We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism. It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress … is over; that … a decline is prosperity is more likely than an improvement.
The economist John Maynard Keynes wrote these words in a 1930 essay called “The Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren” and I have been thinking about them quite a lot recently in the context of the wine industry. Keynes was writing in the depths of the Great Depression. Is wine in (or headed towards) a Great Depression of its own?
On the Other Hand …
Certainly the mood at last month’s Unified Wine and Grape Symposium was mixed. Obviously I didn’t talk to all the 10,000 people who attended the 3-day event, but I think I got a general sense of what wine industry people are thinking and feeling from those I encountered.
On one hand (a classic economist opening phrase), there was an upbeat mood because the meetings and trade show themselves felt back-to-normal after several years of covid-driven disruption. The house was packed for our State of the Industry session, for example, and there was a record number of exhibitors at the trade show (and a waiting list for next year). Glass at least half full, for sure.
One the other hand (you knew that was coming), it was impossible to ignore some of the discouraging news in the air (I reported on some of this in last week’s Wine economist column). Some people blamed this on the recently released Silicon Valley Bank report, but I think that is unfair. Like our State of the Industry session, the SVB report has an obligation to be objective — to report the straight facts without a lot of spin. And I think their report does that well. Facts are facts. The question is what you do with them and whether, like Keynes, you can see beyond the current crisis to the possibilities of the future?
The Generation Gap: Got vs Not
Keynes was thinking in generational terms when he wrote his famous essay and a lot of the analysis of wine’s current malaise is generational, too. The baby boom generation powered the golden age of American wine, the story goes, but the generations that followed haven’t embraced wine with the same warm hug. What can we do to make Gen Z consumers love wine as much as their grandparents do? How can we close the wine generation gap?
This is a good question (and I am glad so many people are asking it), but it by-passes part of the problem. Yes, boomers as a group drink a lot of wine, but in fact wine consumption is concentrated among just a small fraction of boomers. The baby boom generation is large — it contains multitudes. It is both Gen Got Wine and Gen Not Wine. Generalizing about generations like the boomers is a risky business.
This is true, I believe, for other generations, too. What makes the wine drinking boomers different from the boomers who don’t drink wine or don’t use alcohol at all? And what, if anything, does the boomer wine cohort have in common with wine-drinking members of other generations? Maybe generational differences aren’t the whole story (or even the most important part of the story)? Is the gap as much within generations as between them?
How Full is your Glass?
Should we be optimists or pessimists as we consider the future of wine? Well, our situation is nowhere near as dire as what Keynes faced back in Depression days. The wine market requires only relatively small adjustments by comparison to restore a balance and a bit more to kick-start growth. Not easy by any means, and it might not happen, but not at all hopeless.
Keynes was an optimist and he used this essay to look far into the future, peering past the short term problems necessarily on his readers’ minds. The prospects for our grandchildren are bright, he said, so long as we are able to avoid certain obstacles — over-population, violence and war, and the politicalization of science. Our current economic situation, since we are the future of Kaynes’s past, is indeed prosperous compared wtih 1930 if not quite so bright as he hoped.
A Half-Full Future?
Let me follow Keynes’s example in talking about the future of wine. Wine has endured for thousands of years and survived many dark periods, so it is not unreasonable to imagine a bright future for wine as both culture and industry. But there are obstacles to be avoided.
In my recent book Wine Wars II I propose that wine must deal with a triple crisis: environmental crisis, economic crisis, and identity crisis. The identity crisis is most relevant to today’s topic. Wine is an alcoholic beverage — the fermentation process doesn’t just add alcohol, it transforms the grape juice in miraculous ways. If, as I think is possible, wine becomes defined by its alcoholic content — grape juice alcohol the way that hard seltzer is fizzy water alcohol — then something very important is lost and wine’s future grows dark.
Another obstacle — and this allows me to circle back to the generational issue — is occasion. Opening a bottle of wine is an occasion (there is both an element of ceremony in the cork-pull and the more-than-single-serving quantity to deal with) and must align with occasions in consumer life.
Mind the Gap?
Dinner is an occasion sufficient to pull a cork at our house, but that’s not true for everyone. I wonder how much of the wine that is sold is consumed with meals versus other types of occasions and how this might differ for different demographics? The wine industry would be wise to try to adapt to the occassions that younger consumers (and older consumers, too) actually experience rather than the ones we imagine they should enjoy.
An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal suggests that at least one big beer company is rethinking its marketing plans in light of the threat of recession. Home consumption is rising at the expense of on-premise, for example, so marketing will work to put beer at the center of home and family occasions. Smart thinking!
A recent Financial Times column by Gillian Tett provides food for thought regarding Generation Z attitudes. The article doesn’t talk about wine, but maybe there are implications for wine. Tett cites studies that show that Gen Z workers demand more control over work environments than employers are used to. If they can’t customize the job, they prefer to quit, one expert suggests. Dangerous to generalize, of course, but it makes me think about how the wine experience compares with, say, cocktails in this context?
The generation gap is complex. Lots of food (and drink) for thought!