Quick wine observation that has been simmering for well over a decade…
There are two separate classes of American wine fans and the overlap between them is almost negligible. The first is the stratum occupied by me and nearly everyone I know: total or substantial partial immersion in the culture of “serious” wine, with much time, energy, and focus devoted to its many aspects. Sales figures have proven, time and time again, that this group accounts for somewhere between 12 and 25% of all domestic wine purchases.
The other is the casual wine fan, whose drinking is largely predicated at finding something agreeable, at an attractive, affordable price point, drinking either that or something they found through a friend, and doing that habitually. This group’s annual purchases, account for as much as EIGHTY PERCENT of all US wine sales. It is the group that funds the “serious” segment. It is at least arguable that “fine wine” could not survive or would do so in a VASTLY altered form if not for the dollars from those casual drinkers, a group for whom the “serious wine aficionados” USUALLY either practice a sort of benign dismissal or harbor outright contempt.
The casual wine fans tend to be somewhat aware of the Serious folks but often giggle when exposed to some of our more contrived practices; the cork sniffing, swirling, “nosing” wines, obsessions with glassware, aerators, and the wines’ origins, pedigree, and technical processes. For the Casuals, wine is for drinking, often for erecting an aura of sophistication around their parties and casual get-togethers, and for getting a bit of a buzz on without having to think of themselves in kinship with beer guzzlers and guys passing around cheap booze in bags.
The Seriousos perceive the Casuals in terms of missing the entire point of wine, failing to grasp, in the most fundamental way, how anybody could would drink wine without being concerned with the tsunami of peripheral issues and debates that “wine people” bat around endlessly. There is a lot of indulgent laughing and a lot of jokes aimed at the Casuals and many Serious types take a great deal of pride in having little or no knowledge or understanding of the wines and drinking habits of casual fans.
The freaky-geeky Blind Tasting, done the glitzy way.
This is because the whole culture of wine is and always has been, at least in part, about exclusion, of an established pecking order in wine consumption and appreciation that is as old as wine itself. Wine is the ultimate Lifestyle Beverage. Beer, cider, whiskey, kombucha, and everything else for liquid consumption has not even a tiny fragment of the lifestyle implications of wine. Arguably, for MANY wine fans of both groups, wine would not be as much fun if every Tom, Dick, n’ Harry did it. Even the Casual of Casuals, those groups of women AND men whose social interactions are formed around and held together by gatherings that have wine as their main focus, use wine as a yardstick of the sophistication of those they meet.
And for those of us who actually work IN the wine trade, both of these other groups, while our legitimate targets in the marketplace, are something of a mystery. We have to be aware of and concerned with both and try to find the Hot Buttons to push to sell wine but we tend to cluster with others in the profession, even in social settings.
This traditional and somewhat organic division within the wine culture as a whole is the Number One problem with wine in the 2000s. The trade folks seek to educate the Seriousos. The Serious crowd, if they mix with casuals at all, seek to enlighten them. And the Casuals try earnestly to get their family and friends and business associates who are not already “into wine”.
And all three tend to look down their noses at beer drinkers and be just as woefully misinformed about what the term “beer” actually means, here in the 2020s.
How to get these camps into some sort of harmony? I’ve tried for 20+ years. If there is a way, it’s beyond my capabilities and my patience. But for wine to continue to thrive, some sort of mutual understanding and dialog would the greatest single phenomenon in the history of fermented grape juice. It will NOT happen in my lifetime but could it happen at all, ever?
My grandchildren will find out…Maybe.
To which my great friend, John Bell, former owner/winemaker of the late, much-lamented Willis Hall Winery, replied with this: Maybe it’s not as complicated as you seem to think, Steve. Liken the broad adult beverage industry to life in general. Many folks are happy just meandering through life, taking enjoyment just from being alive. These are the Casuals. But a small group of folks have an innate need to understand, everything. These are the ones who spend gigabucks building colliders and space telescopes to suss out the finest details of it all, just so they can KNOW. These are the Seriosos. And while the Seriosos might find some enjoent in the everyday, they find much more in the understanding. Bringing this back to wine, while a nice everyday quaff is pleasurable, to a degree, there’s not a whole lot of interesting data to be gleaned from it. To the contrary, more sophisticated (and usually, but not always, more expensive) wine is necessary to satisfy the interests of the Seriosos. It’s all about one’s curiosity level and willingness to commit to understanding and thinking about a subject, in this case -wine. My 2cw…
Me Again: What I wrote wasn’t so much a comment on the need to understand wine or not as on the challenge of how to expand buying habits, mostly of the Casuals but the Seriousos, too. I find a LOT of the dismissiveness of varietals among the Casual crowd – getting mired in ONE white or ONE red and rarely climbing out of that rut – almost tragic. How many more wines would they ADORE if they ever got something new into their pieholes? Similarly, the dismissiveness of the Seriousos of many wines that are ghettoized as “supermarket plonk” (or worse) is often based on ZERO knowledge of the wines. I know FAR too many people who cop lofty ‘tudes about wines they have never once tasted, just assuming that because it’s on sale at the grocery store or comes in 1.5 liters for $15, it can’t be any good. A friend of mine uses the terms “Alice White” and “Aussie Shiraz” as pejoratives. BUT…he admits that the last Aussie Shiraz he tasted was in 2001 and has never once tasted anything from Alice White. Australian Shiraz, to begin with, is no more one thing than is “Washington wine”. There are great, transcendent Aussie wines and sniffing at all of it tosses Penfolds Grange in with $6 bulk wines.
And the near-universal obliviousness toward grapes outside the unholy-NARROW range of varietals we see here in the US – roughly 30 TOTAL grapes that make up well over 95% of all domestic wine sales, out of 9,000+ known wine grapes – is, to me, inexcusable. It reeks of American smugness; that “if we don’t want it, it can’t be any good” attitude that is used to explain away a lack of curiosity and openness to new experiences. Google “obscure wine grapes”, sometime, and see how shockingly many grapes show up there that ANY reasonably knowledgeable wine fan SHOULD not only be aware of but probably already tried, maybe even been drinking for years.
A Mercury News article in ’19 listed obscure grapes that are little or rarely purchased in CALIFORNIA, where you might expect people to be all over different varietals. What did they name? Aglianico, Cab Franc(!), Cinsault, and Vermentino. Another random article named Chenin Blanc, Verdejo, Torrontes, and Petit Sirah. Another, Petit Verdot. I really think ANYONE who is “into wine” at all should already have tried ALL of those. And just imagine(!) how much more wine could be sold, how much $$$ wineries and growers could bring in, how many more wineries could stop walking the edge of the fiscal Abyss if there was just simply more stuff to sell.
That’s the division I’d like to change and have been working to change for twenty years. When we had the shop in Woodinville, I poured and SOLD Ruche and Schiava and Negroamaro and Malagousia and a dozen of more other “weird wines”, by just laying out a glass and saying, “For the love of God, just taste it, willya?!?” MANY people absolutely balked at the idea of putting Malagousia into their mouths but then BOUGHT it when they found out, “Hey! This is NOT WEIRD! It’s actually GOOD!“
Hands across the divide, that’s what I’m saying. Instead of writing off 3/4 of the American wine-buying public as plebian, pour them YOUR wines. Taste theirs. I blind poured several bottles of what are usually dismissed as plonk for people in our shop and MOST of them liked ’em. The traditional, time-honored stratification of wine is horseshit. And it’s high time it stopped.