What today’s social media means for tomorrow’s wine industry
The advent of the Millennials and social media is said to be revolutionizing consumer behavior in wine to such an existential extent that the Old Order is in dire threat of imminent demise.
From this historical vantage point, some people say that the wine world has gone through two major eras and is now entering a third. Wine 1.0, which lasted for a millennium, saw a few European regions dominating that continent; wine was virtually non-existent in the rest of the world. Wine 2.0, which began roughly in the late 19th century and continues today, saw the emergence of the New World, but that, in reality, was actually (and merely) an extension of Wine 1.0, because the New World mostly meant the former colonies of England (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, America), who carried English traditions to the farthest points of the globe, resulting in the continuation of the domination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. This continuity of English tradition, with its focus on rank, privilege and status, also guaranteed the public’s ongoing fascination with the Great Growths/Grand Crus of France, as well as their equivalents (decreed by cognoscenti) in the New World (Penfolds Grange, Harlan Estate, for example).
Now, according to the new historians, we see the nascent parameters of Wine 3.0. These are clear and distinct. One is that the world has shrunk so that ideas are now global rather than regional. Another is that technology has made the spread of ideas instantaneous. For the first time in history, an idea does not need a physical mode of transportation to convey it to the farthest reaches of the planet: the mere click of a mouse now does that. A third leg of this analysis is that a new generation (Millennials) is fundamentally different from its forebears, if for no reason other than that they grew up in a reality in which the first two parameters (a shrunken world and instantaneous transmittal of information) were taken for granted. The result, says this new interpretation, is that wine has been liberated from the shackles that bound it for centuries.
This is an attractive analysis for those who argue for a more liberal interpretation of history–such as, for example, the one governing a view of America that sees our country continually spiraling upward and outward in recognizing the human rights of all its inhabitants (notwithstanding that the reality of this view is not always consonant with the theory). Thus, the democratization of human society both anticipated and parallels the democratization in consumer wine preferences. According to this view, wines of any variety, style or flavor now may be permitted to stand beside glorious Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon or Burgundy/Pinot Noir: younger consumers don’t care anymore about those old paradigms, nor do they care about Authority. Tannat, Furmint, Rkatsiteli, Welschriesling, Savtiano–Millennials happily embrace them all, perhaps all the more exuberantly due to the fact that they were formerly under-appreciated by those very Authorities whom they reject as arrogant and irrelevant.
This certainly is a viable, even compelling way of looking at things; the fact that it accords well with our own American experience in democratization adds vigor to it. (White male property owners at first had all the rights. Then came non-property owners, women, 18-year olds, African-Americans, the handicapped, the GLBT community; PETA is hoping animals may be next. If white male property owners were Bordeaux, the GLBT community is Rkatsiteli.) The argument becomes even more enhanced when critics of the old school embrace it, as Jancis Robinson did last week, when, in Washington, D.C. to promote her new book (“The World Atlas of Wine,” co-written with Hugh Johnson), she declared that “This democratization of wine is great.”
Jancis might have been reciting the talking points of the blogging community when she added, “No longer are wine critics and reasonably well-known wine writers like me sitting on a pedestal, haughtily handing down our judgments.” This is if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em-ism at its most resilient, although I do wonder if Jancis really thinks of herself (much less Hugh Johnson, God forbid) as “haughty.” At any rate, you can hardly blame a critic these days for going over to that side of the fence.
But I would like to segue now into history to make my point, which is that (as your financial statements constantly remind you), “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” If the study of history proves anything, it is how utterly useless it is in predicting the future. We in the West like to assume that history proceeds according to some kind of orderly, predictable template, like the unfolding of a computer program, so that a proper understanding of the past can result in a fairly accurate knowledge of the future: not necessarily in detail, but in general outline. This philosophy was most famously summed up in Santayana’s slogan that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We study history in order to more perfectly align with its forward direction.
Alas, reality has the unpleasant tendency to throw curveballs at us, upsetting the best-laid plans of men. (Heisenberg understood this tendency toward the erratic in the realm of the sub-atomic.) I referred earlier to Wine 1.0, which was totally dominated by Europe (“Old Europe,” Donald Rumsfeld contemptuously called it.) So, too, has the long political history of the West been dominated by events in Europe (and, after the year 1000 A.D. or so, the entire planet: when Europe coughed, the World caught cold). We saw this appalling phenomenon with the two World Wars, and then with the advent of the Cold War, which quickly spread to every continent on Earth.
As a result, my generation–the Baby Boomers–was obsessed with Europe. As a history buff, I’ve read about Europe all my life, and can tell you that, before 9/11, there was hardly a serious history book that even mentioned Islam. The Muslim world was seen merely as an adjunct of the great Western powers (subsequently joined by China, hardly a Muslim nation). The study of Western history tended to be about the causes and aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, and how those continuing power politics were shaping the political and economic realities of the world.
Suddenly, 9/11 occurred–and now Europe, with all its past problems and glories, seems almost irrelevant. If you know history at all, you will find that shocking. And yet, it happened: Europe was wiped out of global historical calculations overnight. History threw a curveball at the world, which didn’t see it coming. And the world now is scrambling to catch up.
I say these things simply to point out the uselessness of predictions based on prior assumptions, that how things appear today is necessarily prescriptive of how they will be tomorrow. We do certainly have a spike of interest in this social media phenomenon–an interest pushed by a media eager to report on “trends”. But one cannot extrapolate from this any conclusions concerning how wines will be described, popularized, marketed or sold in the future, much less what kinds of wines the people of the world will demand. A fundamental truth of human experience is: For now, we see through a glass, darkly. Paul’s conclusion from that is that mankind ought to be charitable. Mine is that proprietors of wineries ought to be skeptical.
Could the Internet itself be the curve ball that history has tossed at the world? Yes. But the outcome of that phenomenon is no more predictable than that of the world’s current situation vis-à-vis the rise of militant Islam. Nobody knows where that is going, and to make any predictions whatsoever based on what has happened in the past is futile and possibly dangerous.
My friend Rajeev, whom I mention here from time to time because he is emblematic of so many other small business owners, just enrolled in a social media course in Palo Alto, which he will attend next week. He has been reading and hearing so much about how entrepreneurs like him should be diving into social media that he’s finally decided to tackle something he’d been avoiding for years. He told me of his hopes and expectations: that mastering the intricacies of Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn will help him make more money. Rajeev even used the metaphor of exploring a new land. I listened sympathetically but with (I must admit) some inward humor, and thought of Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, in which the singer meets the captain of three ships sailing toward America, as the singer is heading in the opposite direction. “He said his name was Columbus,” the singer sings, “[and] I just said, ‘Good Luck.’”