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Friday Fishwrap
Millenials Want “Relevant” Wines—Do You?

By Charles Olken

It must be some kind of parlor game—this fascination with assigning new words and categories to explain wine. We have somehow just maneuvered past “authentic”, are now hung up on “natural” and along comes Jon Bonne of the San Francisco Chronicle to tell us that today’s young wine drinkers want wines that are “relevant” and “forthright”.

Over on his eponymous blog, Steve Heimoff, Steve Heimoff questions those terms and raises the appropriate old fogey question, “Does that mean that the rest of us drink wines that are irrelevant?” Well, I am here to answer that question, and to explain the concept of “relevancy”, because unlike friend Heimoff, I agree with friend Bonne on this one—at least at first glance.

Back in my green youth, my college roommates and I realized that wine was a finer way to the hearts of our dates than rotgut liquor. So, we used to wander out to the local “package store” as they were known in those days back east, and would bring home a bottle or three of Gallo Burgundy. After several months of that practice, the store owner took an interest in our palates and suggested that we step up to Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy, which he correctly identified as a lot deeper wine.

Relevancy in those days meant only, “does it taste good and how much of it will our dates drink”? Aside from the realization that the second question was also answered with “not enough”, since our dates were obviously smarter than we were, the first question of “taste good” was enough “relevancy” to us. Towards the end of those happy days, we had graduated to inexpensive Beaujolais and thought ourselves quite jaunty. “Taste good” had not been lost, but experience taught us something about wine and “tastes better” became part of the relevancy equation.

Here is how California wine became totally relevant to me. I moved to California to do graduate school work, and I found “tastes good” wine everywhere. Soon, “relevancy” became getting out to wine country whenever the burden of school could be lifted. It was about a half decade or so later when “relevancy” became about greatness. It was a shifting concept in any event as my palate improved and my level of caring grew.

All of a sudden, new Chardonnay in the hands of Hanzell and Spring Mountain and David Bruce and Heitz entered my life. A growing wallet had something to do with that. I could afford $5 Chardonnay instead of $2 Chenin Blanc (man, I still miss those dry Chenins of my youth and admittedly will drink Vouvray and Montlouis and Savennieres when I can). What became relevant to me was what I wanted to drink, what I could afford and what my peers (for that is how I discovered “expensive” Chardonnay) were drinking.

All of which brings me back to Messrs. Bonne and Heimoff. Millenials want wines, we are told by Mr. Bonne, that are “relevant”, and the question of “relevant to what” turns out not to be a wine quality question alone, but also wine experience and peer group questions. There was a time when relevant for me was Lancers and Mateus. That was what we all drank for a period of time. Those wines became irrelevant as our palates began to look for wines that were less sweet and more complex. It was experience and peer group interactions that drove our view of what we wanted.

That is what is happening with the Millenials of which Mr. Bonne is speaking. When he says that they want wines that are “relevant”, he means, I hope (because he is wrong otherwise in my humble opinion) that Millenials want to drink what their buddies are drinking, can afford, like at that moment. Relevant is not a style or a quality level or a color or a specific hedonistic experience. It is simply “what you know” based on your experiences and the other inputs that are operating in your life.

And if the Millenials are like other generations, they too will see their concepts of relevance changing as their collective experience brings them into wider and wider acquaintances with wine. In that sense, the use of the term “relevant” is used almost too cavalierly, because, in Mr. Bonne’s world view, relevant means what he likes and what he thinks people his age should like. And, that does make Mr. Heimoff right after all. We old fogeys are just that. We are not relevant to the Millenials anymore than Harry Waugh was relevant to me in my twenties. But, I am confident that some of them will trod the path that we “wine professors” have followed and will find their ways to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Bordeaux and Burgundy just as we did.


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Right On
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:3/1/2013 12:28:15 PM

Loved this Charlie and I could not agree more. I'd like to think the use of the word relevant was used the way you describe here but, well I'm guessing it was used to infer a specific style, considering the source that is. There was a rather interesting story in the business section of the Los Angeles Times just this very morning about "Toasting a Younger Crowd" and how vintners are targeting twentysomethings to keep their industry growing and the one line that stood out, in the subject that is frankly making us all look a little blue in the face as it were, was from a young woman that said, "It's fun socializing and getting tipsy. Nobody's judging you if you don't appreciate the complex blends"....sounds a little like the retelling of your own story here.  We all got here one way or another and we need to be welcoming to the new kids as well, what I've always wanted to do at our shop anyway.

Have a great weekend Sir Charles.

Nice to meet you!
by Kyle Schlachter
Posted on:3/1/2013 3:43:27 PM

Charlie, first let me say that it was a pleasure to meet you in the caves of Far Niente! Second, thank you for allowing me to post on your site. I have become aware that expressing opnion is becoming a privledge in our community. Third, I agree with much of your assessment. To answer Steve's question in your second paragraph (and to concur with you answer in your final paragraph), yes, much of what Steve drinks, raves about and frankly says is irrelevant to Millenials. Perhaps not his generation, but what is relevant (I tend to think of it as meaning interesing; define that how you will!) is irrelevant to others. That is the nature of humans, to which Steve speaks. And to that human nature, Steve says Millenials aren't different from the older generation and then says "Their attention span has been miniaturized by social media and twitter to 140-character tweets." I can't figure out if he thinks Millenials are different of similar now...

Definitely On--Right or Irrelevant
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/1/2013 5:07:19 PM

Hi Sam--

When I started CGCW back in 1974, it was clear to some of the older folks in the industry that my rag was going to replace them. I have no doubt that something will someday replace CGCW, but it will not be because the Millenials do not care about the wine I like.

The will not be able not to care. Wine knowledge and interest grows like that. Most of them will be like most of the middle class in this country. They like wine but they really don't geek out about it. But, then there are some of us who do, and whether we are collectors or retailers or somms or writers, we are the folks who seek out great qualities in wine. And, we do not have one monolithic palate. But whether we chase grower bubblies or full-bodied Napa Cabs, we chase the top end of the quality spectrum--or as much of it as we can afford.

So, I am not worried, and I just do not get why JonBon has to proclaim his way as "relevant" when all he can possibly say is that it is relevant only for those who like his taste in wine.


Colorado Wine Press
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/1/2013 5:10:19 PM

Hello Kyle--

It was a pleasant surprise to find you standing next to me sampling Oakville Cabs up in Napa the other day, and thus a wonderfully serendipitous meeting.

I think Steve got it mostly right in his long piece. But, I thought he went off the rails in his discussion of relevant, which JonBon draws from his holster like he was John Wayne in an old-fashioned western.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:3/1/2013 8:14:12 PM

When you get a second, go check out my latest post, you don't have to read the damn thing but you might find some interesting stuff in the comments, I surely did. To spare you having to read my drivel, it is a list of five wines I couldn't or wouldn't want to kive without and then in the comments people listed some of telling omisions I think.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:3/1/2013 9:12:01 PM

Live and omissions...sheesh I wish you had spell check, especially after a long week!

over focus. hit a nerve?
by William Allen
Posted on:3/3/2013 1:36:31 PM

Sorry, Charlie, but I think you, and especially Steve, read way too much into the Bonne article, which many, self included thought was great.

The sentence on Millenial tastes being relevant...was a sentence in a broader article. 

He explained quite well what 'relevant' meant with the preceding "There's a rising generation of consumers, part of the Millennial surge, who are compelled by a wine's story, not its score."


I would buy into your stance here on what 'relevance' means - as certainly, our palates change & evolve - I look at some of what I bought 5 years ago even, with raised eyebrow.

However, your comment on Steve's rant, ( the one who seems to have lost it)

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