Kids and Wine, Part of the Blend
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
I keep hearing vintners moan about aging wine consumers who are not being replaced by the so-called youth market, those rambunctious Generation X-ers who would rather drink a beer or -- God forbid -- a soda than a fine Chardonnay with their fillet of sole. Part of the problem lies with the fact that many young people have grown up with parents who don't enjoy wine with their meals. It's just not part of their culture and, in my opinion, their lives are poorer for it.
How do we educate our children to develop a healthy, responsible relationship with wine? The obvious answer is to set an example by bringing the culture of wine into the home. My own young children don't drink wine; they don't even want to. And that's fine with me. But they see a wine bottle on the dining room table every night. When their palates and bodies are mature, I'm sure they will also enjoy a "complete" meal at dinnertime, one that includes wine.
When it comes to setting an example for young people, you would think Napa Valley's vintners would be on the cutting edge. Yet I was surprised to note the absence of young people at last June's Napa Valley Wine Auction, a four-day celebration of America's fast-growing wine culture. No one under 21 was allowed to attend any of the dozens of auction hospitality events -- which included family-style dinners at family-owned wineries.
"Our kids used to always come to the auction," complained Janet Trefethen, of Trefethen Vineyards. "Until three years ago, we could at least bring them to the lot preview." The lot preview features artfully displayed large bottles, paintings and other wine paraphernalia to be auctioned off. It also offers a casual outdoor buffet luncheon and live music.
So Trefethen and several other vintner parents organized a Saturday morning kids-only magic show on the lot preview sight at Far Niente Winery. The segregated affair only heightened the feeling that a wine lifestyle was for adults only.
It's not. My 8-year-old daughter, Skye, was born in the middle of harvest 1989, when I was working at a winery in New York. Much to my wife's dismay, I left the hospital shortly after the birth to go on bird patrol. It was my turn to run up and down the vineyard rows scaring hungry birds away from our nearly ripe crop of grapes.
Skye spent her early years scampering around the vineyard and winery I worked at. She understands that wine is more than an alcoholic beverage. It's an important part of our family's lifestyle, just as it is among families in Napa Valley. How will the next generation of Napa vintners understand the promotional -- and educational -- aspects of their own wine culture if they are excluded from attending wine events?
Children of winemakers often help their parents, particularly at harvest time, by cleaning tanks and barrels, picking grapes and hauling hoses. These hard-working minors' efforts are currently rewarded -- at least in Napa Valley -- by their exclusion from the fun: the dancing, talking, laughing and eating that are so much a part of any celebration.
The auction "kid ban" is sadly prompted by exaggerated legal concerns in a hyper-litigious world, where lawsuit phobia is chipping away at the social fabric of American wine culture.
"Today people are so paranoid about alcohol, that we're losing continuity," said lawyer and vintner Frank Farella, of Farella-Park Vineyards in Napa Valley. "I made wine with my [Italian] grandfather from the age of 8," he recalled. "It was a bonding elixir."
Ellen Russell, auction director for the Napa Valley Wine Auction, says that the present policy regarding minors has been in effect since the auction's inception 17 years ago. "Enforcement became more serious three years ago," she explained, but denied it was a result of legal paranoia or insurance considerations. She said that a majority of attending consumers polled had expressed a preference to keep the auction an "adult affair."
That's too bad. Those same consumers can just as easily stay home and attend "adult" wine auctions. When they come to wine country, they have an opportunity to connect intimately with the wine country lifestyle -- as it really exists, not as they imagine it to be.
Two years ago, I attended the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association's annual Harvest Celebration, which took place at Firestone Vineyard. The highlight of the event was the "Parade of the Scarecrows," for which each of the 30-plus wineries created a scarecrow effigy hoisted by winemakers and many of their costumed children. The message was clear, and Napa Valley's own Robert Mondavi has said it loudly many times: "Wine is really a focal point for the family."
Let's face it, having children at any event makes things a bit complicated. Squealing babies might offend some wine auction bidders, but such is life. Other youngsters and responsible teenagers would hardly upset the dynamic.
Those lawyers and insurance execs who buy wine -- or vineyards -- should be ashamed that fallout from their professions is fragmenting the family lifestyle of the very people whose hard work is cause for celebration.
Perhaps those same lawyers can find a solution. Let them use their creative doublespeak to formulate some kind of disclaimer that would lessen the legal and financial risks for wineries who permit minors to attend their social functions.
I'm not suggesting that minors drink wine. But I do think it's time to include winemakers' children -- and other children as well -- as full-fledged members of the wine communities they live in. They are not second-class citizens; they are the future of wine. It is these vintners-to-be who will some day bring beer and soda-swigging Generation X-ers into the wine fold, helping to create a true American wine culture.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, will feature the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.