Suppose you have an idea, immediately regret it, but are convinced you should proceed. Months after proposing this four-person back-and-forth, it's still how I feel about risking entry to the misanthropic pastime of generational banter. Nonetheless, we are the keepers of the cup of the contradictions of Dionysus and Apollo, so let us proceed with a light heart and the understanding that we are all, at our human core, a hopeless mix of good, bad, and indifferent tastes.
Sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe proposed a four-generation recurring cycle of American history. Some consider this to have one foot in science and the other in astrology (I hear that’s back in style). But today, it’s hard not to see Generation X and millennials as the reoccurrence of the third and fourth “unraveling” and “crisis” moods of the eras Strauss and Howe proposed. From the perspective of the German idealist Friedrich Hegel, the progress of things moves in a dialectic: with an existing “thesis” of the way things are, and a challenge or “antithesis” to that norm. As the antithesis is likely reactionary and naïve, lasting progress and wisdom are achieved by the formation of a “synthesis,” where the status quo and challenges to it together form a new and improved thesis.
Admittedly, my pseudo-intellectual connective ramblings aren't everyone's cup of tea (or growler of natural wine), so I've invited three more congenial friends to join me. But, before embarking on our blithe romp, pour yourself a glass of what excites you, and then let us have a little good-natured generational fun.
- Geoff Kruth
Our contributors are, clockwise from top left, our own Geoff Kruth and Kelli White representing Generation X and, on the millennial side, GuildSomm members Alex Ring and Davana Bolton.
Kelli White: I feel compelled to point out that, having been born in 1980, I barely qualify as Gen X. In fact, I've supposedly been recategorized as an Xennial. All that means, I believe, is that the digital world came into my life a touch earlier than for most Gen Xers. Anyway, now that we've established that I'm younger than Geoff, onto my answers . . .
Movies: I suppose each generation needs an awkward coming-of-age film. My selection for Gen X would have to be either Kicking & Screaming or Election. Other films that I recall making a deep impression on me were Cinema Paradiso and Life is Beautiful. Pulp Fiction blew my pre-teen mind with its sexy violence, intelligent irreverence, and amazing soundtrack.
Music: Debbie Gibson, Kurt Cobain, Pixies, Pavement, Sonic Youth, Neutral Milk Hotel. From there—and I don't know if this is a generation trend or just something that happens to everyone in college—my tastes took a decidedly retro turn, going further and further back in time.
Fears: Paul Wolfowitz. Dick Cheney. The erosion of civil liberties. The return of slouch socks.
Values: Freedom of speech and marriage equality.
Movies: While The Breakfast Club was a commercial film for teenagers, the script can hold its own with any Chekhov play, and the acting (barring the mandatory ‘80s dance montage) is flawless. Emblematic of our generation of latchkey kids figuring it out on their own, they tore each other to shreds to establish a common humanity, not as members of their group identity, but as imperfect individuals. Brilliant.
Music: It starts with the Talking Heads, shifts gears with Nirvana, and ends with Arcade Fire. Special shout-out to the Beastie Boys, the Pixies, and Wilco along the way.
Fears: Nuclear war, Communists, AIDS, and of course . . . quicksand.
Values: Freedom of speech, freedom of sexuality, skepticism, resilience, and pragmatism.
Movies: Mean Girls and the Harry Potter movies—in addition to their popularity, Emma Watson has totally become a millennial icon.
Music: Old-school pop like Justin Timberlake and angsty rock like Panic! At The Disco totally defined our early years, but nowadays I think every millennial can sing along to at least one song by Beyonce, Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons, and Taylor Swift.
Fears: Drowning in student debt, having roommates until we're 40, the state of the environment.
Values: Flexibility and having lots of options in life. Constant peer approval and acceptance.
Movies: Mean Girls, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films. That said, I think our generation is defined more by binge-worthy TV than movies. Many of Hollywood's international blockbusters are fun, familiar, and often nostalgic, but I don't think they're pushing boundaries or representing our experience in the same way great TV does. Plus, Netflix is way cheaper! Shows that come to mind are Arrested Development, Master of None, Broad City, Girls, and Search Party.
Music: Ten (err . . . maybe twenty?) years ago, Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Green Day, Blink-182. The first CD I ever bought with my own money was Spice World. Today, Janelle Monáe, Frank Ocean, Lorde, and (love him or hate him) Kanye West.
