If you've ever stood glassy-eyed in the wine aisle, rendered immobile by too many options, your luck is about to change. Simple wine is a trend that is sweeping the country, largely due to the fact that Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000, 70 million strong), are beginning to have a significant influence on the wine market. And apparently we youngun's don't know jack about wine.
In an effort to reach this hip behemoth, wine companies have rushed in recent years to set up divisions they believe will speak to less mature drinkers, showcasing clean, modern labels with unassuming names. Kendall Jackson set up the labels Dog House and Tin Roof. Franzia launched Cupcake Vineyards. Some of these wines are quite nice. But if you think this sounds like a disgraceful dumbing down of a centuries-old art form, you're right. The question is, can we really blame them?
A 2008 study done by market-research firm Mintel found that 31 percent of 25-34 year olds "prefer wines with casual and fun names such as Red Bicyclette, Three Blind Moose, compared to old-school names such as Bordeaux or Beaujolais."
But when it comes to wine, are we really that dense? Brad Ball, fellow Millennial and owner of Social Wine Bar on East Bay Street, doesn't agree.
"I was curious when I heard that Kendall Jackson was coming out with new wines for Millennials, so I tried one. It was overly alcoholic, and frankly didn't taste very good. I thought, this isn't what we want, we know better than that."
A certified sommelier who cut his teeth in the Charleston restaurant biz, Ball has also worked in three of Manhattan's most acclaimed restaurants — Momofuku, Jean-Georges, and at Aquavit as sommelier— so he was interested to see if he couldn't do better. Together with Harry Root of Grassroots Wine Wholesalers and design team Fuzzco, Ball created La Wine Agency, a company whose mission is to initiate new drinkers to the world of wine with standards they can count on. Their first result is La Bubbly, a sparkling wine that's light, clean, and well balanced, with light floral notes and not too much fruit. Available at Social as well as at Whole Foods throughout South Carolina and Alabama (at a retail price point of $12.99), it won't hurt the pocketbook, either. The price point was important to Ball, who wanted to provide a better option than some of the other wines out there geared toward inexperienced drinkers.
"Good wine shouldn't be 16.5 percent alcohol, and Pinot Noir shouldn't be downed like a shot of tequila," Ball says. "Good wine is meant to be savored. You sit and enjoy a few glasses and go from there."
Social's coffers are heavy in wines from Northern Italy, France, Germany, and Austria — all regions Ball is most inspired by, so he began his quest to find a vineyard to produce his wine in France. Of course, you won't find a lot of French vineyards interested in producing a wine just to have somebody else's label stuck on it. So on an exploratory trip to Chile, Ball was delighted to discover a Chilean vineyard in Casablanca Valley, about an hour and a half outside of Santiago, with a small-farm feel. The vineyard agreed to grow the grapes and produce the wine. A blend of 60 percent Chardonnay and 40 percent Pinot Noir grapes, the liquid is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged for only two months before bottling, which, according to Ball, preserves the aromatics.
Ball isn't the first local restaurateur to create his own elixir. Hirsch Vineyards in Sonoma County partnered with Mike Lata and Adam Nemirow of FIG to create a limited barrel Clay Pigeon Pinot Noir, which the restaurant rolled out in April 2010. In February, Maverick Southern Kitchens (owners of High Cotton and S.N.O.B.) announced Maverick Vodka, which they produced with North Charleston-based Terressentia, a distillery that helps customers conceptualize, create, package, and distribute everything from rums and vodkas to tequilas and whiskeys. But while Clay Pigeon and Maverick Vodka are only available locally, Ball hopes to take the La Wine label global, convinced that a high-quality wine presented in a simple way could be the best route to wooing fans of "casual and fun" wines.
Still, in looking closer at the studies done on Millennials and their wine drinking habits in recent years, one can't help but wonder if wine companies aren't underestimating their target market. Sure, we can enjoy some X-Box and thrive on social media, but the same study found that Millennials are also more likely to belong to a wine club, consume more imports than other generations, dine out more often, and view wine as a much more affordable luxury than the other age demographics. In fact, Millennials are significantly more likely than older generations to purchase wines that cost $20 or more. And according to the Wine Market Council, Millennials don't see wine as elitist or unattainable either.
There's nothing wrong with pulling novice wine drinkers in by their taste buds. And given Ball's impressive platform, it's nice to have a wine we know we can trust. La Wine Agency will be coming out with La Pinot and La Chard in coming months and is sure to garner new and loyal fans quickly in the Southeast. But still, Millennial that I am, I can't help but be discouraged by the over-simplification of an endlessly deep, age-old, and wondrously complex beverage. Experimenting with wine — learning the various varietals of grapes, understanding how the regions they're grown in can become such an integral part of their taste, character, and their ability to build in your mouth, the thrilling feeling of discovering a gorgeous wine for under $10, or simply the excitement of trying something new — is 99 percent of the fun. But ultimately this is precisely what wine geeks like Ball are aiming for. So long as the intention is to stir an interest, or even better, an insatiable curiosity in the fabulous world of wine, I guess I don't mind being told, "Shut up and drink this. We promise it's good!"
And hey, if we're going to take someone's word for it, at least we can rest our consciences in the fact that he's a local.