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Satay, Chardonnay, and Why Wine Does Not Have An "Old People Problem"
What the pairing of Indonesian skewers and low-end Burgundy can teach us about the real reason why California wine is struggling.
The other night, I had dinner at one of my favorites in Philadelphia, D'jakarta Cafe, a neighborhood Indonesian spot that sits on a quiet corner in Italian South Philly. D'jakarta Cafe is BYO and so I brought along a few bottles of what I believe to be the best pairing with real satay: affordable chardonnay from Burgundy.
I say “real” satay only to distinguish what you get in a good Indonesian restaurant from the middling satay familiar to most Americans. Satay, in 2023, is such a middlebrow staple of American food culture that there’s rarely a wedding or other catered event that doesn’t feature some kind of bland chicken-breast-on-a-stick appetizer served with peanut sauce. Satay is so mainstream and taken for granted that, when you actually taste a bite of the real thing, the experience can be surprising and transcendent.
What makes satay more than just banal chicken skewers is, like most things, ingredients and technique. You use chicken thighs (not breasts) marinaded in kecap manis, a sweetened soy sauce, along with lime and black pepper. You take your time over a charcoal grill, slathering the skewers in sauce several times during the process, caramelizing layer after layer. The real “peanut sauce” is probably a complex, spicy family recipe, with more kecap manis, tamarind, onions, chilies (or other secret ingredients) mixed with the peanuts. Click here for an amazing satay recipe if you want to do it at home.
Since Philadelphia has one of the largest Indonesian populations in the U.S., there are several beloved satay stops here. The most famous is a wonderful, humble, long-time favorite called Hardena , a recent James Beard award semifinalist. A few years ago, I interviewed the owner of D'jakarta Cafe, Alfriti Ho, who immigrated to Philly with her family as a teenager, and who opened her restaurant in 2017. Ho told me, “People used to ask, ‘Where are you from?’ and when I said ‘Indonesia,’ they asked: ‘Where is Indonesia?’” She continued: “I could see people were scared to try our food because they weren’t familiar with it.” Satay was a natural bridge to the cuisine. “How can you go wrong with grilled chicken?” Ho said. “This neighborhood is very Italian. I see some of my neighbors speaking Italian. But they come in here and they’re not afraid to try Indonesian food.”
So why am I talking about satay today? Well, I think good satay in Philadelphia (and what pairs with it) offers a good lesson for the American wine industry—at least as the industry was described by Eric Asimov in the New York Times a few days ago in his article “The American Wine Industry Has an Old People Problem.” Asimov’s piece looks at this year’s State of the U.S. Wine Industry Report, published by Silicon Valley Bank:
The state of the American wine industry is grim, according to a closely watched report that annually analyzes its trajectory. Winemakers and advertisers are missing out on younger consumers, the report says, by failing to produce wines that fit their budgets and neglecting to reach out to them with targeted marketing campaigns.
The report’s author, Rob McMillan, has been telling the industry for years that younger generations are buying less wine. In this year’s report, he asserts that people under 60 years old are even less interested in buying wine today than they were in 2007. “It’s worse than I thought,” McMillan said to the Times. “I thought we would have made some progress with under-60s. I’ve been talking about this problem for seven years and we still haven’t reacted.”
All of this overheated talk is somewhat “sky is falling.” For U.S. wine consumers, there’s essentially a line in the sand: 15 bucks. Above that is what the industry calls “premium wines,” and those sales are relatively robust. Below that price point is a vast ocean of American mass-market wines—and sales of these lousy wines are in decline. That’s apparently the worry. But why? Why is the industry so worried about the decline of garbage wines? I mean, boohoo, right?
Now, I know certain industry people will cry, “But those are…starter wines!” I addressed this point back in October when I questioned the industry’s use of “starter” or “entry-level” as euphemisms for garbage wine. The false idea being that younger drinkers with less developed palates will begin drinking these bad wines and then evolve, as they get older, to consuming more sophisticated, higher-end beverages. This is a “truthy” but ultimately bogus concept. There is no conclusive marketing study that backs up any of this. The same percentage of people would be just as likely to move to high-end Burgundy from kombucha or juice boxes or frappuccinos. If wine has an “old people problem” it’s simply because old people still buy the industry’s starter wines.
McMillan, in his report last year, called out “the decline of entry-level wine” as a major problem facing the industry. He noted that the price of so-called “entry-level” wine has stagnated in the $9 to $11.99 range for more than a decade:
“The wine industry has allowed the lower-priced entry-level wines to be produced without transparency as to ingredients and in a homogenous and uninteresting way that’s unlikely to appeal to those young consumers who want to drink better and drink less today.”
