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Teaching the history of wine to Millennials



Drove up to St. Helena yesterday on a preternaturally beautiful day to have lunch with Freemark Abbey’s longtime winemaker, Ted Edwards, at a little restaurant I’d never eaten at before, Goose & Gander. I must say I’d go back for the charcuterie and beef tartare, both of which were excellent.

I don’t typically drink before driving—and I had the usual long schlep back to Oakland—but since Ted was pouring his Viognier, I made an exception. What a nice wine. Ted told me his story, and the tale of the winery’s Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which goes back decades. I asked him if the Bosché is the oldest still-extant bottling of a vineyard-designated wine in Napa Valley.

We both thought for a moment, then almost simultaneously we blurted out “Martha’s Vineyard,” the quintessential Heitz Cabernet that dates back to (I think) 1966. After that, we couldn’t come up with other candidates. Can you? That led us to a conversation about history, new consumers and messaging. How do you educate a younger consumer about an older brand, without sounding like you’re a crusty old curmudgeon reliving his glory days to a youngster who doesn’t really care?

This is the dilemma faced by dozens of Napa Valley producers whose roots date back to the 1960s and 1970s. You have to stay relevant. You can’t coast on your laurels (although some try), because the demographic that’s familiar with your laurels is close to 70. But convincing a Millennial that history is important also is tough. We all know, anecdotally, that younger people are remarkably ill-informed about history. This must be because they don’t think it matters. It’s also why large tracts of the media have been reduced to writing about “the new [fill-in-the-blank],” the hippest this-or-that, the top ten trendiest blah-blah, up-and-coming whatevers, and so on. Publishers understand (or think they do) that younger consumers only care about the here-and-now, so that’s what they push. History tends to get thrown out, like that disposable baby with the bathwater. It’s sad, to many of us who believe that history is an essential component of the wine-enjoying experience. But what you are gonna do?

Why did I write that “history is an essential component of the wine-enjoying experience”? Because wine is so much more than merely what you’re experiencing in the mouth. As Matt Kramer points out in his latest column, there are “wines of pleasure” and “wines of experience,” the latter “deliver[ing] that sort of dimensionality, which, after all, is the distinguishing feature of all truly great wines…”. I would suggest that one of those “dimensions” is the intellectual one of understanding the vineyard’s and winery’s history. We tend to create a difference between “intellectual” and “sensory” pleasures that’s not really true. Any baseball fan knows that a huge part of the interest in watching a great ball game transcends what’s happening on the field to encompass statistics, strategy, the great plays and players of the past, the rivalry between the two games, and the sweet nostalgia of youthful memories of sand lots and bleacher seats. The appreciation of baseball is multi-dimensional.

As educators, we owe it to the next generation of wine lovers to pass on the history, traditions and tales of this wine business we love so well. This is the essence of the fabled “story-telling” that wineries are so engaged with lately. Winemakers understand that the appreciation of wine is so much more than just the organoleptic or analytical part. And thank goodness for that. In the 1980s budding wine aficionados thought they had to master an entire set of tasting skills in order to appreciate wine—as if they were preparing for an Enology class in sensory analysis at U.C. Davis. I always thought that was nonsense, as if you had to be able to deconstruct and then reconstruct a car in order to love driving it.

Fortunately, we’ve matured as a wine-drinking nation to the point where we understand that wine appreciation is, as Matt suggests, multi-dimensional. Still, I do wonder, and worry, about that non-appreciation of history among so many younger people. We just have to make the learning of history more tantalizing, by telling our stories better, don’t we?

  1. The Goose And Gander formerly was The Martini House. It might not be the best restaurant in Saint Helena, but the architecture alone is worth the price of eating there. It is still the venue for many very good private wine tastings presented by artesan who are sans tasting room.