Fears: I could list several things, but they all trace back to climate change.
Values: Authenticity, social justice, pursuing happiness on our own terms, finding a higher purpose in everything we do.
What’s your pet peeve about the other generation?
Davana: Gen Xers tend to be pretty complacent and okay with how things are, while millennials are trying to make big changes in the world. They talk about millennials like we're crazy when I think they have more in common with us than they do with the boomers.
Alex: The way they use millennial like it's a bad word. The sudden radio silence about how much time we spend on our phones/social media. . . . Oh, they're all too busy checking Facebook? Got it! And that they think we are the entitled ones. Enjoy your Social Security checks while they last!
Kelli: The jawing on about work/life balance at a young age. Isn't that what happens when your kids go to college? Seriously, I think I maintained at least four jobs at any given moment throughout my entire 20s. Those are the your hustle years! Work hard, play hard, right?
Geoff: I would tell you, but they’d get offended.
What were some of the wines, regions, or styles that were early influences for you?
Kelli: I got started in the wine industry around 2001/2002 and was immediately drawn to organic and biodynamic wines. I ran a store in Central Square Cambridge and was told I had one of the first organic wine sections in the Boston area. Concurrent to this, I cultivated an intense interest in the classic wines of the world. My store was too small to merit DRC allocations or anything like that, but I chased down any chance to try Yquem, first growth Bordeaux, the La Las, Grange, Dujac, and the like. I believed at the time (and still do) that the only way to fully understand the context and merit of wines at the fringe was to first take the measure of the greats.
Geoff: Classified Bordeaux was the standard for quality red wine, and you could buy all of the first growths for under $100. J. J. Prüm Riesling with a few years in bottle was a sure bet. For those in the know, Premier Cru Raveneau Chablis had mid-two-digit price tags on wine lists, and the first digit at retail was a one (seriously). Cru Beaujolais and Chinon when you needed to spend under $10, just as long as no one was looking. I remember spending $90 on a bottle of 10-year-old Vogüé Musigny and thinking how crazy it was that a Pinot Noir could one day cost over $100 a bottle.
If you really wanted to be avant-garde, you could hunt down some Austrian Grüner or Spanish Albariño. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was becoming less exotic, and it was starting to get hard to find a top Sancerre under $12. Cornas had about as much cachet as Minervois but seemed way better than its reputation, and that Allemand case stacked at Kermit was tasty. I was unconvinced by the trends with hip sommeliers for 15% alcohol Priorat and Burgundy with 200% new oak, and I won’t even tell you how cheap really old Madeira was. I was intrigued by amaro and remember pouring one for a Master of Wine who had never heard of such a strange thing.
Davana: First growths for under $100?! Talk about good ol’ days!
I started studying wine in New York around 2014, when Wine Enthusiast named the Finger Lakes “Wine Region of the Year,” so I really got caught up in that buzz. I loved visiting tasting rooms in tiny houses and doing flights for less than $10 of kickass dry Riesling or late-harvest Gewürz alongside Labrusca and hybrid varieties. As much as I love the classic regions and producers, they always feel static to me. Even now, I’d much rather seek out the smaller underdogs who are pushing the envelope. The Finger Lakes got me into the mindset that wine doesn’t always have to follow strict rules based on centuries of tradition; it’s about being creative and having fun.
Alex: In my early wine-drinking days, I took deep dives into the Rhône, Piedmont, and Alsace. The entry-level wines were accessible because the price was right, and it was usually pretty clear what grape varieties you were getting. Moving up in price/quality felt safe, too—I could find Barolo and Alsace Grand Cru wines for $40 to 50, even if they weren't the top examples of the region.
I also had a thing for any and all older wine. Whenever I came across something with more than 10 years of age on it (that was still in my price range), I was all in. A lot of mom-and-pop liquor stores in Chicago don't seem to sell wine over a certain (pretty low) price point, so I had many opportunities to try old Chianti and Spanish reds that had been sitting on shelves for God knows how long. Despite having a lot more misses than hits, it was a crash course in all the things that can happen to wine when it ages.
I love the idea that the hip somms were drinking 15% ABV, 200% new oak wines—maybe it's time for a comeback!
