The old rules of wine no longer apply as experimentation becomes the new norm and a little ignorance is forgiven.
By Janice Hoppe
As you take your seat and appreciatively grab the restaurant’s menu from the hostess to begin perusing the list of entrées, the dreaded wine list is dropped into your hands. Should you get red or white? What country should it come from? If it’s not expensive does that mean it’s a poor choice?
Relax. The “rules” of wine no longer apply. The E. & J. Gallo Winery’s 2015 Gallo Consumer Wine Trends Survey uncovered many new category trends and wine preferences, including generational differences between American millennials and baby boomers. “Millennials, more than any generation in the U.S. to date, are demonstrating excitement when it comes to experimenting with wine,” says Stephanie Gallo, E. & J. Gallo Winery vice president of marketing. “They are defying traditions and showing an appreciation for personality and uniqueness over qualities like terroir or vintage.”
Millennials are four times more likely than baby boomers to select a bottle of wine based on its label, the survey showed. They are also more likely to look for personality and originality while baby boomers look to the label for information on the region of origin and taste descriptors.
Gallo explains that millennials are also much less willing to conform to the “rules” of wine than other generations. “They expect wine to be portable, convenient and fresh when they reach for a glass,” she adds. “This is already having an effect on packaging with options now ranging from 187-mililiter bottles to three-liter box and beyond. Their quality expectations are also encouraging the industry to continually offer innovative new products for ever-evolving palates.”
Moving Past Fear
Millennials reported a greater level of wine fear overall than older wine drinkers, according to the Gallo survey. Most respondents – 42 percent – say they are afraid of mispronouncing a wine’s name. Participants also expressed fear of being asked by a server to taste wine at a restaurant or to talk about wine with others, and of being judged for their wine choice.
“Although millennials expressed slightly more fear than frequent wine drinkers as a whole, the category will undeniably benefit across all consumer age groups from a continuing effort to make wine more approachable,” Gallo adds. “Removing intimidation and fear of judgement as barriers for those who are interested in learning about wine is crucial.”
Wine brands are using humor as a vehicle for education, but Gallo has discovered that any effort that encourages wine drinkers to explore, experiment and embark on a journey of discovery will bring the industry closer to reducing fear among budding oenophiles.
Rachel Macalisang, lead sommelier at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles, says the only way to get past a fear of mispronouncing or describing wine is to ask questions and dive in. “You are the master of your palate,” she advises. “Use what is most exciting to you in terms of flavor profile as your guide.”
Michael Muser, beverage director and partner at Grace Restaurant in Chicago, says new wine drinkers should not dread mispronunciation. “Most people don’t speak all the languages on wine labels,” he says. “Everyone makes mistakes and that’s how you learn. What bothers me more than mispronunciation is over-pronouncing a label; like faking a French accent for a French wine when you don’t speak French.”
For those who don’t exactly refer to themselves as a connoisseur, Macalisang says new wine drinkers should be open to tasting many different things before making up their mind. “Also, when you try food with wine it changes,” she explains. “Think of wine as a condiment to your food.”
Toss fears of describing wine out the window because Muser says it is impossible to misrepresent how a wine tastes to you. “You’re not wrong if a wine tastes like strawberries to you but doesn’t to someone else,” he explains. “Everyone’s palate is different.”
Decoding the Wine List
“Old World” wines are from European countries, including France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and Portugal, with centuries-old winemaking traditions. “Pay attention to those last two countries – Spain and Portugal,” Chief Wine Ambassador of City Wine Tours Wes Narron says. “They’ve long been under-appreciated. Spain has some of the best values in red wines, especially the wines from the Rioja region all based on the Tempranillo grape.”
Spain and Portugal grow grapes not available in other countries and their rigorous oak- and bottle-aging regulations make the wines ready to drink when they hit the U.S. shore. The result? Incredible and inexpensive wines, Narron says.
The longer a wine ages the higher the price. So, back to the age-old question: Does a wine needs to be expensive to be good? Narron, Muser and Macalisang say absolutely not. “Talk to the sommelier,” Narron suggests. “Get over yourself and ask some damn questions. Every sommelier I know, even the folks who work at hoity-toity spots, are all down-to-earth, easy conversationalists who realize how intimidating they’re perceived to be.”
Sommeliers (saw-muh-lyays) don’t care if diners only want to spend $40 or less on a bottle. They want to tell you the best wine on their list for under $40 a bottle, Narron says. “Ask them, and good luck getting them to shut up,” he adds.
“I’m happy to report that I’m seeing a trend away from ‘ego’ labels – these super high-end, ultra-expensive wines that, to be honest, I’ve always had a problem with,” Muser adds. “I see younger sommeliers moving toward affordable wines they can purchase and drink in their own homes. They can sell the same bottle to guests during service.”
Wine lists have improved – and shortened – over the years, Muser says, and he thinks the days of the “phonebook-length wine list” have passed. For those restaurants that still have multiple pages, wine is usually organized from lightest-bodied to most full-bodied. “The ‘weight’ of the food should match the body of the wine,” Narron explains.
Ordering wines by the glass is a way to sample a lot of flavors, and the days of the “house” red or white are over. “Wines by the glass give you the chance to sample and pair, and save money,” Narron says. “Buying a single bottle and having it match your appetizer, entrée and dessert is an impossible task. Buy three different glasses of wine rather than one bottle.”
If you do opt to buy a bottle, servers will present you with the label before opening. This is the time to inspect and approve it, checking to be sure the vintage on the label matches what they show on the wine list. If it doesn’t, Narron suggests using a wine app like Drync or Vivino to check the price.
Drink it Anywhere
The Gallo survey shows a growing acceptance of wine at casual and formal events alike. Consumers’ interest in alternative packaging, from boxed wine to mini bottles and wine in a can, is apparent. “Frequent wine drinkers showed an appreciation for the variety of options that allow them to bring wine to any drinking occasion,” Gallo says.
Today, wine does not have to come in a 750-millileter bottle. Retailers offer wines from reputable wineries in jugs, boxes and mini-kegs. “Chateauneuf-du-Pape in a box? I’ve seen it,” Narron exclaims. “Restaurants continue to expand their ‘wines on tap’ programs. You heard me … kegs of wine. They stay fresher longer, reduce the carbon footprint and get the wine in your mouth faster.”
The wine industry needs to continuously adapt to consumers’ preferences by offering wines that seamlessly integrate into millennials’ lives and bring something new to the table, Gallo reports. Although digital engagement is effective in reaching millennials, experiential events and samplings reign supreme. “These events allow consumers to continue building their personal relationship with wine and prove that tasting really is believing,” she says.
Wine shops and restaurants offer free tastings because they recognize new wine drinkers need to determine for themselves whether they like a wine. “Every wine expert has an opinion,” Narron says. “Get out there and taste. Then you decide what you like.”
Moving forward, Gallo expects more variety in the wine aisle to meet the needs of its customers and their occasions. “As wine is increasingly enjoyed at less formal occasions, consumers will see new product offerings showing more personality, as well as being packaged in ways that are convenient and easy to enjoy,” Gallo says.
To the new wine drinkers, “You’re drinking wine. That’s all we can ask of you,” Muser says. “My advice is to drink more; it’s good for you. Especially the red stuff.”