The Cycle of Wine Coolness – Wine According to Different Generations

There are a few commonplaces we tend to hear about wines often associated with the preferences and fades of some generations. When talking about Sherry, for example, you’ll hear the likes of ‘it’s not just your granny’s tipple’, and you’ll struggle to find a Father’s Day wine gift guide that doesn’t include the wine equivalent of dad rock, a big oaky Cab Sauv.

And while we all, as individuals, have different tastes and form our opinions about what we like, what is generally considered fashionable throughout different decades has a lot to do with what was available and affordable at any particular period. 

Those wines that peaked in popularity at the time a generation was coming of age, are likely to stick with them and be remembered through the lens of nostalgia, to earn a place in what becomes one’s comfort zone.

The cycle of wine coolness

Hear me out with this theory: a wine’s coolness is cyclical and while some trends die out, what is genuinely good will come full circle. 

A wine or style will start in the obscure phase, where it’s hard to find and loved by those few in the know. Once discovered, it will become trendy, and you’ll read all about this up and coming drink generating more and more buzz. Then it will grow in popularity until it’s commonplace, reaching the point of uncoolness where it becomes associated with any trait that is pasé or undesirable.

As our love for it declines, a wine will be either a joke or forgotten. At this point we need to let it rest for a generation so the next one can re-discover it: Mix improved winemaking, new technologies, a fresh outlook and a big sprinkle of marketing magic, et voilà, you have a wine of retro-cool charm, and of course, it is not your grandmother’s.

Different ‘gens’ and the ‘point of uncoolness’

An example that has come full circle could be Chardonnay. The variety has been present in some of the most prestigious regions in France and the world. In a time when winemaking techniques were less consistent and ‘cheap wines’ were mediocre at best, trusting a classic and developing a strong sense of brand loyalty would spare you a lot of disappointment.

It is arguably a reason why Baby Boomers are often painted as traditionalists with their tastes. And here we go back to what was available and affordable in a given period, and to the communication channels and community built around wine. 

As production methods improved, Chardonnay’s prestige helped it become one of the instantly recognizable varieties, from high-end and chic to a safe choice at a dinner party. Chardo reached the ‘point of uncoolness’ when we saw it in the hands of Bridget Jones in 2001.

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If we assume that a generation covers around twenty years, it makes sense to see that it’s cool again in 2021. After years of asking wine lovers to ‘give Chardonnay a chance’ both the industry and drinkers have embraced it back.

A similar story happened with Merlot, whose ‘point of uncoolness’ was so notorious that the term ‘Sideways Effect’ was coined after the namesake movie triggered its fall from grace. Californian winery Gundlach Bundschu produced an award-winning short video about Merlot’s rise, fall and reinvention, it’s worth a watch.

By the time Generation X came of drinking age, the advent of good and very good mass-produced wines meant that big brands with flashy advertisement campaigns were calling the shots and somewhat displacing the old classics. Disco was still cool and soon MTV was exporting pop of the Madonna and Cindy Lauper variety. 

T’was the time of ‘Blue Nun, the wine of connoisseurs’, and when the ‘it’ bottle of rosé looked more like the home of Jeannie, the genie, than like a conventional wine bottle. It was the time when Robert Parker was the original wine influencer, and when ‘more was more’.

One could say that YouTube killed the MTV star, turning the channel into a hot mess of reality TV. The Internet in general, multiplied exponentially the variety of voices and opinions, exposing us to more options than ever. 

By the early 2000s, the pop princess trope was queen. Think Legally Blonde and Mean Girls. But just as Millennials were deciding to dye their hair black and go Emo, nothing became more uncool than being ‘basic’. We no longer wanted to ‘wear pink on Wednesdays’ or drink Matheus Rosé on Fridays.

Add a global financial crisis to the mix and of course you will scoff at the excesses from the 80s and take pride in discovering something niche (and affordable). Macklemore might have helped make thrift shops cool to an overworked and underpaid generation that couldn’t otherwise afford luxury, but a new wave of anti-snobbish sommeliers introduced us to high altitude Malbec, volcanic wines from Tenerife and Georgian amber wines made in ancient qvri clay pots.

And since Millennials tend to love a good Simpsons quote, let me dig up a classic from Grandpa Abe, said in season 7, episode 24, a.k.a. ‘Homerpalooza’…

I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you… 

Speaking of weird and scary, it is not a coincidence than micro-influencers are becoming more and more relevant to a generation that’s cynical of celebrity endorsements and who pretty much had zero agency in their parents documenting their baby steps on social media.

Cue Gen Z, born in the late nineties (the exact year varies depending on your source of reference), and quickly becoming the world’s next cohort of twenty somethings. While Millennials got hooked on social media back in college, Gen Zers have known it most of their lives and as all gens do, they tend to find the things that made their predecessors tick daft and cringey (like calling dogs ‘doggo’, ‘live, love, laugh’ banners or saying ‘adulting’).

As Millennials yearned for that #roseallday and latte-art aspirational post and an over-curated insta-life, Gen Zers browse TikTok for the raw real and the bizarre funny. Facebook? That’s for their Pinot Grigio-loving aunty.

This is just a generalisation, but they tend to be more pragmatic and strategic than older peers in their choices. Wine-wise, as with any generation that is filling up the junior positions, budget matters, but this time with a twist. It has been well documented that they drink less, but better, and that wellness and societal issues are of great importance to them. 

Eco-friendly wines, non-alcoholic drinks and products that are affordable but ethical have a winning hand. 

At the end, no matter one’s age group, there’s always something new to learn and something exciting to discover if one approaches wine (or anything, really) with an open mind and curiosity. After all, today’s Whispering Angel is tomorrow’s Matheus Rosé and next week’s Sherry.

WRITTEN BY GABY GUEDEZ

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