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For Bordeaux, selling to Millennials will be harder than it seems

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It’s astonishing to me, as I consider the last 30 years, how irrelevant Bordeaux has become in much of the American wine scene.

When I first became infatuated with wine, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Bordeaux was the Queen of the Wine World. (Burgundy was said to be King. We can talk about that gender confusion another time…). Everything in California pertaining to Cabernet Sauvignon was with reference to Bordeaux. Our vintners were going over there every chance they could to walk Classified Growth vineyards and study with Classified Growth winemakers. It was almost as if they were on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, seeking to bathe in the holy waters that would cure them of all their vinous ills.

That was then…today, who talks about Bordeaux? Who buys it, either for home consumption or at restaurants? All that most people know about Bordeaux is that (a) almost every year Parker declares a Vintage of the Century and (b) prices are ridiculous. Neither of those phenomena is designed to elicit respect for a wine that once was the most coveted in the world.

Lagging interest in the States has not gone unnoticed along the banks of the Garonne and Gironde. No doubt chateau owners wish to regain the interest of the U.S. market, but it’s hard to discern a realistic marketing strategy. Yes, the Union des Grands Crus does their annual tour, attracting the usual cadre of sommeliers, merchants, writers and other denizens of the trade. But what happens inside the glittering ballroom of the Palace Hotel seems to stay there.

Along these lines, the Washington Post two days ago published this analytical piece on how the Bordelaise are “out to attract a younger American audience” in order to overcome Bordeaux’s “tarnished image” here.

A top guy at Sherry-Lehmann, one of New York’s leading wine shops, told the Post writer, “We’ve locked up the 70- and 80-year-olds. We need to convince the younger generation to drink Bordeaux.”

Wow. Why not try to interest “the younger generation” in Depends© ?

 

depends

To understand where Bordeaux went wrong in America, let’s break down this comment from Cos d’Estournal’s director: “Bordeaux forgot to speak to one or two generations of sommeliers in the United States, and naturally the share of Bordeaux wines in restaurants dropped dramatically.”

I don’t think Bordeaux stopped “speaking” to somms, I think that somms just didn’t like what they were hearing. They didn’t like the prices they were forced to inflict on their customers. They didn’t like the rigid formalism that surrounds every sip of Bordeaux with the  solemnity of a Papal audience. Their own lifestyles (the somms, I mean) were seriously at odds with Bordeaux’s regalism. Somms tend to be edgy, young and urban. They like to find new things that are off-the-beaten path, which they can then share with their customers. Bordeaux may be many things, but it isn’t edgy or off-the-beaten path.

I suppose Bordeaux’s chief selling point these days is that it’s not California Cabernet! Oh, the irony. The Post article cites a New York somm who showed some Bordeaux to her staff members, “all in their 20s.” The experience was “eye-opening,” the somm said, explaining that the staff was “shocked” to find the wines so much more “interwoven and integrated” than “powerful California Cabernets.”

To think that Bordeaux has come to this: “We’re not California.” !!! Twenty years ago Bordeaux barely deigned to acknowledge Napa Valley’s existence. Now Napa has become the focal point against which conversations about Cabernet are conducted–the way Bordeaux used to be. What goes around comes around, as they say.

All this is not to suggest that Bordeaux did anything wrong, or that it could have done anything else. Bordeaux is a victim of its own success. In an era where the issues of the 99% are at the top of everyone’s concern (in a bipartisan way), Bordeaux has been unable to shed its 1% image. Nor is it easily conceivable how it could do so even in theory. The best Bordeaux is necessarily expensive and will remain so. Ordinary Bordeaux is more affordable, but it’s also less good, and there’s no compelling reason for an American to buy a $30 Bordeaux over an Argentine Malbec, Carmenere from Chile, Cabernet from Chateau Ste. Michelle, a sound Vacqueyras or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Stellenbosch Syrah/Shiraz or any one of dozens of other world wines that frankly have more interesting stories to tell–and do not demand of their drinkers that they remove their caps before imbibing.

 

  1. I feel like this stuff goes in cycles. While I agree that high-end Bordeaux is laughably overpriced, I still think that anyone who seriously appreciates wine, regardless of age, appreciates Bordeaux. I’m a millennial (ie: hipster),and I recently drank $10 Bordeaux that was fantastic. I also include Bordeaux on my short list of regions that I would pay up to $50 for a bottle (the entire list: Bordeaux, Champagne, Barbaresco, Napa). I imagine Bordeaux and Napa probably have the same problem of attracting younger consumers, but at least Bordeaux is still pumping out oceans of cheap, quaffable juice.

