Towards A New Definition of Fine Wine

“Fine” wine, usually defined by a combination of factors such as long history and pedigree, longevity, scarcity, high price, and a widely held view of exceptional quality and authentic regionality, is in need of a new definition. Or at least the addition of an increasingly important dimension: sustainability. I’m talking sustainability in the broadest sense: the adherence to a series of practices that safeguard the environment and economic viability, but also the well-being of the people involved in the production of wine, at every level.

I’ll add one more layer to sustainability: Real sustainability also demands the responsibility to actively promote social justice and diversity in what is currently an overwhelmingly white male-dominated industry, which no longer reflects the diverse ethnic and racial reality in which we live. It means fostering an inclusive environment where all employees feel safe, respected, and valued. Any producer who aspires to have their wine called “fine” today must be part of the solution, or their bottles will be left behind to gather dust in an ageing, crumbling cave.

This is not just simply the morally right thing to do, though it certainly is that. It’s also survival. Countless studies show how the future drinkers of fine wines—millennials, and more especially generation Zers—relate differently to brands than all previous generations. A study by consultants McKinsey & Company’s entitled: “‘True Gen’: Generation Z and its implications for companies,” describes how members of Gen Z—loosely, people born from 1995 to 2010—are true digital natives: “from earliest youth, they have been exposed to the internet, to social networks, and to mobile systems. That context has produced a hypercognitive generation very comfortable with collecting and cross-referencing many sources of information and with integrating virtual and offline experiences.”

The results of this study and others point to one inescapable realization: Gen Zers are searching for truth, and they have the means to find it. Brands that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk will be discovered and called out. Gen Zers mobilize themselves for a variety of causes, and make their consumption choices in a highly analytical and pragmatic way. Consumption has become a matter of ethical concern, and a means of influencing the positive change they seek.

Influencers wield more influence than you think. “This generational shift is transforming the consumer landscape in a way that cuts across all socioeconomic brackets and extends beyond Gen Z, permeating the whole demographic pyramid,” concludes the McKinsey & Company study. I know my 16-year-old daughter is influencing the way I think about many things, including the world of wine. The message is clear: Make positive change or disappear.

It would take a very long essay to explain why it has taken (is taking) so long for the wine industry to begin to reckon with its inherent systemic racism. But in summary, for most of the last 8,000 years, since the dawn of fermented grape juice, wine has been the tipple of choice in white-dominated Europe, as well as that of upper class, overwhelmingly white colonialists and missionaries. It was essentially a white man’s drink from the start.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the wine industry has also been slow to react to the current renewed spotlight on racism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The booze and beer industries, for example, have been more active and proactive in promoting diversity, and for much longer. This might be explained by the fact that consumption of beer and spirits cuts across a far greater socio-economic-racial-ethnic swath than wine, making sense that these industries would try to better connect with their consumers.

Booze giant Diageo, for example, has been among the top 25 most diverse and inclusive companies over the last four years in the Refinitiv Diversity & Inclusion Index, which tracks companies that actively invest in and promote environmental, social, and governance (ESG) values and principles in the running of their businesses. (Refinitiv also publishes the Global Equal Opportunities Select Index for investors who wish to commit their capital to such companies, another sign that the quality of a company’s product is no longer the sole consideration).

Wine (and beer) giant Constellation Brands, on the other hand, only announced this past June a “multi-initiative social justice action plan, designed at improving equality both within the company and the wider alcohol industry.” Though better late than never.

As Gen Zers have recognized, it’s all of our responsibilities to drive change. Johannesburg-based, Black South African wine writer Tshepang Molisana is but one voice calling for more consumer responsibility. In a recent article entitled “Inclusion – as urgent as fermentation,” she writes, “the economic empowerment of formerly disenfranchised Black people … has resulted in far too little real action and genuine improvement …. It should be a blight on the conscience of every wine consumer, looming so large that it emboldens them to ask more of their producers. It should encourage the consumer to assess the impact of each link and cog along the value chain. It should give pause to considerations of the shelf price of a bottle of wine. The empowerment and economic inclusion of workers should inform how wine is priced and sold. Indeed, high ethical leadership is the responsibility of producers, but consumers too should be critical.”

I believe ethical responsibility falls to consumers, too. They are the ones who can force change where it’s not forthcoming. Consumers must demand more from their retailers—not just good value wine but ethically good, too, with diverse voices and opinions on the shop floor to tell them about it.

The trade—wine writers like me as well as importers, distributors, retailers and wine buyers—must demand more from producers, and each other. Well-made, regionally/varietally representative, honest wine is not enough. We must ask: “How do they treat the environment? What is being done to lower their carbon footprint? How do they treat their employees? Who do they hire? There are many other questions to ask, quite unrelated to the liquid inside the bottle.

It would be sad, and indeed missing the point, if fear—the fear of being discovered and called out—were the only motivation for change. But as history shows, there has to be a stick with the carrot to get things moving. Consumers demanding more of brands is one form of non-violent, but effective, protest.

So, the new fine wines of the world will have to have an ethical, sustainable, and inclusive dimension, not merely technical winemaking competence and excellent quality. These will become the truly coveted bottles of a hypercognitive, socially conscious generation of collectors, drinkers, and influencers. The producers who get it right will enjoy doing the right thing and also being successful at it. And, with any luck, the world will be a slightly better place.