[ Editor’s note: Following is a guest post that involves two long-time friends of 1WD, the former unpaid 1WD intern Shelby Vittek, and local Philly boy wine educator Jason Wilson. Shelby recently worked with Jason on Planet of the Grapes, a series of releases about wine that are targeted to Millennials (I have no affiliation with PotG, apart from it being an excuse for us to get back in touch with both Jason and Shelby here on 1WD). Here’s Shelby’s take on the PotG series, and here Q&A with Jason. Enjoy! ]
What does wine education for Millennials look like? Surely, we’ve all been continually bashed over the head with the reminder to reach out to the younger generation through social media. And yes, you obviously need to approach us differently than you did our parents’ generation. But once you do that, how do you reinforce which bottles we should be reaching for?
A new digital series of wine guides called Planet of the Grapes, written by Jason Wilson (my editor over at Table Matters and author of the very entertaining spirits book Boozehound), just might be the answer. Since the end of my reign as the Young, Unpaid Shelby in April, I’ve been helping Jason pull together the first volume of the series, “Alternative Reds.” And despite being written by a Gen Xer, I think it has a lot to offer the youngest group of wine drinkers — a fresh perspective on a wine scene dominated with advice for older generations.
As some 1WD readers might recall, I’m a huge advocate of studying abroad in a wine shop to find exciting bargain bottles. And in “Alternative Reds,” Jason offers similar advice, recommending a handful of lesser-known or off-the-beaten-path grape varieties and regions that are actually affordable. These wines, like Morellino di Scansano, Petite Sirah, Dolcetto, or the reds of Southwest France, are a far cry from the Napa Cabs or Merlots our parents grew up cultivating. And because it’s available electronically, the book can be read and accessed virtually anywhere on our handy smart phones. I know I’ve pulled it up on my iPhone in a wine shop several times to look up specific bottle recommendations since the book’s release in August.
But the new series is more than just a guide to which hip, undiscovered wines us millennials should seek out. Included in the bunch is a free (my favorite word to hear) download of “When Wine Talk Get’s Weird,” [ Editor’s note: also available as a $0.99 Kindle stand-alone download ]a longer essay that reinforces how our tastes continue to evolve as we learn more about wine. Combined with entertaining stories and an approachable narrative, Jason’s whole approach to Planet of the Grapes assures the younger generation that learning about wine doesn’t have to be an overwhelming exercise. We’re allowed to adventure through the world of wine however we’d like, and we’re allowed to have fun doing it…
I’m looking forward to the future volumes of the series, which will all be released quarterly at the price of $4.99, which even with my penny-pinching pockets, I am happy to fork over. I suspect the next one, about Great Whites, will confirm Joe’s hypothesis that Riesling is one of the greatest grapes that exists. And hopefully the one slotted for release in the new year on historic wines like Sherry and Tokaji will serve as a well-needed lesson for millennials that lack the knowledge of the yesteryears, like me. Perhaps my most anticipated volume is the one on the wines of Spain, a country in which I’ve worked harvest seasons, extensively traveled, and whose wines I’ve fallen in love with.
I recently caught up with Jason with a few questions about his views of us wine-loving millennials, his transition from booze writing to wine writing, and his new digital series Planet of the Grapes (which is available for download here)…
Many 1WD readers recall my rants and opinions about being a millennial wine drinker, from the not-so-long-ago days of me being the Young, Unpaid Shelby. What approach do you take to millennials and wine in Planet of the Grapes?
As you millennials get older, you’re going to change the entire dynamic of how we learn about and experience wine. Anyone writing a wine guide or doing wine education in 2013 had better understand that. The fact is, your generation of drinkers is coming of age enjoying and learning about wine, whiskey, cocktails, and craft beer — all at once. They’ve had transforming experiences with cocktails and beer — and maybe even coffee or kombucha for all I know — as well as wine. And like you, they are unafraid to share their opinions about things…whether they have the knowledge to back it up or not, ha!
In my experience, millennials don’t necessarily see wine at the top of some imaginary Ladder of Beverage Knowledge anymore. They want excitement. They want fun. They want surprise. They don’t want to be bored. I think people of my generation maybe just assumed being bored was part of wine education.
In “When Wine Talk Gets Weird,” you reference teaching a university wine course to younger millennials. What did you learn from your college students? How has their approach to the world of wine changed from what yours was at their age?
I actually just wrote about this in the latest issue of Sommelier Journal. I think teaching my course, the Geography of Wine, was a transformative moment for me in my wine writing. It’s an old cliche: the kids ended up teaching the professor. But it’s true. They forced me to answer the question “why?” Why should we care about wine? Why is wine important to know about? Why should we try wines out of our comfort zone? Why should we pay attention to what we’re tasting? Why should we drink a wine that has aromas of barnyard or petrol or tobacco? WTF is minerality? If you’ve been in a college classroom full of millennials, you know that you can’t just say “Because, I’m the effing teacher and you’re the effing students and this is why.” You’d better have some answers.
The kids didn’t want shortcuts, which was different than dealing with people my age. I’m always confounded when people casually tell me they want to learn “a little something about wine”— only to tune out the moment I start explaining even the most basic points. To me, it’s like saying you want to understand baseball, but you refuse to learn what the shortstop does. Becoming proficient in wine is not something that happens in one night, in a weekend, even in an academic term; all I could do was to help these kids begin the journey.
