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Alan Goldfarb on the generation gap of wine

His generation savors the distinctiveness of wines that exhibit their unique regional characteristics. But he fears the new generation of wine drinkers don't care.

America (Country Appellation)

There’s a Wine Generation Gap
...I’ve fallen into it and can’t get out

by Alan Goldfarb
April 8, 2008

APPELLATION AMERICA Senior Editor, Alan Goldfarb, has a lot on his mind. In this, the first of his bi-weekly columns, he expounds on the generation-evolving tastes in wine and what he thinks is the loss of meaningful wine appreciation brought on by the ever-increasing pace of our newly emerging digital culture. Whether you think he’s a winer or a whiner, there is no dismissing the cogency of his arguments.

Look for Alan's column every other Tuesday, only at APPELLATION AMERICA.

 Senior-Ed-Alan-Goldfarb.jpg“Criticism,” the great poet W.H. Auden wrote, “is tradition defending itself against the three armies of Goddess Stupidity: the army of amateurs who are ignorant of tradition; the army of conceited eccentrics who believe tradition should be suppressed by a stroke of the pen in order that true art may begin with them; and the army of academicians who believe they maintain tradition by a servile imitation of the past.”

Thus, when it comes to criticizing many New World wines because of their penchant for imbalance, I’ve concluded that tradition is fast losing out to the growing army of new and young wine drinkers.

In other words, when it comes to wines of perfect pitch - that is, wine with good fresh fruit, substantial tannins, an evident  commentary wash of acidity, and heaven help us, a reasonable alcohol percentage - the subtleties of those criteria seem to have been lost. Gone, I’m afraid, into the abyss of what my peers used to refer to - in an earlier era - as the Generation Gap.

At the beginning of a new century, we are once again entangled in a separation of the human species. But in this case, politics notwithstanding, that divide is now drawn along lines of wine preference.

As I delve into this diatribe, I admit that I’m audaciously taking to task those wines that evidently sell like nobody’s business - and that have their place in the market. Many seem to adore them, especially the constituency that comprises the other side of this Wine Generation Gap.

There is no doubt that these big, juicy wines, most of which are as sweet as the candy, iced tea and cola that younger consumers – being weaned off sugar drinks – are embracing. They deliver some sort of satisfaction that is being lost on an older chap such as me.

They are indeed sexy. But I tell you, when you’re finished making love with these over-wrought, blowsy, showy wines, I ascertain there’s nothing left to talk about. There’s no sitting-back-with-a-cigarette moment whilst ruminating on what has just taken place; and I like to talk about those pleasurable moments with my love on the pillow beside me.

I enjoy contemplating the vicissitudes of the day, just as I look forward to discussing the exigencies and the whys and wherefores of those terrific, complex wines that I’d just experienced that went perfectly with the lamb tagine and the crème brûlée.

Wine with food? Pairings? That’s so 20th century, you geezer you, they say. But to me, c’est incroyable that on more than one occasion, I’ve been told by “kids” in their 30s, “Wine with food? I never drink wine with food!”

I was raised with wine with food - wine I might add, that was well-made. We’re told, in platitudes now, that there’s better-made wine than ever; and “there’s all kinds of wines for everyone.”

But there’s less and less wine being made for a wretch such as me; at least not the kind of wine that I prefer. Although I make my living writing about an alcoholic beverage, I’m not a drinker. I don’t like alcohol for alcohol’s sake. I don’t like standing-up wines. I’d rather sit down with a glass or two and only as an accompaniment to food.

But, with these over-the-top, jam-jar, high-octane wines whose alcohol levels are routinely topping out at more than 15 percent, there is no intellectual discourse possible. It is what it is, as they say. Wines now are big and bold, so learn to live with it, old man; or stand aside, as my generation used to so brazenly shout.

So who am I to be critical of these now-era wines? I know it’s not all about the alcohol. If the grapes are picked with enough concentration, the alcohol can sometimes be well integrated. But many now are sending their wine to the fix-it shops to siphon off some of the high-test, which in the end is merely an anti-inflammatory.

In these pages on APPELLATION AMERICA recently, I asked George Hendry, who makes wine just below Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley, if we’ll ever see Zinfandel consistently at 14.5 alcohol. He answered succinctly: “Tell me what the market wants and I will figure out how to do it.”

So, I know that wines can be made with lower alcohol in California, and therefore, I know we can get back to balanced wines. I also know that, as those on the other side of the Wine Generation Gap will likely mature in time, so will their palates. And when that happens, they too will be looking for wines of distinction, complexity and nuance; and bottlings that we once called “food wines”.

I can’t wait for that to happen so that the market will swing back, as it usually does. But time isn’t on my side and I worry that the wine industry won’t be able to adjust swiftly enough and find its way again to making wines of discernment.

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [38]

Walla Walla, WA
I agree with the high octane wine comments. And I see winemakers here in Walla Walla beginning to complain themselves. Things will change. But as a member of that younger generation, I see my peers exploring more possibilities than the older generation. We don't just drink Cab or Merlot. They are good wines. However we also drink Gruner Veltliner or Tempranillo. They are good too. We expand our palettes with new wines. As for food pairings, I too often see wine drunk for the sake of the wine. I see it with my peers, but also with the older generation too. So the complaints are valid, but I am not sure it is necessarily the generation gap that is to blame. If anything, the wine culture in our country is still young and we must all grow up.