Davana: It’s important to me that a bottle of wine has an interesting story behind it, or something unique and quirky that makes it stand out. I love finding wines with a producer I can relate to or a history that gives greater context to what’s in my glass. A small grower-producer experimenting with funky varieties is more important to me than a big label that’s making standard crowd-pleasing wines, even if the quality is comparable. When I enjoy a bottle, I want to feel not only that I’m connecting to the grapes and the place but the people behind it. It’s like having more friends at the table!
Alex: I'll frame my answer to this question by saying I'm currently working as a sommelier, and the great majority of wine I interact with is being served to other people. Quality and value both matter, but the intangibles are important, too.
I look for wine that will suit the occasion. I look for wine that expresses what it is and where/when/who it comes from, but I often need that to translate to something bigger—a teachable moment, a discovery, a great pairing, familiarity or comfort, the list goes on.
Kelli: What is important to me about a given wine has evolved over time. In the early days of my career, I was functioning as a buyer, and was therefore looking primarily for a high quality-to-price ratio. Later on, as I began writing, the story behind the wine became increasingly important to me. The story or the personality behind shouldn't influence the assessment of a wine's quality, but given that there are thousands of great and good wines out there (often at similar price points), a relatable or remarkable story can be the thing that makes a particular wine stand out. That is certainly true for the wines that I cover, and it is more and more true for the wines that I drink.
Geoff: I'm interested in a wine’s intrinsic merit and relative value. Clearly, wine is a subjective topic, but like most things of value, there are intersubjective truths for people with enough experience to see them. I am skeptical of assumptions based on a wine’s narrative: with this, you get the trends of the day or the deception of marketing rather than timeless elements of quality. For me, there is nothing worse than an emetic wine with a righteous story and nothing better than drinkability with a reasonable price tag.
Kelli: Just as with wine, I think the best lists possess balance. To me, that means a balance of price points, a balance of the esoteric with the familiar, and a balance of wine styles. If a list is focused exclusively on rare or unfamiliar wines, the restaurant better counterbalance that with a very knowledgeable and friendly staff to avoid alienating the clientele. I was recently at a restaurant in LA with a two-page list full of wines I had never heard of. I was actually excited by this, as I saw it as an opportunity to discover something new. Unfortunately, I was there for lunch; the sommelier was not working and none of the waitstaff were conversant in the list. I rolled the dice and ended up with a wine that I really didn't care for, which sucked.
Geoff: A few years back, Matt Stamp and I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post entitled "Two Snarky Guys Tell You How to Write Your Wine List." I still agree with the overall message; I’m just three years the snarkier.
I would break down the relevant factors into execution, pricing, and selection. Execution is pretty straightforward: present the list in an easy-to-navigate format, have reasonable inventory of the wines you offer, and avoid typos or stylistic inconsistencies. Pricing should be fair and relative to the establishment—preferably with a scaled markup. Selection is more complicated, but it should display common sense. The majority of wines should be consistent with the food and resonate with the guest. Expect that some of your customers are willing to go beyond that comfort zone, both in style and price. Not being the most ombibulous diner, I am likely to skip wine altogether if my only options are uninspired or invariably funky. Assume some of your customers share your taste, realize that many others won’t, and give your establishment the opportunity to leave them equally gratified.
Davana: The most important thing to me is that I learn something from it, which often comes down to the staff as much as the list. If the somm/server seems to know what they’re talking about, I’ll just ask what wines they’re excited about and go with their recommendation, even if it’s a little out of my comfort zone. I’m still trying to get as much palate mileage as possible, so I very rarely order something that I’m already familiar with. Even if I end up not loving the wine, at least I learned from it! I also really appreciate lists that have a decent under-$75 selection.
Alex: For me, the most important thing about a wine list is that there are capable, enthusiastic sommeliers or servers who can make it come to life. I don't really care for wine lists that are big for the sake of being big—having every lieu-dit bottling from Selosse comes off as more self-aggrandizing than anything. I also hate seeing wine lists that are full of traps. If your cheapest Chardonnay is an oxidative style from the Jura, I hope your staff is exceptionally patient and can explain it without putting guests on the spot. Beyond that, I usually seek out places with a good selection of wines under $100 and a reasonable markup. If the service is good, I get excited about extremely focused wine lists, be they all natural wines or wines from a specific region that match the cuisine.
