As I ready to attend this year’s Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF), I’m reminded of a moment from last year’s fest. It came during the We’re Drinking Merlot panel, where Wine Spectator critic James Laube headlined, accompanied by a handful of valley winemakers. Instead of paying close attention as the panelists pontificated over the merits of Merlot, my mind wandered. I wondered why most of the heavy hitter critics, like Laube, are men. In no way do I want to ignite a battle of the sexes, but this tipped-scale syndrome when it comes to lauded scoremakers seems out of whack, especially given one of the stats released at last year’s Wine Market Council meeting: Of the 230 million wine consumers in the United States, 54 percent are female.
While certain marketers are quick to reiterate that advertising dollars would be maximized by slanting wine campaigns to women, it still feels like, more times than not, men are still telling us “little ladies” what to drink. This isn’t to say females don’t have a voice in the winescape. Take Lettie Teague, a wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal. One of her November missives sucked me in as she waxed-on about millennials and score cards, two favored topics for the marketing set. Teague reported (based on survey results from Wine Opinions, a California-based wine research group): “Millennials regard the 100-point scale as the creation of the provenance—of their older wine drinking peers. They won’t be ‘duped’ into buying an expensive wine just because some critic awarded it 92 points; they value stories and a personal connection.”
The point system took another bash at this year’s NVFF screening of “Somm: Into the Bottle.” All of the 10 or so sommeliers who took the stage (none of whom were women) during the post-screening Q&A commented on how little the point system factors into their wine list selections and recommendations.
So let’s imagine, for a moment, a wine world without a score sheet attached and life as a millennial. If scores aren’t driving their wine drinking decisions, what is? According to the Wine Opinions survey, it’s not reading wine magazines and other publications. Only 22 percent of millennials reportedly subscribe to a print publication, opting to go online instead. Here’s where things get really interesting: Despite being dubbed the tech-savviest crowd around, only 50 percent of millennials go online for must-have wine info, trailing my fellow Gen Xers (at 65 percent) and baby boomers (61 percent). But, apparently, none of this will matter come 2017, when millennials are supposed to command more buying power mojo than any other demographic group on the planet.
As powerful as millennials are purported to be, they only represent 29 percent of the current wine drinking population, whereas boomers commandeer 41 percent of the swilling set. This fact inspired me to poll a crowd of boomer-type imbibers at the afterparty for “Somm: Into the Bottle.” When I asked which wines were worthy of a second sip these days, it took only minutes for score-related name-dropping to ensue. So while millennials may not be quick to rely on scores from esteemed critics—male or female—other demographic groups still do.
A couple weeks later I’m blasted back to my reality, when I take my toddling twins back East for a family visit. We recover from the grueling, tantrum-filled flight by sipping cheap wine (my parents’ favorite kind) and watching the sun set from the top floor of a condo in Naples, Fla. I try to hold my temper and tongue as my father chides my 2-year-old son for getting too touchy with a screen door and every light switch in the house. When I fail miserably, my father pipes in with, “Kids have to learn early on to listen to what their elders tell them. You should try to do the same.”
As I choke down one glass too many of sub-par vino, I realize my beef over the perceived preponderance of male wine critics has less to do with gender and more to do with the notion of anybody telling me what to do—and, more important, drink.
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