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Cutting Through the Mysteries of Wine Fashion
By Paul Lukacs
Feb 26, 2019
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Wine is like fashion.  Different styles and types become trendy or hot while others fall from favor, all for no apparent reason.  At least with clothing, designers bear some responsibility.  While few of us wear their actual creations, we do don knock-offs or inspired designs.  But with wine, no one dictates consumer preferences.  Why people like (and buy) what they do is a confused and confusing mystery.

This is not to say that all sorts of people don’t try to take credit for changing consumer tastes.  Consider sommeliers, who used to be rare birds but now can be sighted at even quite modest restaurants.  They have the advantage of a captive audience, and while they may not always be knowledgeable about wine in general, they know, or should know, the wines on their lists.

Sommeliers like to recommend new and unfamiliar wines.  For a while it was Austrian Grüner Veltliner, then wines from Greece.  Now it’s biodynamic and orange wines.  Their efforts do make a difference, but only a very small one, and they rarely translate beyond the confines of the individual restaurant.  How many people do you know who drink orange wine regularly, or who consciously seek out biodynamics?  Maybe a few wine-crazed obsessives (who have no need for a sommelier when they dine out), but ordinary consumers?   

Or consider writers, whether on web sites like this one, in newspapers, on blogs, or wherever.  We too like to recommend the new and exciting.  But except for a small band of famous writers, most notably the now retiring Robert Parker, Jr., none of us have moved the market to any significant degree.  That’s because none of us understands why people drink what they do.  

Ever since I first became enamored with wine some forty years ago, wine writers have urged Americans to drink Riesling.  It makes logical sense.  Most Rieslings are at least slightly sweet, and even when vinified dry, they have a seductive floral bouquet.  If we know anything about American tastes, we know that a great many people prefer sweet to tart flavors.  They should love Riesling!  But the argument has never worked.  Rieslings continue to languish on store shelves and restaurant lists, and literally millions of consumers continue to turn their noses up at the thought of drinking something sugary.  When it comes to the rationale for choosing this or that wine, you can throw logic out with the bathwater.

The one group of people who recognize this are the producers themselves.  Over the years, I have had countless conversations with winemakers, wine publicists, brand managers, even CEOS, about what’s next.  What sort of wine will become the next big thing, or even just the next blip on the consumer radar?  If there is one thing we invariably have agreed upon, it’s that we have no idea.

I can’t predict, then, what wines will boom in popularity just as I can’t tell you whether hemlines will rise or fall.  I do know, though, that things will change.  Just as next year’s fashions promise to be different from this year’s, what people will drink in the future will not be what they flock to today.  Consider the changing fortunes of California Merlot and Pinot Noir over the last twenty years.  Times change, and tastes follow suit.

Taste, after all, is a funny thing.  We often are told to trust our tastes, but we also know that our tastes shift--in part because we tend to prefer variety to boredom but also because we know that something we previously thought of as off-putting can now seem interesting if not exciting.  As the famous French sociologist and intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu, once said, taste discriminates, but it discriminates less between what people taste than between who does the tasting.

With wine as with fashion, the question thus becomes what sort of taster or consumer are you or do you want to be.  I have a friend who drinks almost only powerful, high alcohol red wines.  I say “almost” because she’s happy to try other things, and in fact sometimes enjoys them.  But when push comes to proverbial shove, she goes back to what I think of as monster reds.  And she drinks these wines much as my parents’ generation drank cocktails—before a meal more than with a meal.  This is not how I drink wine, and my friend’s taste is certainly not mine, but I have no beef with what she does.  She is a certain kind of drinker, that’s all.

But I have another friend who drinks only Chardonnay, and in fact who likes only one style of Chardonnay--big, buttery, and sun-baked.  He will have a glass of something else if that’s the only thing available, but he won’t be happy about it.  That’s because he not only likes one type of wine more than others, but more to the point, because he defines good one wine in one and only one way.  His taste, not just his experience, is so limited as to be intolerant.

More important than wine as fashion is wine as personality.  What kind of taster you are is a small sign or marker of what kind of person you are--open or closed-minded, adventurous or timid, focused on how you are seen or on how you see yourself.  The same admittedly is true of many consumer products--the car you choose to drive, the books you read, and yes, the clothes you wear.  Yet taste matters even more with wine.

It does so because it has a physical component.  After all, we take it into our bodies, where, if only because of the presence of alcohol, it can for a time affect or even alter our personalities.  But it’s also because, especially in a young wine-drinking culture like America’s, few people know all that much about it.  My only piece of advice is to ignore fashion and the market.  You, the consumer, are the market.  If it changes, and it most certainly will, it will be your doing as much as anyone else’s.  So as a taster, try as best you can to know both what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.