I stand looking resentfully at the large shelf of craft beers and scowl. The supermarket I’m in, the Vons on Sunset Boulevard on the border of Hollywood and Los Feliz, takes its beer fairly seriously. You can get four different varieties of Allagash, a few truly local brews and many of the efforts of bigger craft producers. Even the snobbiest of beer snobs could find something here to choke down happily.
Behind the craft beer shelf looms the wall of wine. If you were to add the standard beer in the cooler to what's on the craft beer shelf, the beer would maybe come close to matching the wine in sheer shelf space, but maybe not. There is a lot of wine in this store. And all of it is mass-produced, barely anything beyond the standard oaky chardonnays and headache-inducing zinfandels and cat-pee-smelling New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. South America and Australia and California make up around 80 percent of the offerings. Apart from a couple of bottles of expensive (but mass-produced and uninteresting) Champagne, there is seriously not one bottle of wine in the entire store that I’m interesting in drinking.
The food and drink revolution has come. It’s come to the beer shelves and cheese shelves of our supermarkets.It’s come to our neighborhoods in the form of farmers markets and decent restaurants. In those restaurants, about 75 percent of the time, you can get a bottle of wine that is both affordable and drinkable. People will say the revolution has come to Trader Joe’s in wine form, but it’s not true. Better than Vons? Only barely.
There is nothing more depressing than staring at a giant wall of wine and seeing not a goddamn thing you would put in your mouth.
Am I a wine snob? Perhaps. But I’m the type of wine snob who very rarely spends more than $16 or so on a bottle, who looks for weirdness and value above all else. I joke with people that my wine snobbery has finally outpaced my alcoholism, and it’s true: at a party I’d rather be sober (or drink crap beer) than drink Yellowtail. I’m a wine snob, but not one who wants to swirl and show off and talk about good vintages and use my consumerism as a sign of my great and interesting persona. I just don’t want to drink shit.
So why do so many supermarkets and bars carry good beer and shit wine? Because, while Americans are drinking more and more wine, we are still in the infancy of our wine tastes. Millennials are a big force driving that growth — they care about food, and they are drinking more wine than any other generation has before them. According to industry research, Millennials make up about 30 percent of American consumers who drink wine at least once a week.
The same articles that trumpet how much wine young people are drinking often say that those young drinkers are looking for a good story, and more unique wines. But my guess is, where they care about beer and its provenance — it’s fairly easy to get into the beer world and figure out what’s good — wine is endless and intimidating and no matter how much you drink it and talk about it, there is always so, so much you won’t know. In which case, you might as well grab what’s cheap and inoffensive and be done with it. (There's a lot of research that says Millennials love box wine, for instance. Box wine is certainly getting better, but the hook is likely cost and convenience.)
I commiserate. I’ve spent most of the last 20 years selling and drinking and writing about wine. And I know so little. I am so far from being truly knowledgable that I’m quite confident I never will be. The idea of being able to smell a glass of wine and identify it out of the hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine that have been produced over the history of wine (which is what sommeliers supposedly are able to do, and which I think many of us imagine when we think of wine experts) is comical to me in its absolute impossibility. I have a hard time remembering names of producers. I'm not very familiar with the geography of France, or Italy, or any wine region, really. I kind of don’t care. I just want a good glass of wine.
But I was lucky enough to work at a few restaurants where the owners cared about wine, and I got to know the lists there, and why they were good. I’ve also sought out small wine stores where the owners and people who work there want to talk to me and understand that my expendable income is precious and limited. I’ve become unashamed in restaurants asking sommeliers to recommend something in the under-$50 range. And along the way I’ve learned the wine regions and grape varietals and wine-making methods that make me happy, and I’m confident in those tastes. I like weird white wines, I like richness without overt oak, I like Burgundies but can’t afford them. Those three tiny descriptors always get me something cool from someone who really cares.
At Vons, or Trader Joe’s, or even sometimes at Whole Foods, those descriptors don’t do me much good. Because people will buy any old wine if it’s under $12, and often the well-meaning wine folks at those stores don’t have anything to offer other than crap, or, in Whole Foods’ case, boring cheap wine and only mildly interesting expensive wines. (Different Whole Foods vary hugely in their selections and staff, but that’s another story.)
And so, Millennials of America, as well as anyone else who has found themselves drinking that bottle of Two Buck Chuck and realizing that you are basically only tolerating something that you know little about, not truly enjoying it, I implore you: Drink better wine. Make it imperative that Vons should have decent wine if they want your business. Or, better, hit up the small shops around town that really do all the work for you. Walk into Lou’s, or Domaine L.A., or Silver Lake Wine, or Bar and Garden, and tell them, “I’ve got about $45 and I need three bottles of wine and I’m sick of Trader Joe's.” I’m pretty sure they’ll hook you up with something amazing.
And then, like beer, good wine will trickle down and become part of our wider culture. Finally.