  2. I write about the history of art, and I see the same thing: Young folks don’t much want to know about what happened long ago. This is partly because what’s happening now (installation, animation, street art) makes the old stuff (Rembrandt) look boring. I don’t think the wine world has changed as much as the art world, but we still have the same problem: The past becomes relevant to you only after you have been around long enough to grasp its relevance for yourself. That’s just my two cents’ worth. (And BV bottled the Marquise Des Pins Vineyard cabs under the Private Reserve label beginning in 1936, not exactly a vineyard designation, but close)

  3. Alan Goldfarb says:

    Remember the story I related to you Steve when you were a panelist last year at the wine bloggers confab: At dinner that night, a Millenial, who had started her blog — literally — a week before the conference in order to get a discount to the event, turned to me and asked, what I thought of the panel with the old geezers (my phrase) — you, Mike Dunn and James Conaway (“Napa”).

    When I asked her what she thought she replied: “They are not relevant anymore.” Flabbergasted, I said, “How do you expect to write a wine column if you’re not interested in the history of wine?”


  4. these kids today, with their hair and their music…

  5. Yes, Gabe, they were us not so long ago. Well, maybe not you, but me and Heimoff et al, for sure.

    Alan, ignorance is bliss, but is also not a very good background to write about anything.

  6. mort hochstein says:

    oddly when I write I find myself beginning with a historical referernce, maybe my comfort zone, as AjumpstartER. not exactly a good habit, but then I am one of those old curmudgeon whom that blodger finds disdainful. It IS VERY SAD TO SEE THESE PEOPLE WITH NO FOUNDAION SOUNDING OFF AS INSTANT EXPERts and sadder to see them misleading readers.mort

  7. mort hochstein says:

    hi..will someone please repair my addled typoes..misspelling of foundation, and jumbled phrase….a jumpstarter and lapse into caps unnecessarily. apologies..mort and thanx for a workable captcha code.

  8. Steve, I’m having this same issue with my winery brand! How do I make a 50 year old story new, fresh and appealing to today’s emerging wine consumers while still weaving in the historical significance that appealed to their parents and grandparents? My only answer is “angle”. I know the 50 year old story is appealing. I just have to pull the elements of the story that will appeal and resonate to the group I’m speaking with. I need to breath new life into this story and point out the elements that are in align with the values of consumers. Being “all American” or industry trailblazers doesn’t quite grab people after so much time has passed. Now in our 50th year we have to opportunity to re-set the stage so to speak to re-craft a message that can last the next 50 years. At which point I’ll come in for a tour/tasting to hear the 100 year old story when I’m 77 in 2065. A good story doesn’t need to be re-invented wineries just need to pull out the parts that work for that period of time and sell it. Authentically of course.

  9. The young lady who gave the blank expression when asked how she expected to write a column about wine if she wasn’t interested in the history of wine, probably did so not because she was tripped up by the question, but because she was baffled by its relevancy.

    When I shop for a new car, I don’t really care if the writers can tell me about the carburetor engine from 20 years ago. When I shop for a TV, I don’t need to read about the tube sets of the past. When I get a new cellphone, I don’t want to hear about the old landlines of the past. Technology advances, and unless one chooses to become an expert in the field, people of all generations want to be in the know with what’s relevant now. To the casual or new consumer, history has little relevance.

    Our young lady in question isn’t writing the same kind of column that long-time wine writers write. She’s writing a column on the here and now. There’s plenty of folks writing the old way on old topics.

    This is a common mistake that wine industry folks make. Thinking everyone should care about our industry as much as we do. Only a select few outside the industry have that passion. The rest just want to know what’s good right now. They don’t want to think about their wine or its origins…they simply want to enjoy it.

    For the record, I’m a 28 year industry veteran that’s either an early Gen-Xer or a late Boomer, depending on which study you believe. I watch craft beer and craft spirits continue to take away market share from us on a daily basis, particularly from the younger consumers. In the meantime, we bemoan the lack of interest from this huge group of consumers, while at the same time, taking no action to try and pull them in.

  10. redmond barry says:

    It seems to me that if you put, say, the 1974, 85, 99, and 2005 vintages of , say, Bosche, Martha’s ,Montebello,and Montelena on a table with plenty of good cooked mammals, the kids would figure it out for themselves.