Okay, I'll give a shout-out—La Ciccia in San Francisco checks all the boxes for me.
Davana: I’ll be the first to admit I spend way too much time on Instagram, so I get a lot of my information from the somms, writers, producers, wine bars, and wine shops that I follow there. It usually starts as an in-person interaction, and then if I find I can trust their recommendations, I’ll skim their posts the next time I’m looking for something to drink. It can lead down a rabbit hole! For example, I’ll find a producer whose wines are tagged in a lot of photos with another producer, so I go research the second one to see why people are pairing them up. Outside of that, it’s mostly word-of-mouth from friends in the industry; if one of us finds a cool wine the other will like, we’ll send them a picture of the bottle.
Alex: Great wine communicators get me the most excited about wines I haven't tasted. I'm drawn to people who can both contextualize wine and convey their passion. I like how Andrew Jefford elevates wine from beverage to cultural object, and I always look forward to being transported to the latest wine region Kelli has visited. The medium doesn't matter too much to me—I like books and magazines, and I think there are a handful of people who do a good job on Instagram. The best retailers and distributors do this well, too.
Kelli: First of all, bonus points for Alex! (Kidding, of course.) Nine times out of ten, I find new wines directly from my network. If I have a trip to a wine region planned, I shoot a few emails to friends who have been there recently or are experts in the area. Often, the best tips come from the producers themselves. They tend to be the first to know the new kids on the block, because they are the ones the upcoming producers turn to for guidance.
As a consumer, I prefer the retail environment over restaurants to experiment with unknown wines and producers because of the reduced markups. The exception is if I happen to know and trust the sommelier. As far as social media goes, while I confess I post a lot of them, I tend to find bottle shots boring so don't absorb much that way. I actually want to see people's babies, dogs, and vacations, so I scroll pretty quickly by all the Overnoy and Dauvissat (fully owning my hypocrisy here).
Geoff: Unfortunately, I don't learn about as many new producers as I did when I was actively purchasing for a restaurant. Since I live in California, I frequently hear about what's new locally from friends. For international wines, I look to a few importers whose palates I really trust: if one of my favorite importers brings in a new producer, I always make sure to check it out. Of course, traveling creates an opportunity to explore new wines. Asking local sommeliers and winemakers what to keep an eye out for has led to some of my favorites discoveries.
Kelli: In studying for the MW this year, I have come to realize that there are huge categories of recreational alcohol that I almost never drink. Specifically, beer and dessert wines. I know that beer is rising in popularity among the sommelier set but I just . . . don't like it. I know this is sacrilege and there are very beautiful beers out there, but it's just not a part of my drinking life. And as far as dessert wines go, I simply don't have a sweet tooth. I especially avoid fortified styles because I abhor the combination of high alcohol and super-ripe red flavors. I make exception for Sherry, but only because I am shamelessly trendy.
Geoff: I'm not a fan of the "natural wine” category. Sulfur dioxide is essential to transportable quality wine in the vast majority of cases and is a natural product that has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years. If you don't define the category by an absence of added SO2, then I'm not sure what it means. I would define most of the other ideas touted as the standard approach for an artisanal wine. So largely, I see the "movement" as a marketing wedge from the perspective of the producer—too often used to justify a poorly made or inferior wine—and as unsubstantiated virtue signaling on the part of the consumer, backed by little-to-no actual understanding of farming or winemaking.
Sorry to take the romance out of it. Please pass me another glass of highly manipulated traditionally made Champagne while you scoff at me from your less-than-naturally constructed iPhone.
Davana: I kinda agree with Geoff on the natural wine thing, but for me it’s just a taste preference. I don’t love Brett, and I find a lot of natural producers allow it to get out of hand. It can get to a point where I’d call it a fault, but plenty of people love that “organic” aroma.
Also, I’m just not an amaro person! I’d take a dessert wine any day instead—Kelli, if they aren’t for you, I’m happy to take them off your hands!
Alex: I also dislike wines that rely too heavily on marketing. Many wines sell the feeling of luxury and exclusivity (lookin’ at you, Champagne!), when the actual product is rather ordinary. The marketing tactic that I truly don't understand is that some wines are healthier than others. I sometimes get ads for wine that is "lower calorie" and "lower carb," and that's just blatantly misleading.
