Is the wine boom in the United States over? Is the impressive year-over-year growth of wine consumption about to come to an end? Will younger consumers lose their interest in paying for expensive bottles of cult wine? The answer is yes.
Over the last 50 years the interest in and consumption of wine has steadily grown in the United States. This has largely been driven by the baby-boomer generation’s becoming enamored with — nearly obsessed by — all things wine. Typical of the baby-boomer mentality, they took on wine like no other generation, crafting vintages as fine as those found anywhere around the world and one-upping the wine-drinkers of the past by making its consumption both a competitive game and a possible source of get-rich-quick economics. No longer was the world’s wealthy aristocracy going to hoard hard-to-find bottles of the good stuff; now jean-wearing, black-turtle-neck-sporting Internet moguls, artists and Wall Street types were on the hunt to find the world’s wine treasures, which brought with them the added benefits of sophistication coupled with the possibility of intoxication.
The result of American’s foray into fine wine resulted in relatively quick success, not only in producing wines of distinction but also in creating a vehicle for nearly anyone to make wine. Gone were the days of having to be born into a wine-making family and in were the days of self-expression and experimentation, both traits in which the baby boomers have been known to excel.
The result has been a change in how wine is consumed in both the United States and around the world. Americans created a numbering system to grade wine, developed winespeak and common terminology for describing wine, changed the flavor profile of wine and sparked a renaissance in how wine is made, improving on a process that had for hundreds or even thousands of years remained relatively unchanged. All of this was either initiated by or at least fueled by the early artisans of the Napa Valley, who came here in the 1960s and ‘70s, often from wealthy families, as back-to-the-landers who wanted to create something authentic. They also found that they had hit the market just right: They were able to purchase prime land in the Napa Valley at a cheap price due to the residual effects of Prohibition and the general lack of consumer interest in wine by the American public.
These pioneers laid the groundwork for those who followed, and many of them also profited immensely from what became an economic boom. Most of them cashed out at some point, either selling their winery and land or stepping away from active management by selling off large percentages of their companies to money-management firms.
America, and California in particular, is not unfamiliar with these boom cycles. The California Gold Rush began on Jan. 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The history books tell us that the official gold rush ended in 1855, but this date is likely of little consolation for those poor souls who continued on for years, even decades, scouring the mountains and streams in search of their fortunes.
The first reported millionaire from the California Gold Rush was not actually a miner but a businessman and journalist, Samuel Brannon, who had founded the California Star, the first newspaper in San Francisco, and who, as luck would have it, had a small store at Sutter’s Mill where miners often settled up with gold, paying as much as $15 apiece for gold-sifting pans, items for which Brannan had reportedly only paid 20 cents each.
After making his fortune, Brannan moved to Calistoga, where he built a hot-springs resort and a railroad that would transport tourists from Vallejo up-valley to visit his healing hot springs, where they might also enjoy some locally produced artisanal wine and food. Eventually, like many self-made men, Brannan unraveled, divorcing and selling off many of his assets due to bankruptcy. He passed from this world in 1889 as a debt-free man, but he didn’t leave enough money in the bank even to pay for his own funeral.
How many pioneers see their pioneering pay off? Hard to say. What we can say is that things will change. What we know for certain is that there will be booms followed by busts. If you believe that this time things will be different, then I’ve got a gold-sifting pan in my garage that I’ll sell to you at a good price.
Originally published in the Napa Register, Local Tastes column March 2017