How can we interest more people in fine wine?
How can we interest people who didn’t grow up in a household with wine in their lives? How can we engage people who aren’t wealthy, and for whom the historic benchmark bottles that have defined “fine” wine over time are out of reach?
And is there perhaps a greater diversity of wine that can be called “fine”?
This was how Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, introduced a panel last week called “A New Era: Exploring the Role of Fine Wine Towards a More Inclusive Society.” In his role as moderator, Asimov queued up perfectly what was, for me, the most engaging panel at this year’s Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines (FM4FW) conference, held primarily at AR Lenoble Champagne house in Damery, France.
“Think tanks” in the wine industry are having a moment, from FM4FW to MUST: Fermenting Ideas last month in Portugal, to Harvest Summit in Sonoma in October, to the Bâtonnage Forum in Napa in a few weeks.
Forward-thinking, envelope-pushing organizers work year round to plant the seeds that will start to take root during these conferences. They refine their speaker list. They embrace the provocateurs. They facilitate the brushing together of people and their work that, though the connections and commonalities are not always obvious to the outside observer, hold the potential to strike a match that ignites ideas to shift an industry.
I have been incredibly fortunate over the past two years to join the lineup of speakers at each of these events and to have a front-row seat onto what does happen, onto the matches that light now and those that may do so a little further down the road.** This time, in Champagne, it was the session on inclusion where things were springloaded, a little like the swish of the tail of a large cat that’s about to pounce. Seemingly calm but watchful, with the pent-up potential to leap, and with velocity.
In this two-part series I cover the most salient takeaways from the panel, beginning today with race, colonialism and taxes. The next post will consider age and gender. The takeaways are inspired by each of the four panelists, who addressed the question of how to make “fine” wine more inclusive worldwide.
Wine as a Colonial Device
Dr Beverley Skeggs from the London School of Economics studies how income disparity affects world economies, and how inequality is made in everyday experience. Wine, she explained, is one of those devices of everyday inequality and it functions differently around the world. The distinction of “fine wine” in France, for example, is defined by parameters of culture and taste, whereas in the US the distinction is defined monetarily.
But it was when Skeggs polled her group of 40 fellows, who study inequality around the world, on the question of what fine wine means to them that she was most surprised.
“I’m still shocked by their responses,” she said. She expected them talk about gender, which is always an issue in terms of inequality and representation. She also expected them to talk about class, since fine wine is a device that creates that distinction.
But they didn’t talk about those things. Instead they responded in terms of race.
“Fine wine is whiteness,” she said her fellows told her, “and it’s talked about it in terms of colonial history, across Africa, India and various parts of the world.”
How do we make beautiful quality wine available to people who could afford it, Skeggs asked the audience, but are alienated by it?
Wine and Taxes in India
Reva K. Singh is the editor and publisher of Sommelier India, India’s first and premier magazine dedicated to wine and wine lovers. When wine came into the “blank slate” of India, Singh said, “our palate was being formed by the most beautiful wines in the world.”
Unfortunately, that moment was short-lived.
The biggest challenge now isn’t culture or even social convention, Singh said. It’s the government imposition of taxes that multiples the cost of wine some seven times before it reaches the consumer. In hotels, it’s even more.
“Wine became accepted very quickly but because of the taxes, it hasn’t risen,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that one factor, we would grow by leaps and bounds,” not least among the world’s largest millennial population. In India that amounts to some 800 million people.
In the next post of this series we’ll start, in fact, with the question of age, both younger and older consumers, and the opportunities and challenges that they present, with input from Maggie Henriquez of Krug and Valérie Westrelin of Groupe ISEFAC.
** Full disclosure: I was invited as a guest at this conference, and moderated the final panel alongside Paul Grieco of Terroir, Laurent Delaunay of Badet-Clément, and William Carroll of Blue Hill Farm.