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Millennials, social media–and the death of wine wisdom



“A lot of mediocre wine is being sold on the basis of a story.” That’s a quote from a New York somm, Jason Jacobeit, cited in Lettie Teague’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal.

To whom is this “mediocre wine” being sold? None other than “Millennials,” who, according to sommelier Jason, “are more interested in the narrative of the wine rather [sic] than the wine.”

That’s scary, but it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of capitalism that the sizzle, not the steak, is what was sold, which is why the Latins, inventors of the concept of caveat emptor, realized, two thousand years before P.T. Barnum, that there’s a sucker born every minute.

Ms. Teague, who seems to agree with sommelier Jason, cites a few other instances of obscure wine that has had or is having its moment in the Millennial sun: “orange wine or Slovenian Chardonnay [and] Pét-Nat,” in addition, of course, to the wine that may have started this whole Millennial-social media thing, Moscato. Each seems to be the product of “rebellious tastes” that “lead [Millennials] into trouble” due to their “enthusiasm for the obscure.” Ms. Teague quotes another young wine director, Taylor Parsons, of the L.A. restaurant Republique (a very good restaurant), who observed that this obsession is due to “Millennials’…incessant search for the next cool thing…”.

How did we get here?

You know, when I was 17 years old, in my first semester at college, my parents drove up from New York to visit me, and my father was shocked by me wearing my white button shirt untucked. I mean, that’s not exactly the most rebelliously outrageous fashion statement in the history of teenage angst, but from my father’s point of view dress shirts were meant to be tucked inside the belt, not fluttering below the waist like a skirt. Boy, was he pissed—and I vowed to myself never, ever to get old and grouchy and complain about “this younger generation.”

To a great extent I’ve avoided that booby trap. But sommelier Jason and wine director Taylor are onto something. The biggest change, wine-wise, that’s occurred, in my judgment, between the Millennial generation and all that preceded them is that, as sommelier Jason points out, “few of his [Millennial] generation peers [take] the time to understand why certain wines are greater than others.” Champagne is better than Pét-Nat, and this is why Pét-Nat is likely to have the lifespan, in terms of popularity, of Moscato; I mean, does anyone even drink Moscato anymore?

But we have to understand why this fundamental shift has occurred. Partly it’s because (as Ms. Teague points out, citing a Wine Opinions poll) “Millennials regard the 100-point scale as the creation—and the provenance—of their older wine-drinking peers.” Actually, Millennials probably wouldn’t even call those of us who are members of older generations “peers”; Ms. Teague was no doubt being kind to avoid more offensive terms. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a new generation kicking over their parents and grandparents and exploring and discovering things on their own. It’s the way Life proceeds. But this tendency, which has occurred throughout human cultural development, has been greatly exacerbated, as never before, by another modern phenomenon: social media.

We used to have, here in America, some sort of social consensus. It extended from our values and practices all the way to our choice of wines. People tended to believe in the same things (the American dream, the Presidency). They went to the same movies, listened to the same music, ate the same kinds of foods, dressed similarly and more or less lived their lives in similar ways. You can criticize this as group-think if you want, and point out, rightfully, that this system harbored all kinds of social injustices: but one thing it got right was that it united us, as a people, so that we weren’t always quarreling over the smallest trivialities.

Not so today anymore, as our smart phones and tablets let us hang out, digitally, with those who really are our true peers: people who think just like us. Trouble is, there are so many sub-groupings, more all the time, and it’s so easy to find them and then to plug yourself in, that we are well on the way to living as much in the digital or virtual reality of online as in the “real” world. It’s McLuhan’s “global village” gone amok, not a “village” anymore but a series of isolated neighborhoods.

But how to account for this obsessive drive for novelty, for “the next cool thing”? I trace it to the pre-Internet media sensations of, first, People Magazine, and then MTV. Both shortened America’s attention span: People’s articles were short, pictorial, celebrity- and freak-oriented and addictively readable (the opposite of the New Yorker), while MTV was famous for never allowing a scene in a music video to last longer than three seconds. A generation that grew up watching those constantly-changing videos developed a craving for novelty, for incessant change—they wanted to be entertained with something new and more interesting than the previous thing, ten or twenty times a minute—think about that!—which suggests something evolutionarily radical and destabilizing. Throughout human history we—our forebears—were required to live with, and be satisfied by, an external reality that hardly ever changed at all. The walls of the cave were the same as they always were, the ground beneath your feet was the same ground you had trod all your life, the people who surrounded you were the same family and tribal members you were born into. Change was non-existent; you found value, meaning and joy, if you found them at all, in the actual world around you.