In a matter of weeks, my students could dissect the differences between New and Old World styles, detect the presence of oak, and list all the common synonyms for Tempranillo and Sangiovese. Those who’d said they hated white wine were now in love with Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Grüner Veltliner, and those who’d only liked sweet, fruity reds now appreciated brooding, tannic ones. They devised personal rating systems — my favorite was a ranking of one to five hearts by an international-studies major. After the class ended, they started a wine club that I attended until they graduated. On our last meeting, they enjoyed savory, austere Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley — thousands of miles from the boxes of Franzia they’d all started with. I was so proud.
Joe came to speak in my class, and I think he was surprised — and pleased — by the students’ attitudes. I think he blogged about it.
So you’re the recently retired spirits columnist for the Washington Post and wrote a book about spirits, Boozehound, a few years ago. How did you make the leap from writing about spirits to writing about wine? Is it a leap that many spirits people can easily make?
I find it very strange that wine and spirits people pretend to live in such different worlds, and that writers are pigeonholed as one or the other. At wine events, people often say, suspiciously…”Wait, aren’t you the spirits guy?”…as if I shouldn’t be allowed near the wine. And when I’ve spoken with people in the spirits industry, they act as though I’ve passed away — or worse, become an effete snob — when I gave up my spirits column at the Post to write about wine. I mean, what are we talking about here? In both cases, I taste and write about complex, exciting alcoholic beverages that are a window into culture and geography and history and gastronomy.
I’ve loved wine even longer than I’ve loved spirits, and have been writing about wine for almost as long. So in an emotional sense, the transition has been easy. It’s also been straightforward in a technical sense too. Spirits are much more difficult to taste than wine. I always remember something my friend Guillaume Drouin said. Drouin produces the exquisite Christian Drouin Calvados but was trained as an enologist, and worked at wineries in France and Australia before coming home to make apple brandy. As we tasted his 1973 vintage Calvados, Guillaume said bluntly: “Look, this Calvados is simply more complex than wine, more complex than a Lafite Rothschild.” Now, I don’t know if I totally agree with Guillaume on that, but you could certainly make the case. My point is that you need at least as much (or more) of a disciplined palate to taste spirits as wine. So if you already have that discipline, it’s really just a matter of tasting hundreds of wines and continuing to learn about different styles and regions and grapes and terroir and all that fun stuff.
In “Alternative Reds” you mention the Fun Police that all-too-often seem to step in with rules and hierarchies when learning about wine. How are you changing the conversation with your Planet of the Grapes series? What are you offering in the series that readers can’t find in another wine book, blog, or article?
I’m simply trying to tell some different stories, in two different ways. First, in the first volume, I’m writing about wines that a lot of the larger publications and critics and bloggers don’t spend a lot of ink on. Second, I think my writing style is quite different than most wine writing. I’m focused on storytelling rather than judgment and scoring. There’s a lot of talk in the industry about narrative and storytelling in getting consumers interested in wine, but I think a lot of people misunderstand storytelling. Honestly, a lot of what passes for narrative in the wine business would get a mediocre grade in a university creative writing workshop.
There are thousands of different types of grape varieties. How did you narrow down which 12 wines to include in your “Alternative Reds” category?
Alternative Reds are not obscure wines. I’ve made sure what I write about here is reasonably available in the U.S. Rather, these are wines that live in the margins of the wine shop. Perhaps they are from a place with a confusing name or geography, such as Morellino di Scansano or Côtes de Bordeaux. Perhaps they are made with a little-known grape, such dolcetto or lagrein or carménère or sagrantino. Perhaps they were once popular, or had their moment, then ceased to be the flavor of the month (only to then return to popularity) such as Beaujolais or lambrusco. Or maybe they’ve always been overlooked and underrated, such as petite sirah or Portuguese reds. In any case, the virtues of Alternative Reds include modesty, idiosycrasy, authenticity, and everyday value. These are the wines you can open on a Tuesday night, and little by little, bottle by bottle, they will repay you with enjoyment and knowledge — even if that knowledge is simply what to look for (or avoid) next time at the wine shop.
I know, the term “alternative” is so watered down in 2013 that it seems almost meaningless. But please bear with me, as I’m thinking of the old late 20th century meaning of “alternative.” I came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the idea of “alternative music” was real and true. Sure, it seems quaint now, but bands like The Pixies, The Cure, New Order, the Sugarcubes, R.E.M., Nirvana, or Pavement were offering something very different than the so-called “classic rock” that was always played on mainstream radio. It’s not that there was anything wrong with Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones or The Doors or Bad Company (ok, well, maybe Bad Company) or anything else that our Baby Boomer parents listened to. But we were bored, and we just wanted something different.
I believe wine is entering a similar era. Anyone who’s received a wine education over the past 20 years has been presented with the idea that wine is an aspirational ladder you must work hard to climb, and at the top of the ladder are the Serious Wines like Bordeaux and Burgundy and Napa cabs. For most of us, in these diminished financial times, the ladder has become unfeasible. And frankly, we’re a little bored.
Planet of the Grapes certainly appeals to millennials, an audience that is all-too-often specifically targeted, as if we are so starkly different than other generations. Is the series only intended for the younger generation or can a wider audience benefit from it as well?
Yes, I guess I should be clear that Planet of the Grapes is definitely not age specific. It’s for anyone. Most of the wines I recommend fall in the $15-$25 range, which apparently — if I read your 1WD article correctly — you won’t buy because it’s over $10? In any case, I think sometimes we make too many sweeping generational statements. There are plenty of 40, 60, 80 year olds who feel the same way about wine as millennials do. Older people just happen to be able to afford better bottles.