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Some wine writers are losing it

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I sometimes feel like some wine writers are losing their minds.

From about the time I started this blog, in May, 2008, there’s been this constant din about how “Print journalism is dying” and “Wine writers are dinosaurs” and “Social media is changing the world as we’ve known it” and so on and so forth.

To which I say: balderdash. Most of this is journalistic blather, the product of reporters who need to be seen as saying something important, even though it’s not true.

Look, human nature doesn’t change just because some fancy new technology comes along. In fact, human nature is pretty resistant to change. People are more or less the same, in their habits and predilections, as they were a thousand years ago, and we’ll remain so–despite Twitter and Google+!

The latest example of “Henny Penny the Sky is Falling” is courtesy of Jon Bonné, the wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. His article, Wine Criticism Faces a Shifting Future, has gotten quite a bit of play. After rehashing all the recent news about Parker, the Wine Advocate and Galloni [which actually no longer is news], Jon postulates a “broader set of questions about wine criticism” that sounds as if he’s about to say something pontifical. Among these contentions are rehashes of dreary points that have been repeated so often, by so many bloggers, that they’ve become clichés.

Let me deconstruct a few of Jon’s quotes by explaining that just because a writer says something is new and revolutionary doesn’t make it so.

1.   “the Millennial surge [is] compelled by a wine’s story, not its score.” The implication here, of course, is that the generation that preceded the Millennials, the Baby Boomers, wasn’t interested in stories, just scores. This is transparently incorrect and insulting. Every generation likes “stories” in its newspapers and magazines. My generation, no less than any other, wanted to read about people, personalities, personal histories. I can’t believe Jon is implying that the Milllennials want to read “stories” more than their parents did. If anything, the Millennials are reading less. Their attention span has been miniaturized by social media and twitter to 140-character tweets. Some story! And scores are not going away, not soon, probably not ever. If anything, scores and other graphic indications of quality (stars, puffs, letter grades) are on the increase.

2.   “This generation of new drinkers… want[s] wines that are relevant and forthright.” Again, is Jon implying that the Baby Boomers wanted wines that were irrelevant and–well, what is the opposite of “forthright” anyway? Whatever this statement means (and I don’t think it means much), this generation of wine drinkers wants the same thing its parents wanted: the feeling that the wines [and other beverages] they drink are interesting and cool. Whatever wine seems cool at the moment (Muscat, Bull’s Blood, Malbec, orange wine) is what they’ll drink–until something cooler comes along, and then they’ll drink that. That’s human nature, and it doesn’t change.

3.   The new generation, according to Jon, wants to know all about “a winemaker’s ethical and technical decisions – about farming, about intervention in the cellar,” about issues of “broader cultural commentary.” This sounds like solid reporting, but it’s built on sand. First of all, the Baby Boomers wanted to know everything, and I do mean everything, about every technical aspect of wine, from soil pH and irrigation systems to the type of fermenter and crusher to the source of the oak, its toast level and how long the wine remained in barrel. If anything, Boomers got too obsessed with technical issues, an obsession that thankfully began turning around some time ago. I don’t believe Millennials care about “intervention in the cellar.” Some writers are always telling consumers they should worry about reverse osmosis, or mega Purple, or whatever, but really, aside from some geeks, nobody cares about these things, and rightfully so. Concerning “a winemaker’s ethical decisions,” I assume Jon means being green. Who isn’t green, to some degree or another? Everybody says they are, and since there’s no way to prove it, we have to take them at their word. But when I go to a club or bar at night and the kids are lining up for their drinks, I don’t hear anyone asking about whether the grapes were grown biodynamically. They’re more interested in feeling good and getting laid. This implication that Millennials care more about “farming” than simply enjoying a delicious glass of wine is the kind of reporter’s BS that proves the old adage, just because it’s in a newspaper doesn’t make it true.

Since Jon bases all his premises on the Parker/Advocate thing, he has to return to it, in the form of a paeon of praise for Galloni’s new venture [and I wish Anthony all the luck in the world]. I’m not sure why Antonio Galloni quitting the Wine Advocate should stand as the symbol of The End of Wine Writing As We Know It, or of anything else, except, possibly, the continued weakening of the Parker brand. Along the way, Jon also references Wine Spectator–twice–although for what reason is unclear, except that Jon has always been bizarrely obsessed with the Wine Spectator. Perhaps he feels that an important article about the Future of Wine Criticism has to drop the S-word (Spectator) and P-word (Parker) in order to be taken seriously. Or to maximize search engine optimization. Whatever.

