Sometimes the world changes so gradually that we don't notice. Ten years ago, a common theme of wine business articles was that wineries didn't know how to reach young consumers.
I just spent the weekend at Outside Lands, a music festival with a strong food-and-wine program. Because of -- not despite -- the youth of the audience, the wine selection featured quite a few artisanal brands and some obscure varietals.
That was no aberration. If you hold an event for baby boomers, you might have to stock up on white Zinfandel and buttery Chardonnays. But if 20-somethings are the target, you can expect a knowledgeable crowd that's itching to do some comparative tasting.
The current generation is the smartest group of wine consumers the US has ever developed. They make this country's future as the world's largest wine market more hopeful for all concerned. Just imagine what this generation will want to drink if the economy ever recovers and they have more disposable income. I suspect they will reward iconoclasts and people making an honest effort to make great, unique wine.
Back to my main point. How did this happen? Young consumers aren't easier to reach. The newspaper industry -- supposedly communications experts -- hasn't solved that riddle yet.
Here are a few things the US wine industry has done right.
1) Banishing pretension
A huge barrier to wine appreciation for older generations was the fear of being exposed as unknowledgeable. US wineries at all levels have consistently delivered the message that your tastes are your own, and you're not wrong for having them. Compare that to France, where you still encounter sommeliers who sniff at you for mispronouncing Menetou-Salon, or not knowing the grape of Condrieu. No wonder younger French people aren't drinking as much wine as their elders. The French wine industry could learn from the US on this.
2) Holding frequent tastings in cities everywhere
It's exhausting for US winemakers to travel constantly, but the effort has paid off. It used to be that if you were in middle America you were lucky to find one restaurant in town with an overpriced but adequate wine list. Now, it's possible to find a good wine list in almost any good-sized American city. Traveling winemakers and brand ambassadors brought that enthusiasm to the provinces.
3) Creating useful websites
When I started writing about wine, I could never fact-check on a winery website because it was likely created by the owner's teenage son and hadn't been updated in months. Now, I'm disappointed if I can't immediately find the harvest information for a particular vintage. Yes, this is a step that all businesses, not just wineries, are doing better. But it's still a noteworthy improvement from even five years ago.
4) Supporting social media
Like a lot of brick-and-mortar businesses, many wineries are still befuddled by social media. But many wineries have jumped ahead of the curve with Twitter tastings and Facebook fan pages and all that sort of thing. It's all incremental, and I'm not convinced tweets sell wine, but overall it serves to make wine seem like a part of the fabric of life online.
5) Supporting young sommeliers
Enthusiastic young sommeliers are a major reason that this generation is America's greatest when it comes to wine. Wineries have done a better job this millennium of reaching out to beginners, offering visits to vineyards and vertical tastings, etc., that used to be reserved only for longtime loyalists to a particular brand.
6) Simplified labeling
Do younger drinkers need simpler labels more than older drinkers? Not at all -- in fact, baby boomers need simpler labels more, because they're the ones with the weak eyes. But simplified labels do make it easier for first-time customers to pick up a brand and try it. German wineries are just starting to figure this out.
7) Making unique wines
Younger customers are more experimental than older ones. Sure, you can sell them Yellow Tail, but you can also sell them single-vineyard Grenache if you explain what it is. And while younger consumers buy a lot of Yellow Tail, it's the single-vineyard Grenaches that get them excited enough to tweet and invite their friends for a kitchen table tasting. There's only so much that marketing can accomplish; you have to have an interesting product, and wineries deserve credit for being interesting.
It all makes me wish I was 25 again. The wine world that many of us grew up in was a class-segregated place where the best bottles were kept in a hidden cellar and nothing interesting was ever sold by the glass. And if you could get wine at a concert, Vendange varietal wine in individual plastic bottles was the high end.
This weekend, I had a glass of Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah (just 12.7% alcohol!) while listening to Phoenix (crazy lead singer body surfed 50m into the audience). That's the way wine should be, and that's why 20-somethings have embraced it. Good job, wine industry. Pat yourself on the collective back.