Where Wine and School Lunch Collide

Why winemakers should care what kids eat

In her Everyday Guide to Wine course Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan uses crayons as an analogy for developing sensory perception. As a kid, you start with the box of eight; when you’re a little older and more dexterous, you step up to 16 then 32; eventually, you reach the apex of Crayola’s 120-Crayon box. Understanding wine, Simonetti-Bryan says, is similar: begin with the noble grape varieties, then start tasting less common varietals as your perception of flavor nuance grows.

The analogy highlights the fact that there is no childhood equivalent of crayons for flavors. Kids eat what they’re given, which depends on family socioeconomic status, stability, lifestyle and location. There is plenty of noise about ‘healthy’ eating (also context-dependent) but I cannot for the life of me recall any public campaigns to teach children how to enjoy food – or adults for that matter.

This cast a new light on winemaker David Adelsheim’s question: “Who will our customer be when Baby Boomers die? In the US, they made fine wine important to life. Are people in their 30s or 40s are going to spend money on wine?” The founder of Adelsheim Vineyard, which marks its 50th anniversary in 2021, is right to be preoccupied.

Maybe the challenge of marketing fine wine to under-40s in the United States is rooted in what they ate as kids.

Photo by Nagesh Badu on Unsplash

Born between 1946-1964, Baby Boomers, grew up amidst the post-World War II processed food revolution. It was the last generation routinely fed meals cooked on a stove before the microwave made its way into private homes starting in the late ‘60s. It was the last generation whose parents were raised with minimal access to processed foods. It was the generation born alongside agribusiness, a term coined in 1955, and McDonald’s, also founded that year.

The National Women’s History Museum notes that in the 1950s: “Processed foods, easily and quickly assembled into meals using electric appliances, became standard fare.” Boomers thus had the dubious privilege of being the first generation to learn that food comes in cans and boxes. Yet, through their parents and grandparents, they were exposed to older food traditions.

It would be irresponsible to treat Boomers, or any generation, as an entity. Socioeconomic, ethnic and regional variations trump categorization. There are observable facts though, like the absence of microwaves from home kitchens. Another way to gauge generational relationships to food is by what is available and what they eat.

Every generation since World War II has been born into a culture dominated by convenience food, fast food, processed and ultra-processed food. For example, McDonald’s had around 1,000 restaurants in 1970; it now has 14,000 in the United States. The 10 most widespread fast-food franchises boast around 100,000 locations between them.

Every generation since the Boomers has also been born into an increasingly stratified society where access to a variety of quality food – like access to health care, education and job opportunities – is a privilege.

Food deserts, defined by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as low-income areas with a “substantial number or share of residents with low levels of access to retail outlets selling healthy and affordable foods,” are embarrassingly commonplace. According the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition between 35.2 million and 83.5 million people – 5.6-17.7% of the US population – have “limited access to a store.” Non-whites are 30% more likely than whites to live in a food desert.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to parse the overlap between food deserts and fast food but, from my experience of cities and poor rural areas, ‘deserts’ often support a thriving ecosystem of burger joints, pizza places, fried chicken outlets and gas station convenience stores.

Does this matter? What do lower income citizens have to do with fine wine anyway?

It matters because the overwhelming majority of the United States population is not wealthy. Middle and upper-middle class incomes are offset by lifestyle expenses which, these days, are less luxuries than necessities. A Super Money report found the inflation-adjusted annual income of 25-34-year-olds grew by $29 since 1974. In the same period, median house prices rose 39%, or more than $125,000. Meanwhile, average health care expenditure has increased by $9,000 and education costs have doubled. Even a highly educated, model Millennial with a well-paid job has serious limitations on their disposable income compared to previous generations.

‘Poor’ is relative. And an ever-greater proportion of the US population is ‘poor’ in terms of disposable income, even those in the theoretical middle or upper-middle classes.

As the food desert data shows, class plays a significant role in food access. It is less good at moderating the effects of the United States’ national sugar addiction.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services the average citizen eats 152 pounds (69kg) of sugar annually, up from 123 pounds (55kg) in 1970. So, in Adelshiem Vineyard’s lifetime, its potential customer’s sugar intake has increased by about 25%. And almost 40% of that sugar is in beverages.

Dry wine tops out at 17 grams of residual sugar per liter versus 100g of sugar per liter in Coca Cola and 90g/l in a Starbucks Coffee Frappuccino. Supposing people can afford wine, will they find it palatable?

Sugar is the enemy of taste. A 2016 study on added sugar in soft drinks found consumers rejected the beverage after a 3.3% sugar cut. Yet the average purveyor of fine wine must ask consumers to enjoy a tipple with around 80% less sugar than their routine drinks.

Photo courtesy Adelsheim Vineyard

This is a sensory challenge, not an intellectual one. However alluring and luxurious wine is made to appear, people won’t drink it – much less pay a premium – if they don’t like the flavor. They may choke down a glass of sparkling at a wedding, or strain a Burgundy through gritted teeth for an occasion dinner, but they aren’t going to habitually buy and consume a product that offends their taste buds.

The problem is, by the time people are old enough to drink alcohol, they have 20 years of sugar consumption standing between them and the ability to appreciate flavor nuances. The solution, as suggested by Simonetti-Bryan’s color analogy, is to give flavor education its rightful place in child development.

By 2010, 60% of calories in the average US daily diet came from ultra-processed foods. These are comestibles that bear only the faintest of resemblance to food that came out of the ground or off a tree. How is a Millennial going to appreciate the cherry notes of a Pinot Noir if their main exposure to ‘cherries’ is cough syrup or candy? How can someone raised on $1 McDonald’s apple pies savor the green apple tang of a cool climate Chardonnay?

Fighting the tide of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup is a Cuchulain-like endeavor; arguably energy ill-spent. But, if Coca-Cola can sponsor school programs, why not wineries? Hark, the puritan cry (amplified by soft drink marketing campaigns): they’re encouraging children to drink alcohol!

No problem. Never mention wine or promote alcohol. There is no need. Flavor education can be as simple as having kids play with real food: fruits, vegetables, nuts, meat, herbs and spices. Let them taste, combine, season and compete to see who can tell sage from dill, who can divine the difference between cinnamon and nutmeg, who can distinguish a peach from a nectarine.

Lessons could be designed to allow kids to experience a variety of flavors and experiment to understand how their palates respond to sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.

The point is not to teach them to like wine, but to teach them to care about flavor. The goal is to save them from burning out their palates on sugar and artificial flavors before they’re old enough to make informed choices.

Imagine if other sensory skills were treated like flavor appreciation. Would you blast EDM at kids then demand they appreciate Mozart? Or shine a Kleig light in their faces before asking them to assess Vermeer?

The good news is sugar-stunned palates can be restored. Loss of taste can be reversed. Researchers in a 2015 study found that after a two-week hiatus from sugar and artificial sweeteners, 95% of subjects found sweetened foods and drinks “too sweet” and 75% found that naturally sweet foods like apples and carrots “tasted sweeter.”

If children were introduced to foods like apples and carrots in sessions that encouraged them to discuss and have fun with food, their knowledge and appreciation would grow. It might just reduce the appeal of Dr Pepper and PopTarts.

Even if kids still preferred sugary processed foods they would know alternatives exist. Alternatives that, with age and ability to make their own food choices, they might seek out.

What do you think? Should flavor education be part of a general education? Why or why not?

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