The Way We Drink
I had a long conversation with a customer yesterday about the meaning of “old world” versus “new world” when it comes to wine. It had been a while since I’d broken down the fundamentals of booze philosophy on the sales floor because I only work in the store on Saturdays now, but also because so few people these days have the courage to ask about the basics. We were looking for a gift for the gentleman’s friends in France, a pair of California wines that might please the palate of these inherent Bordeaux lovers. Before searching out the potential prospects, however, I wanted to cover a few general concepts. “The thing you have to remember about French wine,” I said, “is that it’s usually made in a style that complements food. Often times the wines won’t taste their best unless paired with the right dish, which speaks to their winemaking intentions as a culture.”
The man stared at me intently.
“California wines, on the other hand,” I continued, “are often wines you can drink with or without food. They’re usually made to taste good right out of the bottle because often times Americans drink a glass of wine like they would a beer or a cocktail—as a way to wind down the work day.”
"You’re saying the French make wine to suit their own specific lifestyle and that Californians do the same?” the man asked with a quizzical look on his face.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“That would be the same for Italian wine, too; wouldn’t you say?” he added.
“That makes complete sense. Thank you for explaining that to me,” he said before heading to the register, shaking my hand in appreciation.
We often ignore the topic of our drinking intentions here in the States, most likely because many of us learned how to get drunk before we learned how to appreciate the custom itself. We barfed up buckets of Jaegermeister and hurled out heaps of vodka-cran before we understood how to enjoy the flavor of alcohol. I believe wholeheartedly that the American alcoholic chip on the shoulder stems from that very fact: that we feel inferior when faced with a real-deal drinking culture; one where kids enjoy wine at the table with their parents and learn at a more leisurely pace. I think it often reminds us of what we’re missing and it can bring out a certain defensiveness in people. Our food culture is no different. We eat dinner in front of the TV (I still do almost every night), power down a sandwich while driving between jobs, and skip breakfast to get an early start on the day or hit the morning spin class. As drinkers, we’re rarely looking at the big picture; we’re living moment to moment. When I talk about this subject with customers I don’t seek to criticize my own culture as much as I look to contrast it from the old world and attempt to explain why it’s so different. You can understand a lot about why a wine tastes the way it does by understanding the way a culture eats and lives. You can also better understand the market.
“Why doesn’t anyone drink grappa anymore?” a friend of mine who works in the spirits business asked me last week. “Why don’t more people appreciate eaux-de-vie or proper digestivos these days? I can’t even find them in most liquor stores.”
“Think about how you’re supposed to enjoy grappa,” I said to her. “When are you supposed to drink it?”
“After dinner,” she replied.
“When’s the last time you sat down for a long dinner with friends?”
“It’s been a while,” she said.
“Think about how much grappa you consume when you do find the time to have that kind of a meal and then how long it would take you to finish a bottle in that manner. Now contrast that with the gallons of Bourbon and Scotch that are being consumed at happy hour each night like cheap beer." People are drinking whiskey in America like they eat tacos or doughnuts—as singular entities. They’re pouring glasses before, during, and after dinner. Sometimes the whiskey is the dinner! Imagine how much faster those bottles get consumed and how quickly those customers come back to get more.
She stared at me in silence for a few moments.
“That’s why no one sells grappa anymore,” I continued. “Because one bottle of grappa is enough for a lifetime in today’s American drinking culture. No one drinks after-dinner digestivos because that’s not the way we live. We’re too busy cutting carbs, doing yoga, and working twelve hour days to sit down for a two hour meal—especially the kind that involves eau-de-vie at the end. Our drinking intentions and therefore our drinking options revolve around that lifestyle.”
“I love the old world,” she said to me.
“I do, too,” I replied, “but that’s not where we live and that’s not who we are.”
Most customers today think about context when buying a bottle: when would I actually drink this? I think Americans understand drinking as a social function—something you do with friends at a party. Few, however, see it as a daily construct, or as part of a balanced diet. I’m no different. I have to actually work to find time to drink Bordeaux or Burgundy. I struggle to create moments worthy of grappa. Ultimately, it’s for that reason that Armagnac, Cognac, Calvados, Italian amari, mezcal, and various other regional specialties have found a way to market themselves into cocktail recipes—as a way to increase consumption, awareness, and change historical drinking patterns. When long, multi-course meals were the norm, there was a place at the table for all of these beverages, but today we've gotta think about DUIs and LDLs. It’s evolve or die for many of these spirits. Look on the bright side, however: at least gout is on the decline.