you want repeat customers for your wine, make quality wine.

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