Because of this continuity, the human race developed the notion of the wisdom of the elder. Life was nasty, brutish and short; the only way to survive was to learn the tricks of the trade from the elders. You could rebel, but at the risk of getting into trouble. Now, I’m very proud of the fact that my generation, the Baby Boomers, did rebel against the stultifyingly uncreative, unconscious, environmentally stupid, racist, homophobic and anti-feminist culture of our parents. We really moved this country, and the world, forward. But maybe, in opening up Pandora’s box, we created a Frankenstein’s monster: Millennials have taken our independent streak and so boosted it up on steroids that, functionally, there is no unifying stitch to American culture anymore. It’s an everyone-out-for-himself world of tribes, cults, peer groupings and associations.

And so we come to the cult of excitement, the lust for novelty that characterizes the Millennial approach to wine. And we come, also, to the concept of “the story” that can be so annoying and misleading. Most of the stories wineries convey, so far as I can tell, are ersatz fairy tales that seem to have little connection to the actual wine. As a wine writer who really, truly loves wine, its history and culture and place in the world, I find it appalling that a winery could hire a P.R. firm to invent a story they thought would sell their wine, instead of focusing on quality; I have nothing against stories, but the phony, predictable ones that routinely hit the media are so trite, so boring. And because of this fractionalizing of our realities into millions and millions of separate spheres, experienced through our portable devices, the world of wine has shrunk to momentary entertainment—to a quickie–to a world where spin and hype and process are more important than the wine itself.

  1. I still find it fascinating what suckers we all are for generational identity. Inexpensive, big, fun wines have always been preferred by younger consumers – whether it was Zin 20 years ago or Pet Nat today. Just like 5 year olds like chocolate milk and 15 year olds like to mix pop rocks with soda. 10 years from now, the post-millennial generation will thumb their noses at the millennial geezers because they just discovered this new thing called Bordeaux.

    The notion that the group has some fundamental appreciation of authenticity is also nonsense. Club W is killing it with millennials (good on them!) but you won’t find a more soulless bunch of wines anywhere. Also, didn’t we all prefer easy to swallow, bubble gum authenticity when we were in our 20s? I know I conflated novelty and authenticity (and probably still do).

    Which brings me to the final point about stories selling wine. Stories don’t sell wine. People sell wine. Lettie’s sample was quite small (4 people), but when queried about where they get their info, 3 said the retailer and 1 said their father. Nobody looked online.

  2. Just like all things, if you sift through all the rough and rubble, there are real diamonds to be discovered. There are so many young talented wine professionals in their twenties, and social media has boosted the opportunity for young wine professionals to be smarter and have better taste faster than ever before.

    Day to day I talk to more GenX’ers and Boomers, not Millennials, that don’t know anything about wine; ie what a gem California Chardonnay is, or the merits of Syrah and what Riesling actually tastes like.

    The thought of Millennials completely destroying American identity is so fundamentally flawed and such a jab at young people trying to find their way in an ever-changing information/technology based world that this writing borders on comedy. Why even include this information at all?

    Maybe this bottle of Pet-Nat will help calm down my nerves…

  3. Let us not disregard the role of economics in this phenomenon.

    The Great Wines of the World (Bordeaux, Napa Cab, Champagne, Burgundy) are much more expensive (as a percentage of average citizen income) than there were for previous generations.

    There is a sense among the younger (<40) wine drinker that we will never afford the "truly great wines" but we could conceivably taste wines that are "more interesting."

    I feel this on a personal level. At 37 years old, with a good job, I'm never going to be able to drink Petrus, Screaming Eagle, Romani-Conti, with any regularity, but I can seek out weird, wild, wonderful, wines with interesting stories.

