When I was thirteen, I broke up with Jewish Holiday Wine.
Our relationship was short-lived—up until that age I had only been allowed several drops when prompted by a suitable adult (well, rabbi). It was Passover 1998 and my mom, dad, sister, and I were spending the haroset-filled holiday alongside another Jewish family. In this phase of early adolescence, I had the attention span of a goldfish. However, as we sat around the dinner table reading the Haggadah aloud, my inquisitive nature was sparked at the prayer book’s persisting encouragement to drink from our cups. So drink from my cup, I did. In an attempt to embrace my newfound post-Bat Mitzvah’ed maturity, my sips turned to chugs. The grapey concentrate tasted of berries and confusion. In what felt like a few fuzzy moments, I found myself face down on the couch. I was certain I had time traveled. I was wrong. Apparently the intoxicating potion had gone straight to my tiny head and in a matter of minutes—I had gone straight from Seder to sofa.
I swore I would never touch the stuff again. I was wrong.
Although I grew up to be a food writer and restaurant reviewer who would eventually publish a cookbook under Rachael Ray’s imprint, it’s only recently that I’ve developed a sincere appreciation for wine. My college years consisted of corndogs and Coors Light, and I know I am not the only millennial that has journeyed from a wine-disdain to wine-appreciation.
In exploring my tannin journey, I called upon two millennial friends—Katie and Kevin—who, like me, enjoy wine but tend to reach for beer. So what drives our decisions? And how have we, dare I say it, “aged” when it comes to wine choices?
Katie, a sports fanatic and recent grad school alumna, says it depends on the occasion. What kind of experience is she creating? If it’s a cozy Wednesday night featuring Netflix and homemade spaghetti—break out the red. But if we’re talking greasy cheeseburgers and all-day tailgating, it’s pints over stems.
Throughout my early twenties, wines of all kinds showed up and helped to shape my growing palate. I was in South Carolina with my Southern-as-could-be college roommate’s family. The little ones had been tucked in, and out came the chilled, clear bottles of Muscadine wine. I watched the ruby-colored stream splash into my glass. One sniff of the strawberry-scented, sugary juice and I thought this can’t be wine.
Curious if others had experienced a similar aversion to sweetness, I asked beer aficionado/nerd—Kevin—for his go-to grape. Although today he’s open to versatile varietals, that wasn’t always the case. I was surprised to find that in his early twenties, he leaned towards bright, semi-sweet flavors. His libation exploration progressed from mild to strong. Just as he advanced from lagers to ales to IPAs to browns and stouts, he worked his way up with wine as well. After a brief stint with Rieslings, Kevin moved onto lighter reds where he stumbled upon an enjoyment for partnering Pinots with hearty fare. After sipping his way through Italy on his recent honeymoon, Kevin’s thirties have introduced a fondness for bigger, bolder blends.
At 25, I began working at an Italian restaurant in Raleigh. At weekly wine tastings, a local sommelier would lead us through the newest bottles. My fascination for food was quickly emerging, and just as with the ingredients in a dish—I began to take notice of what gave each glass its personality. After spotting my humble curiosity, the owners took me under their wing and eventually out to dinner. Once the decadent order had been placed (this very meal also marked my first dance with foie gras), my new friends slid a profoundly rich goblet under my nose. Inside: a pale, lush liquid wafting the sultry aromas of licorice, rose, and tar.
Soon after, I was living in Hollywood, California with a Trader Joe’s around the corner. Their offerings were a few steps down from my Nebbiolo-inspired love affair, but the costs were practical and the experiment amusing. The witty descriptions and animated labels caught my eye, and I would spend hours buzzing from one jug to the next. When I shared this with Katie, she also admitted to swooning over vibrant brands with hip designs. I guess marketing is magical after all. But after repeated trial and error, I found that most reasonably priced bottles (graphically entertaining or not) didn’t stand up to my whimsical cuisine and felt weak on my tongue. I found myself thinking that maybe $6.99 was only okay for organic heirloom tomatoes by the pound, and I vowed from that point on to raise my expectations, and my price range.
Graduating from TJ’s two-buck Chuck to a $10 mellow Pinot, Katie’s flexibility for palatable spending has also amplified with age. But whether she’s sipping alone or with friends, she doesn’t let circumstance change the bill. As for Kevin, he’s willing to dish out a bit more, up to $25, when special events arise.
While Katie and I may be shopping in the same store, we’re eyeing different sections. Just as with food, I’ve come to find that my palate prefers a punch. Determined to never again run into a bland bottle, I began to use the phrase “kick me in the mouth” to describe the wine of my pursuit. California Cabs became my unwavering staple, but I soon encountered Zinfandels and acidic red blends that offered the robust intensity I was after. Katie shared that, today, she’s more likely to select wine in an elegant social environment (weddings and dinner parties) whereas Kevin breaks out the bottle for personal occasions—i.e. date night or anniversary dinners. All three of us proudly confess to confiding in those around us—family members, servers, sommeliers—when we need a helping hand.
Once I had a clear understanding of which characteristics suited my senses, selecting the right varietal became gratifying. It also became a recurrent habit. With less of a challenge, I found myself reaching for reds and whites more often than expected. Now in my present-day kitchen, wine makes a weekly appearance. My boyfriend Tony had such a passion for pursuing novel bottles (and his drinking credentials) that before I knew it, we were signed up for a monthly wine club. After filling out a short, six-question profile of our preferences, Club W delivered three exceptional wines to our doorstep. One year later, and we’ve learned more about our taste buds, and coincidently expanded our palates and minds.
After musing my drinking history, and that of my friends, I’ve come to this conclusion: we’re all ultimately looking for the satisfaction of self-growth. Whether it’s craft brews, rare wines, tacos or tofu—the fun is in figuring out the flavors for ourselves. We each have distinctive puzzle pieces on our path, but the end goal is the same: creating a fulfilling picture.
It’s the interactive experience millennials are after, and the truth is that many of us have gotten here with a jumpstart from beer. So yes, we may reach for a hoppy West Coast IPA over a cherry-scented Grenache, but don’t write us off just yet. We’re still discovering our place in the wine world.