Wine in the age of beer: A lesson in hedonism

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The wine industry is taking notes from the craft beer boom // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Ten short years ago, in 2006, I was at the newly reopened Town Talk Diner enjoying a glass of wine. Tim Niver was behind the bar, working his magic on the crowd. A couple in their early 20s, sat next to me and started off their dinner with a craft beer (after extensive questions regarding the beer list), followed by a glass of chardonnay, then a couple of cocktails, then finishing off with another beer (after more extensive beer list questions).

I was perplexed at this variety they were consuming. It was not normal. People don’t drink like this, I thought. This was like discovering a new species, one that science had never identified before. They were drinking everything. They were liquid agnostics.

To risk sounding like an old curmudgeon, I have to say it used to be so much easier. In the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, you could actually ask somebody “What kind of a drinker are you?” and he or she would say either beer or wine. If the person replied “cocktails,” it meant cosmopolitans or grandpa drinking Scotch. Then it all changed, for the better, thanks to the craft beer movement.

Being a wine teacher and in the industry for over 20 years, it has been fascinating to watch the meteoric rise of beer and taprooms. Yes, I’ve been jealous. Of course I want wine to get some of this attention. For a while it felt like beer was like Beck or Beyoncé—popular, ever-changing, creative, and fresh. Wine felt like Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. I remember that song! It’s called cabernet sauvignon!

Then, slowly, parallels between the wine world and the beer world began developing.

The use of oak in wine has followed the same trajectory as hops in craft beer, for example. During the sharp growth curve of wine’s popularity in the 1990s, louder became synonymous with better. More oak, more butter aromas, and more texture became the unfortunate goal for many wineries. These bombastic flavors became commonplace. But the public eventually discovered that turning up the treble, bass, and volume at the same time does not make the music better. As Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Winery said, “Those that think oak is a flavor in wine also think ketchup is a vegetable.”

On the beer side, excessive use of hops and the popularity of IPAs have followed the same curve. And just as with wine, now we’re seeing the pendulum swing back the other way.

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Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Another example is more recent: the explosion of variety and playfulness in beer has pulled the wine world into the same orbit. The wine world was stuck, entrenched in predictable varieties (“I have a fill-in-the-blank”) from the same old regions for many a decade. Suddenly, a kaleidoscope of craft beers appeared on the scene: sours, experimental batches, one-off kegs, collaboration projects, and more. For the wine drinker who also has an occasional beer, suddenly ordering a merlot seemed so… boring.

Enter the latest wine movements: natural wines, strange blends, experimental varieties, pét-nat sparklers, concrete egg fermentations, wild yeast, and more. Many of these “new” wine movements are actually a return to “pre-industrial” winemaking (the buzzword of the moment) and I believe the market for these wines is following a trail blazed by the craft beer movement.

For both the wine and beer world, the public suddenly wants what is new and shiny. They want what they haven’t yet had—this is the liquid agnostic’s litmus test when opening a beverage list. And just as the mega brands of the beer world have not found their footing in this brave new world of more curiosity and less brand loyalty, the wine world has seen the same shift. It’s a new world indeed.

Craft beer shook the wine world out of its complacency. It has made wine react to a new age of drinking habits. But what’s the way forward for wine? More experimentation? Personally I think not, mainly because wine is first and foremost a product of place rather than process. You cannot plant cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir in the same spot. You cannot easily and effectively ship grapes around the world to later be made into wine. Wine regions are historically compact and specific based on weather and soil types.

Thus wine’s greatest advantage is being able to reflect a sense of place. Napa Valley is the epicenter of the California cabernet sauvignon universe for a reason—but where is the center of the IPA universe? Or the porter universe? And a sense of place is something beer has now borrowed from wine. To experience the beers of certain producers, you have to go to them. And when you go to them, you build connection and story, just as wine lovers have known for decades when sitting on a patio overlooking a vineyard, drinking the wine of that place.

This connection to a place, coupled with a quest for new beverage experience and the rise of hyper-local drinking, is the reason the Minnesota wine industry has boomed in recent times. You can now wake up on a Saturday in Minneapolis and decide to visit two or three wineries, and still be home for dinner.

Connection is the key. Both wine and beer have new consumers that want to feel a deeper connection to their choices. Both have new customers that are seeking education through experimentation. Both are realizing that for better or worse loyalty is now as recyclable as the bottles in the bin.

The age of beer has done a marvelous job of returning beverages to their ultimate purpose—reminding us that beer (and wine, and spirits) are about pleasure first and foremost. On a personal level, I’m a hedonist. If the wine or beer doesn’t make me happy and curious, it has failed its job.

And craft beer has brought democracy back to wine drinking. In the ‘90s and early 2000s we were entering a dark time, led by higher-up voices proclaiming power and wine knowledge, with followers breathlessly hanging on their every word. From up above in the clouds we would hear “99 points!” and rush to the store trying to find the guaranteed joy in the form of a hedonistic fruit bomb. But guess what? The emperor has no clothes. By drinking like craft beer lovers, wine drinkers re-discovered their own tastes and remembered that their opinions were not only valid, but more important.

Yes, we used to be either a wine drinker or a beer drinker. Only old uncles drank cocktails. It seems so long ago. But we’ve entered a new golden age. It’s time to embrace the liquid agnostic in all of us, regardless of age. Thank you to the young couple sitting next to me in 2006. You introduced me to a fine place that I never expected to be.

Jason Kallsen is the owner of Twin Cities Wine Education and blogs about the wine industry at VineThinking.com.

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