Beer lovers, excited by the increased attention given to their favourite drink these days, often get excited by the suggestion that beer is the “new wine”. The raised profile of beer is a great thing but there is at least one major barrier to beer being afforded the same regard as wine: the power of snobbery.
While it is OK – almost expected – for the urban sophisticate to have a touch of the wine tosser these days, if you show the slightest interest in what’s in your beer glass – or even ask for one when you order a beer – you are marking yourself as a twat of the worst order.
How things have changed. As a child in middle class suburbs of Brisbane in the 70s, I recall my parents going to parties where the dads all rocked up with a half carton of XXXX tallies and the wives with a four litre cask of Coolabah Moselle or Riesling.
I also remember one kaftan-wearing couple (hey, it was the 70s) who brought a bottle of wine instead of the regular cask. This pair of oenological and sartorial trendsetters showed some pride in knowing a bit about the wine as they theatrically uncorked it and described how they picked it up their recent tour through the Barossa.
While this singled them out for the odd behind-the-hand-whisper of “wanker” for having the audacity to show an informed interest in what they were drinking, it wasn’t too long before bottled wine and knowledge of it became de rigueur amongst those with social aspirations. Fortunately the kaftans didn’t.
Today, we all know a little bit about wine. We have a definite preference for wooded or unwooded chardonnay. At least we did before chardies got a bad name and SSB became the white of choice. We can debate the merits of Margaret River over McLaren Vale or New Zealand’s Marlborough region and have an extensive range of Riedel stemware to extract every last drop of flavour from our favourite tipple.
With this new-found depth of knowledge of all things fermented grape we can knowledgeably select a wine from an extensive list to both accompany our meal and avoid social ostracism for a bad selection…can’t we?
Not really. While wine is fashionable and prandial consumption expected, our affair with it very much a superficial one. The best selling wine in most restaurants across Australia is still the one second from the bottom of the list. Diners confronted by an array of wines scan the list for a name they know. If they don’t see it, many just opt for the second cheapest. They don’t use their ‘knowledge’ of wine to make an informed selection. They don’t select a similar variety from the same region and use it as an opportunity to go on a flavour journey, one that might educate their palate. They play it safe. Their motivation being they don’t want to be stigmatised by choosing the cheapest on the menu and they don’t want to pay too much in case they don’t like it. The second cheapest is simply the default choice.
The rise of what the Americans call ‘critter’ wines also bears this out. You may have noticed the prevalence of wines named after animals or displaying them proudly on the label. Someone discovered that this sells wine and the industry went for the ride. By 2006 ACNielsen was reporting that in the US animals appeared on the labels of 77 of the 438 table wine brands that had been launched with sustained sales in the previous 3 years. Sales of these gems topped $720m.
Neither variety or vintage matter as much as vermin. In highlighting the informed nature of wine buyers an ACNielsen spokesman said at the time, “while placing a critter on a label doesn’t guarantee success, it is important that wine makers realise that there is a segment of consumers who don’t want to have to take wine too seriously.”
“Not only are they willing to have fun with wine, they may just feel ‘good’ about an animal label presentation.”
Me, I just like the way the critter bottle looks next to my Riedel stemware.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of the fashionability of wine, even amongst the seemingly knowledgeable, is the sales hit inflicted upon one style with the uttering of a single line in a movie.
Merlot had been rapidly growing as the style of choice for many in the mid-noughties but in the States and then here sales plummeted when Sideways’ wine-snob Miles uttered his vine-destroying line, “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f—king merlot!”
Merlot, already uncool with wine snobs for its increasing popularity, was suddenly uncool to anyone with social aspirations. Conversely Pinot sales bloomed after Miles waxed lyrical about it. Watch for Merlot to undergo the same comeback in years to come that Riesling has so recently made after years on the outer, victim of its success in the late 70s and early 80s.
Beer, of course, suffers its own pretensions. How else can you explain the success of Crown Lager in extracting an extra $20 from your wallet for a carton, if not for the distinctive bottle and gold foil that just screams, “Ladies, I’ve had a win at the races and I’ve got cash in my pocket.”
Away from the beer-as-a-weapon-of-mass-consumption set though, there seems to be a real quest to try the new and the interesting and to learn about the flavour that comes with different styles of beer; to learn how hops and malt and yeast can combine in new and interesting ways. Above all, to taste and experience new beers–even if it means you try some that you don’t like.
So next time you hear the phrase that ‘beer is the new wine’, just remember with quiet satisfaction that it isn’t and never will be. For most people, wine is a destination. Beer is, and will always be, a journey.
Enjoy your journey!