  2. Kurt Burris says:

    I’m not the target here being a late boomer, or Generation Jones as I’ve heard lately. Growing up in Canada we drank a lot of Bordeaux and could even afford to splurge on a classified growth every now and again. But, I can’t tell you the last time I bought anything from Bordeaux simply because it’s too damn expensive. When I can buy a couple of cases of something fun for the price of a single bottle, I not only get to drink more wine, I get to experiment more. I’ve simply been priced out of the market

  3. Matthieu Compeyrot says:

    I am French and would be interested to know how you define ‘Bordeaux’. Merci.

  4. Only time I’ll buy Bordeaux is when I can get a $75 bottle for $25 online. Guess that’s a trait I pick up from being a genXr on the millennial borderline. Also, it’s a whole lot easier finding a good $30 CA cab than a good $30 Bordeaux… Even with the Internet. Personal experience tells me “You get what you pay for,” when it comes to Bordeaux.

  5. Jamie Slone says:

    I did visit Bordeaux this past summer and found the French to be very interested in showcasing their wines to us. They went Out of their way to give us a great experience while visiting and this was consistent with all the places we visited. We were excited to learn more about their wines and to have it as another option when In The Mood for something different (old world.) Keeps it Interesting.

  6. Matthieu, I define Bordeaux as the average educated American perceives it. There is classified-growth on the one hand, which is dependably good, and everything else, which is a gamble.

  7. I’m under 30 and most of what I drink is bordeaux (or french). Where I live (east coast US), California wines, while great, tend to be $25 on up range while I can easily purchase a fantastic bordeaux from $15 on up. Granted, most will be bordeaux superior or from merlot based regions, but still, bordeaux is better in the $10 to $25 price ranges than California, in my experience.

    Just last night we had a Fronsac that was $20 ish and it was fantastic with steak. I don’t know Steve, maybe I’m an outlier or maybe the young people in the west coast have different wine preferences.

  8. Brad Alderson says:

    It’s not just Bordeaux, Napa runs the same risk of losing their place on the wine lists of many restaurants due to price and not really talking to consumers.

  9. Brad: totally agree. I am really hoping some of the relatively-new promising wineries (outside of Napa, ie Reynvaan, Cayuse, Herman Story Epoch), keep their prices relatively stable over a long time.

  10. Steve – regarding your concluding point:

    “The best Bordeaux is necessarily expensive and will remain so. Ordinary Bordeaux is more affordable, but it’s also less good, and there’s no compelling reason for an American to buy a $30 Bordeaux over an Argentine Malbec, Carmenere from Chile, Cabernet from Chateau Ste. Michelle, a sound Vacqueyras or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Stellenbosch Syrah/Shiraz or any one of dozens of other world wines that frankly have more interesting stories to tell–and do not demand of their drinkers that they remove their caps before imbibing.”

    First, there may be “no compelling reason” other than a preference for Bordeaux over California or those others.

    And second, substitute “California” for “Bordeaux” in that lengthy sentence, and it would be just as valid.

  11. Steve, et. al.:

    This past Friday night, the Union des Grands Crus brought its dog and pony show to Los Angeles to showcase the 2011 vintage.

    The take-away?

    The vintage is as mediocre as the (British) press reports. Under ripe fruit and green, aggressive tannins. Akin to the 1988 vintage.

    The few stand-outs (in my humble opinion, Couspaude and the Canon-la-Gaffelière — but not exclusively these) were nice . . . “enough.”

    But not in the league of the 2009 vintage releases.

    And the projected suggested retail selling prices? Consulting Wine Searcher . . .

    2011 Couspaude is around $50 in the U.K. No retail inventory listed as yet in the U.S.

    2011 Canon-la-Gaffelière is around $60 in one wine store in the U.S.

    That’s well within the “sweet spot” for Cabs and Cab-blends coming from California and Washington wineries.

    And to Gabe’s and Chuleta’s point, the least expensive 2009 Bordeaux eclipsed their California and Washington counterparts.

    Buy ‘em up if you can still find them retail!

    ~~ Bob

  12. Brad and Keasling,

    Going forward, the Bordeaux producers have a run of mediocre vintages coming to market: 2011 and 2012 and 2013.

    The first opportunity to break this trend will be 2014 — if Mother Nature blesses that upcoming vintage.

    That means waiting a half-decade before another “potentially” compelling Bordeaux vintage comes to market.

    California producers have been given a gift by Mother Nature with the back-to-back superior 2012 and 2013 vintages.

    The hope is that California producers, in the absence of competition from Bordeaux, won’t get greedy by jacking up their prices.

    Better to hold the line and recapture market share from the French.

    And establish and enlarge a foothold in Asian markets.

    ~~ Bob

  13. Arsène Bacchus says:

    This reminds me of the judgment of Paris in 1976 where Californian wines were rated the best. They were found better than the Grands crus classés of Bordeaux. The French coud not believe it!

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