My point, folks, and I’ve been making it for going on five years now, is that the revolution is not at hand. We have new technology, in the form of smart phones, tablets, the Internet and social media, but humankind has always had new technology. Yet people remain the same. Consumers still want and need experts to guide them in purchasing decisions, whether it’s cars, DVDs, restaurants or wine. They still want to buy things that make them feel cool and plugged in. The Millennials are not so different from their parents. Journalists who wish to be serious need to get over their breathless embrace of social media and pseudo-intellectual analyses of how it’s changing the role of wine writing. It hasn’t, isn’t and won’t.

  1. larrythewineguy says:

    Steve, these marketing teams develop these labels after thorough focus group research. They don’t conjure these brands without lots of input from the target demographic group. They are simply giving the people what they want. This creates a bit of a contrast to M. Bonne’s description of Wiis and Millenials.

  2. Larry: Could not agree with you more. There is a lot of romantic nonsense written about the millennials.

  3. Steve–great post and a much needed reality check.

  4. Give it another generation or two. Wait until the Millennials have the depth of tasting experience that some of you wine writer veterans do. Wait until Generation Z is 40 or 50 and has some deep tasting experience. Wait until the generation that follows Z (not yet officially named?) comes of age. Wait until all the Baby Boomers are gone (sad). You think people will still be printing anything? The shifts are and will happen, it just might be a bit slower in wine due to the need for greater tasting experience and institutional knowledge, and the fact that Baby Boomers are still the core demographic consuming the wine and the wine writing out there. But no one in their right mind can dispute that this will happen (in time).

  5. Dear Sasha, you may be right, but the more distant into the future one looks, the more the cone of uncertainty widens. It is very difficult to pinpoint with any clarity what will happen with respect to people’s reading habits.

  6. Steve – A really interesting post. I agree that social media has not replaced the need for guidance. If anything, my generation looks to those older and wiser especially when it comes to wine. We did a survey recently in Canada among 18 to 30 year olds. You can find the details of the survey findings here – http://canadianmillennials.ca/get-to-know-the-millennials/research-and-web-briefs/

  7. David Coletto, thanks. I believe that every generation looks for guidance in matters of taste.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Self-evidently, the domestic wine industry fears Gen Yers failing to follow in the footsteps of the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers in becoming wine enthusiasts. Anecdotal evidence is that Millennials are more apt to adopt craft beers and spirits-based cocktails as their alcoholic beverages of choice. Wine critics — and all mainstream paid media critics in general — are seen as irrelevant. Millennials take their advice from peers and cohorts.

    (Aside: In a November 9, 2012 published interview with The Wall Street Journal, wine columnist Lettie Teague stated “He [Robert Parker] will probably end up donating a good portion of it [his 10,000 bottle wine cellar] to charity one day, as his daughter, Maia, is of drinking age but prefers tequila to wine.”

    How ironic.

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203707604578095193009322644.html

    ON MARKETING TO “MILLENNIALS” (“GENERATION Y”) . . .

    Excerpt from the PressDemocrat
    (January 19, 2010):

    “Marketing Wine to Gen Y No Easy Task”

    [Link: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20100119/BUSINESS/100119413/1036/BUSINESS?template=printart

    By Kevin McCallum
    Staff Writer

    Wine marketers hoping to get their message across to mobile, fickle 20-somethings have their work cut out for them.

    While research shows these young people are embracing wine earlier and at a greater rate then either Baby Boomers or Gen Xers, these so-called Gen Yers or Millennials — broadly speaking those born between the late 1970s and late 1990s — are proving impervious to traditional marketing and advertising methods.

    “You need to be authentic with this generation,” 29-year-old journalist Nadira Hira
    [a reporter for Fortune magazine who focuses on Generation Y] told hundreds of wine executives gathered in Santa Rosa Tuesday . . . at the second annual Direct To Consumer Symposium held at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel. . . .