  4. Dan Fishman says:

    I agree with Austin completely. VILLAGE level burgundy is too expensive to drink more than once in a while, let alone PC or GC. (To say nothing of Napa, Bordeaux, even the great wines of Italy, some of which were still somewhat affordable 10 years ago).

    Of course people are going seek out something more obscure with a price to match.

    Plus what’s with the PetNat bashing? There are some incredible wines out there, nothing like sweet moscato, which appealed to a completely different crowd.

  5. Hard to imagine why a generation buried in student loan debt and wage stagnation doesn’t trust the “wisdom of the elders” and harken back to the good old days of Silver Oak

  6. Steve, I enjoy your blog and your writing, but when you talk about generational issues it’s embarrassing. You alternate between arrogant Boomer triumphalism, and chastising Millennials for their adversarial attitude towards the “old guard,” without appearing to grasp the irony.

    You seem to be under the impression that the movie Pleasantville was a documentary, and that the world was black-and-white until the Boomers came along to save us all and provide freedom and all the colors of the rainbow, only to have subsequent generations screw it up by not rebelling in the precise optimum amount that your generation did.

    (Being neither a Boomer nor a Millennial, I of course get to smugly claim superiority to both. But at least I’m self-aware!)

  7. Steve,

    You mentioned that Boomers saw the cultural “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.

    Many young wine drinkers see the wine “wisdom” of their elders as prejudiced and outdated.

    Three examples:
    1. The way establishment wine writers view the wines of “The Other 47 States.”
    2. The Hegemony of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
    3. The bias against pink wines as ‘not-serious.’

  8. redmond barry says:

    O, for the halcyon days of Sutter Home White Zinfandel!

  9. First among equals or perhaps Orwell’s added “with some more equal than others” is more accurate than we know.

    The active Gallo campaign is powerful and insightful, using “key influencers” versus bona fide critics. So influencers, tastemakers, a.k.a. First among Equals determine what Millennials drink? Fascinating. This tactic seems in direct conflict with an authentic experience Millennials are supposed to crave.

    Authentic is visualizing Heimoff pounding down wine after wine, day after day trying to keep his palate fresh and then write a decent wine note and give a score. #criticslife #liveauthentic

    Steve, I may actually disagree with you that Millennials are more independently minded. I think they are more parochial. Greater fractionalization into smaller and small sub-groups reinforcing their own viewpoints isn’t independent, it’s dependent on finding that highly stylized group that agrees. That is the goal, finding likeminded individuals, not differences of opinion.

    Recently, I’ve watched more movies about Dystopian, fractionalized tribal youth of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and The Twilight Saga just so I can catch a glimpse of what I might be missing in popular culture. There’s always a lead protagonist character in each of these films, but that lead is first among equals and never part of the establishment. Then to the villains, Donald Sutherland as white-bearded villain, in an ivory tower passing judgement; sounds an awful lot like a wine critic or the Lord of Napa Estate or the Volturi of Twilight or the Star Chamber in Maze Runner as the establishment. Always older, greyer, and removed from “real life”.

    The idea of a brash, independent ‘Ronan’ Millennial doesn’t seem to exist. There always seems to be a group associated with the Millenial, backing them up, looking out for them, offering emotional support.

    Snake Plissken, Rambo, John McClane, Dirty Harry, James Bond. Stone Cold Steve Austin. I don’t know if these guys could survive today without a peer group of equals. Evidently James Bond survives. Wonder what will happen with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo? Will those icons of SciFi get a Millenial makeover? Poor Captain Kirk did by J.J., but I digress.

    You mention MTV. I grew up on MTV and MTV is more than short attention span music videos. I think MTV helped contribute to reality TV, along with stylized and manufactured lifestyles with “Real World” circa 1992, debuted and developed in the heart of the Millenial generation. It is MTVs longest running show. MTV then picked up The Osbourne’s in 2002, pre-cursor to shows like Keeping up with the Kardashian’s. MTV seems to know what it’s doing when it comes to manufacturing authenticity and reality.

