The wine industry has often been synonymous with snobbery and elitism. An association shaped both by its history and its marketing, which has been reinforced by many of its experts. Yet for some years now the sector has been slowly changing – or in a rapid revolution, depending on who you ask. The wine industry is opening up to new markets, trying new strategies to reach customers, and the dominant ‘tastes’ are no longer the pinnacle of palate-pleasing.
The ‘rise of the red’: the need for quality norms
In the 80s and 90s, wine critics like Robert Parker made a name for themselves and reshaped the industry by attempting to create objective standards for wine. This came out of a noble goal. With the widespread increase in bulk winemaking, these elite experts would help curate the good from the bad, or even the excellent from the good. And it worked, the wine rating system created by Parker continues to be used (and arguably abused) to this day.
The system, however, has its flaws in addition to accusations of inflation and collusion. Many winemakers have to all but seduce the critics, welcoming them to their vineyards, enchanting them with the wine’s story even before the first tasting. Again, well-intentioned, as the wine’s history can be important as can the winemakers project, but it is a far cry from the objectivity once aimed for.
The second problem comes from the slow steering of wine preferences to match those of the critics. Their rating systems emphasize certain characteristics at the expense of others. For example, one of the point scales used is for the length of the wine on the palate so, automatically, hefty wines rank higher, even if many might prefer ‘quick’ wines which are easier to pair with foods. The effect is so pronounced that some detractors of the wine critics even speak of Parkerization, in reference again to the founder of the movement, as a driving bias in the wine world.
The winds of change are blowing through the vineyards
With the advent of the internet, it has become much easier for customers to search for wine themselves. Reviews are readily available outside the wine shops and clubs, and customers can now search for palate-pleasing pairings on apps.
Wine is also starting to appeal to younger crowds, millennials, and other demographics, who seek not to meet standards of excellence set by others but carve out their own individual styles. Wine tasting is no exception.
Your friend who is way deep into wine might be keen to tell you about a new varietal you simply must try, and disparage the Cabernet Sauvignon you have learned to love. An example of the wine revolution coming full circle, we mustn’t let it go too far either!
The fundamental truth is one even the wine experts know, wine is an inherently subjective experience. Taste is variable, and what seduces one palate might hit another like a club. This subjectivity is determined at every level, from our upbringing, diets, taste preferences, down to the genetic and epigenetic composition of our taste buds and scent receptors. It is high time we remember this.
What does the future hold? Ask yourself!
Winemakers and marketers are starting to realize these changes too, shaping their message to focus on distinction rather than conformity. Standing out from the pack—or even leading it—has become more important than fitting in. Yet all this marketing can mean that the emphasis has fallen away from what is most important about a wine: its unique bouquet of flavors, textures, and aromas.
There is some hope to put the power back in your hands, however, as wine information has become more readily available to consumers like you. One project, a startup called Palate Club, envisages a world in which we are each free to enjoy the wines we love. They have created a data-based approach that helps customers find wines tailored to their preferences. Unshackling us from labels, ratings, appellations, and varietals, letting our taste buds do the work.
Tools like these mean that wine drinkers are now, more than ever, in charge of their own destiny. Our individual palates will soon be more important than what any club of elite experts decides, or what manipulative marketers desire. It will be up to us to write the future of wine.