    — AND —

    Excerpt from Bloomberg
    (March 19, 2013, 2013):

    “Authenticity Key to Wooing Younger Wine Consumers, Price Says”

    [Link: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2013-03-19/authenticity-key-to-wooing-younger-wine-consumers-price-says.html

    By Ryan Flinn
    Staff Reporter

    California’s $20 billion wine industry needs to work harder to entice young consumers who resist conventional marketing, said William Price, a co-founder of buyout firm TPG Capital and chairman of Vincraft Group.

    Younger wine buyers, those born in the 1980s and 1990s and known as Generation Y, or millennials, are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. wine market and are notoriously averse to obvious marketing tactics, said Price, who spoke on a wine- business panel at Bloomberg’s San Francisco bureau yesterday.

    “The key thing to the younger drinkers is being authentic — they have super-sensitive noses about what’s not authentic about your brand,” Price said. “Just trying to be sure what you stand for is true in every aspect in your business, all the way from where you contact people to how you make your wine, how you grow your grapes.”

    . . .

    — AND —

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (March 1, 2013):

    “Wineries Pour Efforts Into Targeting Younger Drinkers”

    [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2013/mar/01/business/la-fi-young-wine-drinkers-20130228

    By Tiffany Hsu
    Staff Writer

    Increasingly, Chardonnays, Pinots and Cabernets are sharing shelf space at your local store with some unusual names — such as Bodacious Brunette red and Buxum Blonde and Angel Food whites.

    Veteran wine collectors might turn up their well-trained noses. But the wineries promoting such brands aren’t targeting those buyers.

    With many of their best customers nearing retirement age and starting to cut back, American vintners are going after younger consumers in a bid to keep their $33-billion industry growing.

    That means more irreverent labels, easy drinking wines, singles events and laid-back tastings — all aimed at demystifying the elite atmosphere surrounding wine while grooming the next generation of oenophiles.

    “The battle is on” for younger drinkers, said Danny Brager, an alcoholic-beverages expert for global measurement company Nielsen. “Everyone’s being aggressive.”

    The courtship was on display last fall in a former bank building in downtown Los Angeles where event organizing company Second Glass hosted one of its Wine Riot parties.

    . . . – See more at: http://svbwine.blogspot.com/2013/05/why-sell-wine-based-on-aroma-and-taste.html#sthash.fXOAGPEv.dpuf

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpts from WineBusiness.com
    (May 12, 2010, 2012):

    “The Market for Fine Wine in the United States”

    [Fine Wine 2010 Conference in Ribera del Duero (Spain)]

    [Link: http://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataid=73903

    By Graham Holter
    Graham Holter
    Associate Director – Publishing
    Wine Intelligence market research firm (United Kingdom)

    . . .

    According to the data presented by [David] Francke [managing director of California’s Folio Fine Wine Partners], US wine drinking is compressed into a small segment of the population.

    Sixteen per cent of core wine drinkers consume wine once a week or more frequently, which accounts for around 96 per cent of consumption. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said.

    [Bob's aside: Corresponds with the "80-20 Rule of Marketing" -- 80% of your sales revenue comes from 20% of your customer base. For those more interested in this observed phenomenon, Google these keywords: "Pareto principle" and "Joseph Juran."]

    . . .

    Wine Intelligence has studied the US wine market in detail and categorised the wine drinking population — which it measures at 47 million — into profile groups. Two of these segments — Millennial Treaters and Experienced Explorers — were introduced to conference delegates by Erica Donoho, Wine Intelligence’s country manager for the USA.

    Millennial Treaters, she said, represent just 6 per cent of wine drinkers, but they account for 13 per cent of market value.

    “They’re a young group, under 30, and they’re exciting market players to look at,” she said. “Wine was introduced to them at a young age and it’s something they’re embracing wholeheartedly. When we ask them lots of questions, one theme that keeps coming up is there’s a pressure — especially among the men in this group — to know more about wine. They’re receptive to information; they want to be marketed to with some instruction.

    “They’re really interested in sharing knowledge with friends and family, and it’s an amazing way to target this group. They want to share their experience and their knowledge.

    “The social etiquette of wine choosing is becoming increasingly important.”

    Typically, such consumers will use the varietal as a major buying cue, but two thirds of them are also influenced by country or region of origin.

    [Bob's aside: The article goes on to discuss "Experienced Explorers," whi9ch as a demographic group accounts for 17% of the wine drinking population and 33% of the market value.]

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