How the Baby Boomers invented wine
The Baby Boomers, of which I am one, were born during an era (1946-1964) when Americans did not drink wine. If the average U.S. adult drank anything alcoholic at all, it was the occasional beer or cocktail.
Yes, there was plenty of plonk coming out of California with names like Roma Sauternes, Petri Port, Guasti Pale Dry Sherry and, on a higher note, varietal wines from the likes of Sebastani, Charles Krug and Inglenook. But for the most part wine was a special occasion beverage. Consumers didn’t understand it; and why should they have, when for a generation it had been illegal under Prohibition?
That wine appreciation in America exploded as soon as the Baby Boomers came of age is indisputable. But I don’t think the story has been told concerning how and why this happened. Certainly, two forces intersected: one was the Boomers’ disposable income. When they began reaching adulthood, in the late 1960s but especially in the 1970s, they went to work and suddenly had money in their pockets–money they were willing to spend on wine.
The other force–connected to the first–was the rise of the boutique winery movement in California. This meant an increasingly steady supply of high-class wine product to the restaurants and stores of the nation. Boomers with an appetite for fine wine had no trouble finding it, despite the mangled and anachronistic distribution laws left in place after Repeal.
But why were Boomers willing to spend their hard-earned money on wine? I can come up only with anecdotal conjecture, but I think it’s largely accurate. Boomers had grown up with a philosophical attitude of openness to anything life has to offer. They (we) were willing to try anything at least once, be it pharmaceutical, sexual or lifestyle-related, in order to see if that thing provided pleasure. If it did–and if it didn’t entail excessive risk (as, say, heroin did)–then Boomers were happy to incorporate it into their lifestyle.
But this isn’t enough to explain just why Boomers so forcefully turned to wine. Part of it also had to do with their embrace of a food culture. Prior to the rise of the Boomers, food in America was a pretty dreary part of life: necessary but uninspiring. The woman took care of the shopping and cooking; the men occasionally took the wife and kiddies out to a restaurant. What differentiated the Boomers, male and female alike, from their parents was an eagerness to explore the further reaches of food. Sometimes this meant explorations into vegetarianism or macrobiotic cooking; sometimes it was inspired by the new phenomenon of televised cooking shows, such as Julia Childs’s. Young Boomers also were great travelers. In the 1970s, it seemed like everyone was spending a summer on Ibiza, or Mallorca, or in Nepal or Tangiers or Tokyo, or just hitchhiking their way across the U.S., coming across regional cuisines. At that time, American tastes in food hadn’t yet been homogenized: there still were authentic cuisines from the south, midwest, Texas, New England, San Francisco. Returning home, the kids brought their new-found food fondness with them.
In the early 1970s I had a friend who started a restaurant in western Massachusetts, The Noble Feast, that was the first “nouvelle cuisine” place in that part of the state (although we didn’t think of it that way). Alan Harris’s menu emphasized fresh, regional ingredients, and while it leaned on French technique, there was something fresh, pure and, yes, “American” about it. People drove for miles to eat at The Noble Feast because they couldn’t find food like that anyplace else.
This still doesn’t fully explain the Boomers’ mad love of fine wine. By the late 1970s there had arisen a cottage industry of wine writers publishing how-to pocket guides; but it’s a chicken-and-egg argument over which came first: the writers or the consumers, and at any rate it’s likely that both of these phenomena were created by the same underlying force.
In the end, I think the miracle of the Boomers love affair with fine wine is inexplicable, as so many other cultural milestones are. Sometimes you can pin huge shifts in the society on specific things: J.F.K.’s assassination, whose 50th anniversary is coming up, marked the end of a certain political naivete in America and inaugurated a heightened level of dark skepticism that persists to this day.
No such single event can be attached to wine’s rise, not even the 1976 Paris Tasting which, important as it’s become in retrospect, was not particularly noticed at the time. We can assign perhaps other tendencies on the part of the Boomers that fueled their appreciation of wine. With the country’s demographic shift westward, California’s population exploded during those years, bringing Boomers closer to both a lifestyle that embraced wine and to the actual physical centers of production. (It wasn’t until I moved to California in 1978 that I discovered wine.) A steadily expanding national economy throughout the 1980s and 1990s (ah, the good old days) assured Boomers of having the cash for a nice bottle. And an expanding sense that wine was part of “the good life” (a sense echoed in the popular media, which always is looking to report on trends) somehow impinged upon the brains of countless Boomers, for whom living a good life always was a high priority.
The result has been what we see today: Wine at the forefront of American culture. Before the Boomers, wine was nothing. Once they came upon the scene, wine exploded in popularity. No Boomers, no wine. (No rock and roll either.) Give us credit.