Voices

Do Wine Drinkers Really Trade Up?

It’s a more complicated question than you might think

Wines on rising podiums
Illustration by Jeannie Phan.

One of those undying tropes of the wine industry is that wine drinkers have an innate desire to trade up—that even if they start with cheap wines, they quickly seek out something better.

Maybe I should say “the legacy industry,” because there’s a growing set of wine professionals who are less sure about this. They see millennial drinkers quickly gravitating to orange wines or cru Beaujolais, without the slow, baby-step path to advanced drinking their parents might have required. They see other young drinkers move from cheap wine to craft beer, which offers connoisseurship on, literally, a beer budget.

Frankly, while the very notion of trading up comes from the luxury goods industry, it’s worth remembering that wine doesn’t quite work like buying cars or gourmet chocolate. For one thing, while some wine buyers are adventurous, there’s still a scared streak running through a large portion of the consumer base. Many wine drinkers remain nervous, and overwhelmed, and run back to the same old bottles they’ve always drunk. That, in essence, was the conclusion of Project Genome, a long-term research project from none other than Constellation Brands, one of the world’s largest wine companies. It found nearly 40 percent of U.S. drinkers essentially didn’t want to be bothered with shopping around (and another 20 percent only wanted to buy cheap).

That more complicated set of consumer habits might be why, when a New York Times op-ed came out earlier this year, extolling the virtues of cheap and fabricated wines as a way to “satisfy drinkers and even create new connoisseurs,” industry tastemakers roared back loudly: Cheap wine was no way to cultivate a budding wine lover’s tastes.

This debate is unlikely to get sorted out anytime soon. And there is more nuance to trading up than at first it might seem. Sure, industrially derived cheap wines might not be a pathway to guide someone to the charms of Jurassic poulsard, but at the same time, good wine can be expensive. And it can be hard to convince the best winemakers to trade down, in essence—to use their talents on everyday fare.

That last bit is important, because one perspective on the trading-up argument is that you convert wine newbies by letting them taste the virtues of quality, even if it’s in a cheaper bottle.  This, as I put it in The New California Wine, is about invoking “a moral prerogative that good winemakers should not only pursue greatness but make humble wines as well.”

In any case, since this has been on the minds of a lot of wine professionals over the past several months, we couldn’t resist a chance to seek out some varied perspectives on the matter. Like I said: It’s a more complex discussion than at first it seems.

Jon Bonné is one of the leading American voices writing on wine today. In addition to his work with SevenFifty Daily, he is the Senior Contributing Editor at PUNCH, and author of the award-winning book The New California Wine, as well as two new forthcoming books, The New Wine Rules and The New French Wine. He is also the wine consultant for JetBlue Airways. For nearly a decade, Bonné served as the Wine Editor and Chief Wine Critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, where he won two James Beard awards and numerous other accolades.

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