I do like a lot of wines that you'd find at a natural wine shop, and I find that my guests do, too. When the juice is good, and we can all feel good about the way it was made, it's a win for everyone. That said, wines without any SO2 usually get a pass from me. I find the conversation about sulfites to be a frustrating one full of misinformation.
Personally, I haven't been bitten by the Beaujolais bug like a lot of other somms have. It should be something I love (old vines, quality producers, great prices, quenchy!), I'd just rather drink great Pinot Noir or Syrah. If anyone has any life-changing bottles they want to share, I'm certainly open!
Davana: I really want to see more people asking questions, and more importantly, I want to see more people in the service industry that are excited to share the answers. It’s going to take less arrogance on both sides though: less millennials bragging that they don’t care what they drink because they see wine knowledge as only for boring, elitist, country club-types, and less of the older generations talking about wine exactly like those boring, elitist, country club-types. We need to #MakeWineCoolAgain.
Overall, I want to see less status quo and more new players on the scene—producers, consumers, and everyone in between. Wine has some great history, but it’s our turn to write a chapter of it.
Alex: Most importantly, more inclusivity! But also more fun, more lightheartedness, more jokes, more risk-taking, more outward curiosity. I'd like to see more people grapple with questions like, "What makes a great wine?" My favorite guests at my restaurant aren't necessarily the ones who know the most about wine; they're the ones who aren't afraid to ask me questions.
Some things that personally exhaust me: wine as a means of showing off wealth, scores and tasting notes, bro-iness, people who "only drink" certain things, and adults who lick rocks and taste vineyard dirt.
Kelli: Big picture, I would like to see more female leadership, more inclusivity, more diversity. In general, I would like to see more accuracy and less attitude. Less partisanship and less unnecessary territorial pissing as well. Fewer hashtags would be nice, though I realize that's not unique to the wine industry. And what I really think would do the industry some good is if we stopped repackaging elitism—cool as a currency is just as alienating as cash if you can't afford it.
Geoff: The key change I would like to see in the US is a reduction in shipping laws and state licensing regulations. The current level of expense and bureaucracy causes significant challenges for small and medium-size producers, and hurts the wine consumer. Also, restaurants should be careful not to get too aggressive with wine markups (in an understandable attempt to offset rising business costs). This can be effective in the short run but will eventually backfire. On a personal note, I am rooting for continued growth in the category of affordable, delicious, and unique California white wines.
I am always inclined to strive for less snobbery in the trade—something that has long challenged the wine business. The nature of how we exhibit snottiness has evolved, but as an industry, we continue to create barriers for the broad consumer. Trading in a tastevin for a hip demeanor or personal crusade may superficially shift the image, but it does not change the underlying pretentiousness. I see ample notions promoted today—often with good intention—that I fear over time will reduce wine and alcohol consumption, and the image and salability of the professional status we've recently achieved.
Kelli: A good amount of Gen X sommeliers had educations focused on the classics, and then branched out from there—but the classics were the foundation. Obviously, I am acutely aware that the high prices of a lot of "classic" wines (DRC, Latour, Egon Müller, Giacosa, Salon, Vega Sicilia, old Inglenook, etc.) put them out of reach for many wine programs and young wine professionals today. And so I understand why their emphasis has been, or at least seems to be, devalued. And I fully allow that each generation defines its own classics, to an extent. But I guess I would ask for a little patience and understanding if it's harder for some of us to fully embrace more cutting-edge or funkier wines.
For example, I was recently at a great restaurant in a foreign country where the wine list was run by a very young sommelier. I purchased the wine pairings with my tasting menu and most of them were great, but one particular wine was really out there. I like a lot of natural wines, but this one tasted biological and potentially spoiled, at least to my palate. I politely explained that it was not my cup of tea and asked if there was an alternative selection. The sommelier was clearly miffed and poured an extremely oaky, extracted, and boozy wine in its place. To me, the unspoken message was, "F-you, old lady. You don't like cool wine, so here's the least cool wine imaginable." But it doesn't have to be one camp or the other. Any wine in between those two extremes would have likely been just fine.
