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How the Baby Boomers invented wine

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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.

  1. Baby Boomers, by definition, had nothing to do with the birth of rock and roll. They were, at best, young children at the time.

  2. Apt observations, and a propos.

    I’d also add The French Paradox, which conincided with the health concerns of aging baby Boomers.

  3. Jim Lapsley says:

    Certainly the Baby Boomers (of which I am one) were a major demographic fact that influenced (and continues to influence) many consumer products, just due to the large size of the cohort. The number of adults has increased by 65% from 1970 to the present, so even if consumption rates had stayed the same (which they didn’t) there would have been significant, if slower, growth. Yes, SOME boomers took to wine at a higher rate than did their parents, but I don’t think it is terribly useful to talk about Boomers as a single group, which you seem to do throughout the blog Even today, according to the Wine Market Council, only about 25% of adults are core consumers, and responsible for about 93% of all wine consumed. Clearly, the majority of Boomers didn’t adopt wine in any serious fashion.

    I would say that a series of then new technologies in the 1950s, such as Stainless Steel, cold fermentation, pure yeast cultures, inert gas bottling, and sterile filtration, when adopted in the by wineries in the 1960s, created a totally new style of white wine–essentially a new product, that some of the Boomers adopted in place of a cocktail. The growth in wine consumption in the 1970s through the mid 1980s was, for the most part, white wine. Per Capita consumption of white wine tripled in the 1970s while red wine per capita consumption remained essentially static.

    Boutique wineries certainly played a part in introducing wines with different qualities,to American consumers, but remember, even today, most wine retails at less than $7 a bottle. If volume growth was to occur (and it did), most of that growth had to be at the less expensive price points. The Benzigers (Glen Ellen proprietor reserve Chardonnay) and the Trincheros (Sutter Home–especially white Zinfandel)deserve a lot of credit for introducing Americans to inexpensive varietal wines made from coastal fruit.

  4. Good article and good comments! About Rock and roll; It may not have been created by the boomers, but a boomer born in ’46 was 21 in ’67. At that age and social enviroment,They may have taken that open-minded Boomer approach to the rinky-dink 1-IV-V R&R that their parents were listening to and created the contiunously evolving enormously popular music that is still so vital today.
    I totally agree with Jim that The US wine industry created a “new product”, that was much more consistant and user friendly for the novice consumer. That took wine from a mysterious/unreliable option to a product that could be affordably enjoyed,and served with confidence.

  5. Jim – some interesting observations and data, thanks for sharing. I was not aware of the white wine growth on a per capita basis relative to red.

    Steve – a good read. One other thing that wasn’t mentioned was technology (different that Jim’s view) in terms of communications (TV, phone, movies) and transportation. More people can see the different cultures and how they were portrayed and the “emotional benefits” available for doing something. E.g., watching someone drink nice wine in a movie exposed a lot of people to the concept of wine, I’m sure.

    I’m a GenXer and have been watching the wine trends for a few years. It’s going to be interesting to watch the macro shifts as the boomers start to decline (perhaps a depressing point of reality of their aging population) and we see what happens to the Millenials… which will dominate – the decline of boomers or the new replacement adoption from the Mil’s? I think that is a different topic…

  6. Hmmmm Steve, it’s an interesting and – viewed from the eastern shores of the Atlantic – a notably Americanocentric view of modern vinous history. However, I have to say that you are probably right but partly for a reason you – possibly deliberately – avoid mentioning: the Parker point.

    I’d say that one of the drivers for wine-drinking boomers was the simplicity of knowing that they wouldn’t go far wrong when buying a 90+ point wine. Even if it wasn’t actually their or their friends’ favourite wine – and they actually probably did enjoy it a lot more than Parker’s critics would care to admit – their was no denying that it was a “right” wine to have chosen. And so much easier than having to negociate the labyrinth of European appellation systems.

  7. Donn Rutkoff says:

    1. It tastes good.

    2. The fistfight between the 2 Mondavi boys had something to do with the boom. Robert Mondavi became a great rally leader for Calif. wine and for “Napa Cabernet”. Give the man credit where it is due.

  8. One might also associate the rise of the Boomer wine lifestyle with our current obsession with youthful aging. One of the marks of success for a boomer who appreciates wine was/is to sport a wine cellar wherein lies wines awaiting their grand fruition or peak. So, we began to celebrate the concept that youth was fun but refined youth (aged wine) is enviable. When you add food/nutrition and perhaps bioidentical hormones to the mix you get the proverbial icing on the cake. Being a connoiseur of fine wine (which has medicinal value we now know) along with healthy nutrition (and a little help from a doctor or plastic surgeon) may be viewed as high marks of success thus, fine wines + deliberate aging = success

  9. Credit to us Boomers? hmmmmm well you can give us or ones self the credit. But me (boomer) will give credit to my folks who drank wine from a bottle that was covered in straw and contained something called Chianti. It was cool looking and those bottles were around a lot, OK on the East Coast.

    And now I will give myself some credit, when i started in the wine industry working part time in a store 1982 I would suggest the customer buying a 12 pack of Bud to try this bottle (or jug) of wine also. They would do so because they trusted me, yes even at 21. heck it was engaging with the customer… piece of cake!!! I could sell a bag of ICE to someone who didn’t need ICE.

    CREDIT has been given, but not to one generation.

    Cheers,

    Keith Miller
    Wine Life Radio

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