    Further developing Millennial culture; The Daily Show came on board in 1996 followed by pop culture phenomenon’s Survivor in 2000 and American Idol in 2002. What makes a good program these days; tribes, head-to-head battles where winning brings immunity from judgement, comedic irreverent news, micro-personality identification, judgement by peer group and popularity, and occasional advocacy and critique by an authoritarian figure (American Idol only) all within an instant from your mobile phone. Although Idol has had its share of controversy with “the establishment” picking winners, just like Hunger Games, right?

    And it’s that instantaneous judgement/satisfaction on our mobile devices that has changed Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers forever. It’s a global village alright, on a 4 inch screen.

  10. Boat Drinker says:

    I struggled getting through this post, then begrudgingly made my way into the comments section, fearful of that which I was about to face. But what to my wondering eyes should appear? REASONABLENESS!!!!! Who are you people? I thought your kind was extinct!

    Day made, thank you Michael, Gabe, Austin, Dan, MG, et. al.!

  11. David Scheidt,

    I’m not sure about your overall conclusions, but I think you’re onto something in this bit:

    “The idea of a brash, independent ‘Ronan’ Millennial doesn’t seem to exist. There always seems to be a group associated with the Millenial, backing them up, looking out for them, offering emotional support.

    Snake Plissken, Rambo, John McClane, Dirty Harry, James Bond. Stone Cold Steve Austin. I don’t know if these guys could survive today without a peer group of equals.”

    I think it’s true that stories about a “lone wolf” who solves every problem and defeats every villain by himself, or with some minor assistance from the disposable Love Interest of the Week, have fallen out of favor. I think they are, by their nature, pretty limited in the kinds of stories they can tell and the emotional depth and range they can have. The Lone Wolf is pretty much allowed to feel only grief over his tragic past or whoever’s death triggered the story, and righteous anger at the villain; he has to stoically resist the temptation to fall for the Love Interest of the Week, because “anyone who gets too close to me gets hurt.” That gets boring pretty quickly, and they’re pretty lousy role models, too: other than being tough and always beating the bad guy, they don’t live much of a life.

    The superhero genre has changed in that respect, too. In the old days, most superheros had secret identities, and there was usually some handwaving about why they had to keep their alter ego a secret from even their closest friends. Now fewer and fewer heroes have secret identities, and even the ones who do have a circle of friends and family who are in the know.

    “Evidently James Bond survives. Wonder what will happen with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo? Will those icons of SciFi get a Millenial makeover? Poor Captain Kirk did by J.J., but I digress.”

    Bond survives, but the Craig films have paid more attention to Bond’s relationships. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are not really good examples, in my opinion, because even in the originals they were not true Lone Wolves — Luke rejects the advice of Obi-Wan and Yoda to let his friends die in Cloud City, and he beats the Emperor by having faith in his father; Han’s “I’m not in this for your rebellion” facade is already cracking halfway through the first film.

    Ditto for Kirk — sure, he was a macho swashbuckler (and remains so in the reboot) — but he was always part of a team.

    Not sure what any of this has to do with wine, though!

  12. Jim B
    Pop culture, bravado, Slovenian Chard, trends in communication, Cult Cab, social commentary, styles, the Big 80’s (which is what I grew up on) and how things are always changing. I tried to get a Top Gun reference in my post, but it didn’t fit.

    We could talk about dining in my home as a child on iceberg lettuce with 1000 Island Dressing, cheap cut pot roast, pasta, and jug wine but it seems that those basic dining habits have changed to arugula, grass-fed organic beef, and heaven forbid No Gluten!

    Mine is both social commentary and how we eat and drink and the changes we’ve all made and society has made in a short 40 years. We could talk about the Uberization of Food in the Bay Area, that’s a topic I’ve seen a lot of lately. When can winemakers get on board with a Sprig Meal and a Bottle of Wine delivered to the doorstep! In 10 years, who knows?

    Honestly, I don’t know if I have a conclusion, I’m observing, commenting, reacting and getting out on the road talking to people, directly, of all ages when I sell wine. Long forums like Steve’s help with that conversation and my thought process.

    Thanks for the comments.

  13. Oh, it wasn’t meant as a criticism. A little thread drift never bothers me, and I don’t think Steve minds much. Besides, I know a lot more about pop culture than I do about wine….


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