Geoff: I suppose there's a risk of over-extrapolating my personal opinions to my entire generation while simultaneously assuming that age-based stereotypes are broadly true. But hey, I’m Gen X, and we do that with panache and snarky abandon.
My critique of the boomer generation’s wine aesthetic is that they are too reliant on a monolithic argument from authority and a desire for luxury and intensity above value and subtlety. As for the prevailing nouvelle vague, a storied British wine writer recently made an observation at dinner that the new generation of wine consumer is less interested in a good bottle of wine than the bedtime story that is being sold along with it. For me, as a calculated vice, when wine becomes more sententious than sensual, it begins to lose its appeal.
So, my wine values, if not those of my entire generation: if a wine tastes good and you can afford the price, drink more—but not too much more.
Davana: Kelli, it’s interesting you bring up the “classics,” because I think that can definitely be a point of contention between generations. Personally, I find an unfortunate amount of Gen Xers take the types of wines you mentioned as the be-all-end-all wine gospel and snub everything else on principle—though ironically, it seems like the rude somm you dealt with did the same thing from the other side.
Of course there are the timeless, legendary wines to which any somm should show the appropriate respect, but they certainly aren’t the only wines worth drinking. I guess I want Gen Xers to understand that’s why millennials are so attracted to weird winemaking techniques or “bedtime stories.” We won’t just look at a big established name and automatically trust it the way you do. It’s not coming from a place of disrespect—more so that we want to understand the whys and hows and connect with them. Whether the information comes in the form of a tech sheet or a slam poem doesn’t matter to me!
Alex: Our generation faces a number of unique factors on a day-to-day basis. Having to constantly sort through a seemingly infinite amount of information is a big one. Some of us have chosen to dive in head first—we're trying to study every last detail of every last wine region in the world. Others have very reasonably come to expect a story behind their chosen bottle of wine. Both types get criticized by the older generation. I think when these extremes converge, as they're starting to do, millennials will be a robust generation of engaged wine lovers.
Our economic situation, climate change (and the anxiety it causes), and the disruption/intrusion of so many different aspects of our lives by big tech all play a huge role, too. We're still trying to figure out how to navigate them. Like both Geoff and Kelli said, I don't speak for my entire generation. That said, more patience and less snarky criticism would be welcome!
What do you think? These are simply a few individuals' perspectives, meant to spark a larger conversation. Chime in with your agreement, your disagreement, and your own answers to these questions!
A couple of thoughts, as someone who is a very old Millennial and thus somewhere between the two camps depicted here:
- One of the biggest changes I've seen in the world of wine in my time in it is that many more people are drinking wine, and becoming interested in it, in their early 20s. When I was in my early 20s, very few of my friends or even restaurant industry contemporaries were interested in wine. In fact, a somewhat formative moment for me was meeting Jackson Rohrbaugh, because he's a bit younger than I am and was at that time working in a wine shop in Seattle (as well as at Canlis) and was one of the first people I met who was my age cohort and seemed just as passionate (well, honestly, MORE passionate) about wine as I was. Now, I think it's much more common for people in their early 20s to drink wine, and to drink interesting wine, and because of changes in the restaurant industry in America, to often be in positions to be working as somms or even running wine programs in their early-mid 20s, whereas I was in my early 30s when someone actually handed me the checkbook and let me order wine. I actually find it super exciting because younger somms and wine directors have a lot more energy than I do (having a kid will do that), and can go push the boundaries of the wine world into some weird and fascinating places.
- That dovetails with the other major point that I think was made above, which is about accessibility, pricing, and who gets to determine what a great wine is. Most of the wines that Geoff and Kelli reference are wines that most of us in the trade rarely, if ever, get to taste, and when we do it's either a tiny amount, which makes it hard to contextualize the wine, or it's at the beneficence of someone older and wealthier, and not all of us have those connections. The list of "iconic" wines I've never even tasted is pretty damn long, frankly, and it's not likely to get much shorter. That's true for me and my peers of course, but it's also extremely true for our customers, especially those who are not wealthy nor particularly wine-focused: a grounding in the "classics" can I guess be useful in some ways, but very little about running a wine program or selling wine in most American restaurants has much, if any connection to the so-called "great wines of the world," because those are wines for the .01%, and most of us can't make a living off that clientele alone.