Tracy , Manager
Chateau Lorane Winery, Lorane, OR
I myself am a 30 something and have grown up with wine. With alcohol being taboo for those under 21, the young have little time to develop a palate. Most 20 and 30 somethings do develop that palate over the course of years. I have served some very sophisticated younger drinkers and know they are out there. Wine is a lovely thing, it is an opinion of taste. One article I read not too long ago spoke of how the younger generation prefers lighter, fresher, lower alcohol wine. Look at what Paris Hilton is doing with her own wine label! Take heart, there will always be those rebellious kids!

Katie , Writer
I’ve got to disagree on one point here, Alan, despite the fact that I sit whole-heartedly on your side of the gap. To your last comment, I don’t think we can say with certainty that the other generation’s palates will mature as they do, nor can we assume that they will ever look for wines that we consider distinct, complex and nuanced. Unless they are turned on to such wines by someone that sits on our side of the gap, I sadly believe they will spend the rest of their lives perfectly happy with their jam. To that I will say that if they are happy, who are we to judge? But if it affects the market we purchase from (and obviously it does) then we may not see the market swing back to our side. There will always be wine makers that thumb their nose at trends and continue to make what they believe to be art, with the knowledge that there are still those of us who treasure that art. And if we take our children under our wing, hopefully they will develop palates that relish that art also.

George Bacon , Owner
Friar's Choice / Six Hero, Santa Clarita, CA
Good, right on article today -- Wine Generation Gap.
~ George

Spoken like an old fart critic still wallowing in the snob-ridden recesses of the wine industry. Resisting the inevitable and thankful change in wine is futile. Young people don’t do, drink or think the same things as the old guard. Thank god.

Nicolaas Steyn , Sales Director
Avinya Imports, Los Angeles, CA
Dear Mr. Goldfarb:
Enjoyed your article! We import South African wines and I would appreciate the opportunity to send you a few samples for your evaluation. I guess I am also a geezer that enjoys similar wines. Wines that have character and structure that do not overpower food. Thanks and Regards,
Nicolaas Steyn

Arthur Z. Przebinda , Founder and Publisher
redwinebuzz.com, CA
This ongoing debate reminds me that the best way to get ahead in the world is to validate the beliefs of your audience. If your audience is made up of the big/sweet/ripe wine loving consumers, it is clear what you need to tell them if you want to keep their attention.

All this talk of better wine being made today is a double edged sword: yes the wines are cleaner, but are they the best true expression of grape and site? Does that matter anymore? That ideal has been cast aside with one sweeping statement: "a wine is good if you enjoy it". This relativist notion paves the way to mediocrity in wine.

While I do become disappointed with many a wine because of its alcohol content, I think it’s important to look past the alcohols and consider the makeup of the wine so that we can identify the true nature of the problem. If the wine is raisiny or pruney and lacks primary varietal characteristics, we are dealing with a different problem than if the wine does have the appropriate characteristics of variety and site on top of a high ABV. This is not a blanket endorsement of a 16% ABV Pinot Noir with stunning varietal typicity. Balance is not everything. Grace, elegance and sophistication count as well.

We, as wine writers/critics/commentators have a responsibility to inform and educate. We should continue to point to distinctions between balance and elegance. Informing and educating may be very difficult to achieve in a culture which espouses the principles of “selective ignorance” and a “low-information diet” proposed by people like Timothy Ferriss. In the face of such realities, it is no wonder, then, that wine awareness campaigns have a greater ROI than wine education. However, wine awareness campaigns typically benefit the producers not the consumers.

Perhaps the time has come to create a wine education campaign. However, that would entail challenging the beliefs of a large portion of the consumer base…

~Arthur Z. Przebinda

Healdsburg, CA
Traditions are fine, and deserve respect. They arise from some convention of an age that is more or less universally appreciated, and are therefore carried forward. But new traditions can arise over time, and sometimes the newness of these can be off putting to those who are married to the older. But that doesn't make them invalid, wrong, or bad. Heck my mom hates rock and roll - it's not the traditional music she grew up with. At one time most wines were made with residual sugar, and volatile acidity was much more tolerated. Hmm, not a traditional style I would ever like to return to! Maybe today's ripe, bold, juicy wines are the result of a clearer understanding of how to grow grapes and coax flavor from them. Maybe they're just better.

Amocat Cellars, Cascadia, WA
Yawn. More ramblings from the entitled generation. Linking the proliferation of high alcohol wines to a younger generation is simplistic. And what does it solve? The trend of cranking out high alcohol wines started years ago. I'm really not looking forward to the mass of boomers heading into retirement if they are just going to be cranky whiners! There's a great opportunity to become part of the solution. What are you going to do about it?

Kimberly Charles , Owner
Charles Communications, San Francisco, CA
Well done… and you have a firm position which is nice to see… I’m really curious about delving into this theory now…
~ Kimberly

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