Sun 29 Apr 2007
If Freud did not ask “What do young people want?” he should have.
Attempting to answer that question, if only in terms of attitudes about wine and wine consumption — at least one thing that young people want being lots of booze — is this report, “20-25 Year-Olds and Wine,” commissioned by VINEXPO and carried out by the firm of BrulÃ©, Ville & AssociÃ©s. According to the press release from VINEXPO, the gargantuan wine fair held every year in Bordeaux, BVA surveyed two groups of 10 people in the United States, France, Japan, Belgium, and the United Kingdom, “male and female, students and professionals, independent and living with parents.” all “occasional drinkers.” That’s — um, quick calculation in the head — 100 people. The margin of error here must be about a zillion percent, but let’s go with the results anyway.
Following Gen X and Gen Y — what happened to poor Gen Z? — this demographic of 20 to 25 year-olds is called (or, PR-wise, has been dubbed) the Millennials, presumably because the oldest of them turned 20 in 2001 or so.
The first factor to mention is that attitudes toward wine among the youth of American and the youth of Europe differ markedly. In the U.S., those surveyed indicated not only that they are “not very familiar with wine” and that wine was only “occasionally served in their families” but that wine consumption and knowledge were features of “European culture.” The youth of France and Belgium, on the other hand, know enough about wine to understand its various authentic images: the “noble chateau and grand estate” and the “rustic, countryside farmer who makes his own wine.”
All those surveyed, or at least the countries in general, agreed that wine does not possess a “young image” (as opposed to, say, an oil-drum filled with Purple Passion) and that “the classic wine drinker is older” — get this — “30 or 35-40 with experience, comfortable income and married.” Wine consumers are “refined, educated and cultivated,” as assessment with which, of course, I heartily concur.
In fact, the youth of all five countries surveyed in the report expressed a certain sense of longing, saying that wine drinking is “mature,” that people who drink wine have entered “an older world,” that wine drinkers seem “more responsible,” and that — and here’s the crux — wine drinking is a sign that “you’re getting better behaved and less wild.” The alternatives seem to be a dinner party at which well-dressed and mannerly people drink various fine wines with their courses and chat about art, death, love and time OR knocking back a quart of Red Bull mixed with Ecstasy and disappearing into the Behavioral Sink for a weekend.
The prospect of drinking wine, however sophisticated, does bring anxieties. Wine is “difficult to select” said the responders to the survey because there is “too much diversity,” there are “too many brands and styles,” you never know “what a wine is going to taste like” and — the opening of the abyss — “you can make mistakes.” One sees the headline: “Restaurant Empties After Youth Orders Beaujolais with Thai Hot Wings/Ex-Girlfriend Vows: ‘He’ll Never Hear from Me Again’.”
Branding, on the other hand, can be an attractive advantage, especially for the Millennials of Japan and the U.S. It’s not surprising that youth in the Land of the Rising Sun and their counterparts in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave would be equally interested in “packaging designed for young people” and “promotions with goodies and cool advertising,” nor that they would be “open to something new” such as “different bottle shapes and colors.” Japanese and American pop and consumer cultures have existed as carnivalesque distorting mirrors of each other since the 1960s: We have Courtney Love, they have Hello, Kitty; they have Godzilla, we have Don Imus.
It’s difficult for me to believe, though, that labels like Three Blind Moose and Bitch — Bitch is actually pretty great — will draw young people to wine consumption in droves. Critter labels and chick labels and trailer park labels are promotional fads and have little to do with actually learning about wine and how to enjoy it.
Those youthful snobs in the U.K., by the way, trying to maintain old standards despite the Everlasting Loss of the Empire (and hoping to inherit their fathers’ wine cellars) believe that branding “must not be obviously targeted toward young people” and that the “serious, traditional side of wine” must be conserved.
What does all of this commentary mean or reveal?
Young people want to like wine. Drinking wine makes them feel good about themselves, grown-up, responsible, mature. The whole culture of wine and matching wine with food, though, is confusing: So many grapes, so many kinds and styles of wine, so many countries, regions, labels, brands.
This is where restaurants need to step in. Oh certainly you can have a retail store put together a case of 12 different wines for you and you can invest in one or some of the numerous wine guides that are available. I recommend both of these steps.
But I think that restaurants need to be far more consumer-friendly in their wine lists and approaches to offering and recommending wine with meals. Wine lists need to be shorter, less expensive and more useful at matching the wines on the list with specific dishes on the menu, without being coy or cute. Waiters need to try harder to help diners select wine and not simply leave the list on the table. If you’re in a bistro-style restaurant, for example, order a roasted chicken and ask the waiter to help you choose a glass of a medium-bodied chardonnay and a medium-bodied pinot noir, see how those work together and decide what works best with your palate. Of course this situation means that waiters need to be thoroughly trained about the wine list and the menu, too, and pairing the food and wine, and that process takes time; I bet, though, that it would lead to bigger tips.
The image of carousing youth is from montrosechina.com.