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As Wine Culture Gets Older, the Sommeliers Get Younger

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Estela by Krieger

Several years ago I slipped quietly into the back row of a professional wine tasting, took a seat, and began to wonder if drinking wine contributes to hair loss. Every head in front of mine was balding. Seemingly everyone else in the room was 50 years old or older. It is hard to imagine this scenario happening today, but back then the average age of wine buyers was much higher. Now the buyers at the tastings tend to be considerably younger, and the Instagram tag #birthyearwine has become more common as sommeliers are serving wines as old (or older) than they are. But what has happened to bring this about? What are the factors that have contributed to lowering the age bar in a field that ostensibly values knowledge and experience with wine? Let me propose some possibilities.

It has been a bad time to have set ideas about where good wines come from.
The explosion of competitively priced quality wine options from little known corners of the wine world has really changed the model of what a wine list looks like. But it has also changed the look of the buyers, in that those who hewed closely to the old prejudices of what were good winemaking regions — Bordeaux and Napa, namely — found themselves caught up in a whirlpool of escalating prices. As that pricing kept going up, the restaurant buyers purchasing those classic wines were locking their venues into a higher and higher price point of luxury. More than any other single item, it is the wine price that often determines the final check presented to the customer. Restaurant lists that became top heavy with expensive wines were in a tough spot after the economic recessions hit, first in 2001, and then in 2008, especially as younger sommeliers amongst the restaurant competition were rapidly embracing the less expensive wine regions that the older generation had shunned as second or third rate. It is extraordinarily hard for someone who has been buying certain wines for years to step back and see that they aren't buying in the direction the market is going. It is akin to someone looking into their own closet and realizing that they are now out of fashion: it is a painful conclusion to reach. And what happens on those TV makeover shows when someone needs a fashion rehab? They call in a team of young people to help.

Younger sommeliers grew up with wine.
If you talk to sommeliers today, you'll see that there is a basic dividing line. Those who are over 30 years old often "fell into" wine. It wasn't something that they had originally set out to do. They had wanted to cook, or to play music, or to study philosophy. Wine came to them later, as a revelation, and as a second career. When you look at the history of wine consumption in America, which started to take off after WWII, it makes sense that many of those people who are 40 years old today would not have had parents who drank wine. But the situation is different with the younger generation of sommeliers. They often speak about being introduced to great wine when their parents opened a special bottle for them. For the younger generation, wine is not something that they stumbled on, it is something that they were shown. This also shows up in the attitudes that members of these generations have about their own jobs. "Don't call me a sommelier, I just like wine," was a frequent comment from wine directors of a certain generation who didn't want to seem snooty or to put on airs. But today, with the younger generation, the term sommelier or "somm" is more popular than ever before. The younger people want to be sommeliers, they decided that early on, and they didn't go through a roundabout process of figuring it out.

Wine knowledge is a Google search away.
Up until the 1990s, books on wine were fairly scarce. There were a few tomes of knowledge that everybody owned, but the way that most people learned about wine was that they worked for someone who had already worked with wine for a number of years. Those older hands were the people who knew the answers that you needed to know. Was it corked or was it over the hill? They could tell you the difference. How long should I open the bottle in advance? They had the experience to say. Who made overlooked wine in a difficult vintage? They knew what to buy. In other words, wine knowledge was largely a verbal tradition, passed down from older employee to younger trainee. Yes, there were specialized publications that contained some of these answers, but you had to have purchased those magazines or newsletters when they came out to have them around to refer to. What really changed the field was the internet. The proliferation of information from paid sites with their searchable databases of back issues, from bloggers who endlessly chronicle small details, and from the wineries themselves, really leveled the playing field. It used to be that you needed to have a person with decades of experience on staff. Now everyone has Google. This has led to a fundamental change inside the industry: young sommeliers no longer stick around and work for another sommelier for a long period of time. They go to take up jobs as buyers on their own as soon as they can. They know how to find out what their boss can find out, for the most part. This has also brought about the increased status associated with travel and the opening of coveted bottles, as opposed to pure knowledge of the subject, amongst sommeliers: travel isn't something you can google.

Wine became less French.
Before anyone gets upset, I'll add that there is nothing wrong with French sommeliers. Not at all. I learned a lot working with a number of French sommeliers, and am glad that I did so. Actually, I would recommend that everyone do so if they want to learn more about wine, particularly about tasting wine. But I am also extremely happy that many people from other ethnic backgrounds are now sommeliers, some of whom I am pretty sure would have had some difficulty finding a sommelier job in the not so distant past. And what I am happy about is this: When the main qualification for the job is about wine, rather than about French fluency, you have a more talented pool of individuals working in the wine business. That's the end result. Amazing people, people who love wine, don't get held back from a job because of who they are. And don't underestimate the change, at least in the New York market. It has been dramatic. It has been a rearrangement that has had as much to do with the changing nature of what fine dining is, as about attitudes towards ethnicity. What it has also meant is that a number of younger people are being considered for jobs. I can tell you from my own observation that there actually aren't a large number of young French immigrants looking for a sommelier job. In the past, some restaurateurs wanting to maintain a French image have had to resort to offering special J-1 visas to workers willing to travel to the United States for employment. But when the requirement to be French is taken out of the equation, the pool of younger applicants widens considerably.

The model was shown to work.
In the middle part of the last decade, before 2008, there was a tremendous demand for sommeliers, often from restaurant groups moving into Las Vegas and other markets. At the same time, there was a relatively small group of "old hand" sommeliers plying their trade, and they already had employment. As a result, younger people were routinely offered wine buying positions. What operators soon realized was that instead of being a handicap, this could be a boon. This is because older clientele see in young people someone who reminds them of their grandkids, and younger clientele see in young people someone who is hip. Both constituencies stay happy. This is in keeping with the same logic that makes Jimmy Fallon an excellent replacement for Jay Leno. It is also true that younger sommeliers demand less in salary, as they are happy just to work in wine. As restaurants moved to more casual concepts following 2008, the idea of a younger staff only seemed more congruous, not less.

Older sommeliers welcome younger sommeliers into the business.
Given the choice, many head sommeliers would prefer to hire someone who is inexperienced and new to the field to be their assistant, rather than a candidate that has considerable experience. And there is a simple reason for this: the sommeliers already in place do not want competition for their own jobs. They want help, but they do not want to worry about being pushed out by a more popular second in command. So they hire people for enthusiasm and a willingness to move boxes, rather than for experience. The logic is pretty straightforward: Don't hire someone who could easily replace you, hire someone that is obviously too under qualified to replace you. That is what amounts to job security in a market where, as has already been discussed, information about wine is easier and easier to come by. Those who are a bit older must often look for lead positions of their own, as the assistant sommelier opportunities may often be closed to them.

The reference point wines changed.
The market has shifted considerably in its tastes. Some of the most sought after wines of today — Overnoy, Ganevat, and others — were virtually unheard of in this country 10 years ago. The older sommeliers have no more familiarity with them than the younger sommeliers do, and often they have LESS familiarity with them, as they came to them later. That change really nullified one of the advantages that older sommeliers generally have, which is experience with the wines.

For these and perhaps other reasons, the sommelier of today is often younger than has ever been the case in America's drinking history. Will the industry change to allow for these young people to have jobs as they get older? It is an open question that no one seems prepared to answer.

· Wine [~ENY~]

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