  11. Alan Goldfarb says:

    Rob & Gabe: Cliche, but true saying, “Those who fail to learn history …”

    I call BS on you re: writing for here and now. We all did that, but if you don’t understand (or in this case, don’t give a fig) what the hell are you”re writing about, vanity, superficiality, BS. In the end, you’re not writing about anything and merely filling up space. Yours is the lazy way to the point. whatever the hell that is.

  12. I disagree with Rob, who asses that millennials have no interest in history because it is not relevant. Nor do I agree with Alan, who says that millennials refusal to learn history dooms them to repeat it. The point I was trying to make (and I think Charlie understood) is that millennials are just people like you and me. Some like history, some don’t. Some only listen to mp3s, and some have giant vinyl collections. Just a few weeks ago, a 24-year old schooled me on the cultural relevance of Renoir’s “Boating Party” painting.

    If wineries wish to court the younger generation, they certainly will not achieve success by talking down to them. To quote the old guy who sang with Kanye West, “the love you take is equal to the love you make”.

  13. When I was a Millennial equivalent and newspaper editor, I was asked to put together a package on a Jonestown anniversary. I knew nothing about it. So I called on the reporters and photographer who had covered it in Oakland (and who were Boomerish and about to retire). They loved it. They did a great job – it was what they knew and remembered. Just as you remembered Martha’s Vineyard.
    So maybe we need to be open to collaboration rather than knocking them off. Sure, that woman was extreme (I did the same thing – registering to cover the RNC and DNC presidential conventions with little more than a political gut) but she will learn or not. I wonder if she is still writing about wine and if so, does she need help?

  14. One of the problems for Millennials and their understanding of wine history is that they can’t afford to drink it. There was a time when the best of Bordeaux/Napa were luxuries one could save towards. That time is mostly past for many reasons.

    First Growths/ Cali Icons are being replaced by history Millennials can afford. That is why such a large percentage of this group drinks wines with long histories from Greece, Portugal, Southern France, Croatia, etc.

    Selling wine to Millennials isn’t about flash of the new. It’s about connection with their values and culture … and understanding the economic realities of 21st Century America.

    p.s. I’m 36

  15. Bob Henry says:

    “I asked him [Freemark Abbey’s longtime winemaker, Ted Edwards] if the Bosché is the oldest still-extant bottling of a vineyard-designated wine in Napa Valley. … We both thought for a moment, then almost simultaneously we blurted out ‘Martha’s Vineyard,’ the quintessential Heitz Cabernet that dates back to (I think) 1966. After that, we couldn’t come up with other candidates. Can you?”

    Nathan Fay Vineyard:

    Stony Hill Vineyard:

    I will have to ruminate over other still-extant vineyards . . .

  16. Dusty Gillson says:

    I don’t understand how someone could spend the 2 bills on a bottle of Martha’s Cab and not care anything about the context of such a wine. Its status as iconic and distinctive in the context of Napa’s history is exactly what justifies the price in my mind. The number of new Napa cabs being pumped out for $200 a bottle is staggering, but in my mind the history is a necessary component to fully appreciate what is in the bottle and get the most out of such an experience, forgetting for a moment that not so long ago such prices would’ve made anyone’s jaw hit the floor. For context, I turn 30 later this month.

  17. Let’s keep a little perspective here. It’s a mistake to assume that people who buy the most expensive wines are the most knowledgeable. People who buy Rolls Royces aren’t the biggest car fanatics.

    I teach a semester long class at Napa Valley College on the history and culture, and it’s always full of millennials. But “History” can be deadly boring, like any other topic. Offer a class on the history of wine, and may not be successful, Offer a class that promises to explain why wine is served the way it is, why we raise our glasses when we toast, why they butler did it, and why the host is always served first at a restaurant….and you’ll get lots of takers.

    History isn’t relevant of and by itself. Like everything else, it needs a little bit of help!

  18. re: Paul Wagner: And offer a class that includes tasting the wines you’re talking about and you’re golden!

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