As a young, handsome 22 year old man I am often met with mistrust and scepticism with regard to the current wine market. This, ludicrous as it sounds, is despite the fact that I work for, and have worked for, various wine companies and have the WSET qualifications. One of the many things I have learnt from this journey is that wine tends to be marketed towards an older, more substantial core demographic. Understandable as this is, I feel that someone may be missing a trick. I have many times been the youngest person at wine events, and certain aspects of my recommendations, opinions or advice are occasionally treated with an air of suspicion or that sympathetic ‘he’s giving it a good go’ type attitude. This age related cynicism stems from numerous sources and the common outcome is that young people feel alienated and discouraged when they breach the world of wine.
I believe that one of the key reasons for this is the kind of exposure that the wine industry is given in the UK. Far too frequently we hear of wine auctions or trading for the premier Bordeaux releases, making a point of highlighting the vast and obscene sums of money being spent on wines by people with an apparent bottomless pit of money, for whom reputation often presides over quality. This is not to say that there are not enthusiasts who understand their wines, including people working in the wine business, for whom the chance to taste some of these wines is a luxury that is by no means taken for granted. My problem however is that when this becomes the self styled image of wine, reproduced over and over by the rare occasion in which wine really makes the press, consumers can feel intimidated, and understandably so. A commonly held misconception is that not only is wine a folly of the rich, but also one that neglects to emphasise the presence of affordable quality in a struggling economic climate. One only has to look at acclaimed television wine broadcasters such as Oz Clarke to appreciate why wine, for young people in particular, is firmly under the umbrella of snobbery. The drawl of sozzled insobriety with the dulcet tones of an affluent upbringing is far too often the recognisable face of wine tasting. Absurd pictures of men and women of advanced years swirling wine, discussing speculative vintages and the changes in viticulture owing to the advancement of rootstock initiatives is simply inappropriate for a mainstream audience regardless of age. Wine publications are often catered towards high value sales and in depth features about the premium releases from outstanding producers rather than widening perceptions or encouraging interest in a younger audience that will become the future of the wine trade. This immediately alienates any normal student outside of possibly Oxbridge, or for that matter anyone who does not have an enviable income, for whom reading about these wines is simply that and for whom the idea of buying wine by the case is laughable.
Within these publications and for the face of wine in general, there is so little exposure for the young wine writers who are genuinely passionate and dynamic, who bring fresh ideas and perceptions to the wine market. Jancis Robinson is without doubt one of the most influential wine writers in the UK today. She is a Master of Wine, the highest qualification available in wine, so notoriously difficult and sought after that there are approximately only three hundred MWs worldwide. But this, I argue, is not the point. On her website she has put a transcript of a lecture she conducted entitled ‘Wine Journalists – Endangered Species?’, and in it she affirms that ‘in Britain most of us who are wine correspondents for one of the big important papers have been there for years and years and years. I feel really sorry for younger wine writers because we are damned if we are going to move aside for them.’ It appears that this is evidence of the UK wine market becoming content with an exclusive audience, becoming further and further out of touch with reality. If this is the mouthpiece of the industry itself, how does this affect consumers at home?
As a young enthusiast I have sat and listened numerous times to a senior figure preach about wine in a way that is suggestive of sophistication, despite the wine itself being whatever was on offer in the local supermarket that week without passing comment or judgment, not mentioning my own wine education. I think that this is an indicator that there are people who genuinely do have an interest in wine but find the varied and difficult nature of wine intimidating to talk about with people who feel as if they will be judged harshly for being typically uncultured. Tenuous as this point may be, it may serve to show at least partially the desire to impress elegance upon younger guests, not in a way that is necessarily intended to boast but perhaps as a way of discussing wine without the cultural intimidation of being deemed to be unrefined or ill informed about wine by friends or colleagues that would obviously know more than their early twenties guest.
Young people are reluctant to become a part of the clichéd pretentiousness that wine has a reputation for, and rightly so, for in the generation of the credit crunch, the war on terror and the coalition government, one can never be too careful. I argue, however, that the bottom line of it all is that for anyone who enjoys wine it does not have to be met with such frivolous pretension, and more importantly than that, wine should be something that is enthusiastically encouraged regardless of knowledge, income or age. When the snobbery is stripped away, the customs of wine and the knowledge that can come with it, serves to increase the enjoyment of drinking it. I do not see why this should ostracise an audience deemed to be uncultured who, conversely, are notorious for enjoying a drink. What better way to rehabilitate what is seen as a crass and uncouth drinking culture?
Ideas of culture and history are not lost on the children of the recession; one can look to Continental Europe and France in particular to see that wine is not an exclusive pleasure. Wine is by far the most universal alcoholic drink, a long way from being a transparent indicator of hierarchy. It becomes increasingly clear therefore that the UK is quite unique in granting wine significant cultural capital, especially when you consider that the UK is not a prominent wine producing region. This is the rub; for a country that does not make its own wine on any significant scale, the UK wine market has access to a greater variety – and quality – of wine for consumers than anywhere else in the world. What a shame that wine publications and marketing executives seem hell bent on this luxury remaining an exclusive pleasure. Young people are intelligent, inquisitive and – academically speaking – some of the most ‘culturally’ active people in the country, what a shame that this audience is neglected and ostracised, in turn reproducing the image of being out of touch with reality.
I believe that the wine market and wine writers have missed a very important trick. The fact is that there really are affordable wines of quality on the market that would cater for almost any budget. This is not to say that on a personal level I have lost my passion for wine, because I most certainly have not, but in order to get consumers excited there needs to be a bigger drive on really good quality, affordable wines to spark that interest. Coupled with this there appears to be a growing trend amongst students who have a burgeoning interest in cooking and fine food. One only has to look at student publications to see some of the great articles about food being written. This is a sector that would provide such fertile growth for wine companies, should they bother to shake up the business. Programmes such as ‘Come Dine With Me’ provide the ideal starting point for students looking to practice their cooking in a relaxed and social setting, yet wine is not a priority.
I do not dispute the importance of fine wine, for on the contrary I am captivated by it and I wholly appreciate that there needs to be those outlets in which they can be written about and publicised. My concern is that for the wider, younger and less affluent population, wine is and will remain to be viewed as out of touch with reality. This could be transformed through greater exposure for the passionate young wine writers, people new to the wine industry who can tackle these issues with a more dynamic approach. We need to highlight affordable wines that do not compromise on quality. Should that bottle be followed by the usual, I will be at the bar enjoying my nine hundredth pint of Heineken.