McMillan’s point was that, at around $10 to $12, the consumer has a lot of other interesting, exciting beverage choices that are not wine: craft beer, cider, hard seltzer, or even a $40-50 bottle of spirits that might be consumed in several sessions over the course of a month. The race to the bottom for branded, cheap wine has led to a bunch of bad, sweet, over-oaked offerings with lots of artifice and additives that don’t appeal to a younger generation of drinkers.
So, what to do? The New York Times article gives voice to the idea that “better marketing” is the answer: American wineries should be selling young people wine in cans, or aping the language of natural wine, or the pitching the idea of certain wines being “healthier” than others. Ahem. This is the type of wine discussion that makes me want to scream. Because no one in the American wine industry ever suggests the most obvious solution: Just make better fucking everyday wine and sell it for a reasonable fucking price.
Sorry for being so salty about this tiresome discussion. So let’s go dip back to my pairing of Indonesian satay and inexpensive white Burgundy. The first lesson of this pairing is what Alfriti Ho of D'jakarta Cafe said about her food:
“I could see people scared to try our food because they weren’t familiar with it.” Satay was a natural bridge to the cuisine. “How can you go wrong with grilled chicken?” Ho said. “This neighborhood is very Italian. I see some of my neighbors speaking Italian. But they come in here and they’re not afraid to try Indonesian food.”
Instead of coming up with shortcuts and workarounds and compromises and gimmicks, perhaps the American wine industry could just focus on something people know well. And also something they grow well, and grow at a large scale, and could likewise be a bridge to fine wine. Let’s just look at—oh, I don’t know—chardonnay? What’s more divisive in our current wine culture than chardonnay? Why does American chardonnay have to be so consistently terrible? At the same time, why does decent chardonnay have to cost over $40 per bottle?
Or, perhaps more apt for my point: Why does the American wine industry keep producing chardonnay that is the equivalent of a sad catering satay of dry, rubbery, tasteless chicken breast doused in a bland Skippy peanut butter sauce? We know that there’s a better way to make chardonnay. Why does it cost that much more to make it in California?
I admit, I’ve never been a chardonnay fan. But lately, I’ve been drinking a lot of low-end Burgundy chardonnay. In fact, I might even venture to say that low-end Burgundy might be some of the best value whites in the world right now. This admission may be ironic since, over the past year, I’ve been using “white Burgundy” as a hobby horse for my rants against rising white-wine prices.
To be clear, I’m talking here about a specific slice of Burgundy. As a region, Burgundy might be complicated, but the wines I’m talking about are not complicated at all. Basically, you’re looking for white wines from Mâconnais, Burgundy’s southernmost region, right where it butts up against Beaujolais. Look for appellations such as Mâcon-Villages, Viré Clessé, or Saint Véran (which once was known as Beaujolais Blanc). Or look for Mâcon + a specific village, such as Mâcon-Péronne, Mâcon-Lugny, or Mâcon-Prissé. 2021 is considered to be an excellent vintage in Mâconnais.
Mâconnais wines are perfect for anyone who wants to remember why people ever liked chardonnay in the first place. They’re aged mostly in stainless steel, and are rarely oaky. They’re not the acid bombs that certain sommelier-approved lists are full of, but they generally have plenty of good acidity. Their balance of zing and fleshy fruit ends up pairing really well with a lot of different foods. (Such as real Indonesian satay; again the link if you want to make it at home).
Most notable is the price. Good wine shops always have a handful of these wines, selling for between $17 and $24. News flash: This is a good price for good wine. Josh Cellars Chardonnay costs over $13, so please stop telling me that these so-called “starter wines” are actually competing on price. And please stop using the excuse of how expensive it is to make wine in California. Somehow, in Burgundy, they make the world’s most expensive white wines—and still are able to make very good ones for under $20.
Why not steer this young generation of wine drinkers—the ones that the industry sees as a “problem”—towards good-value wines like $17 Burgundy? Maybe these kids are already smarter than their parents and grandparents and they’re not interested in “starter” wines. Maybe they already understand, at a young age, that $11.99 is not a reasonable price for a good wine. Maybe these kids already know the difference between real and poor satay.
The idea of the wine industry blaming its problems on young people is ridiculous. I have friends aged 25, 35, 45, 55, 65, 75, and 85 that love good-value wine and are willing to pay $15-$25, and much more. Hey, wine industry, these are your customers! They’re not defined by age! You just need to normalize making good wines for solid prices.
Budget Burgundy: Five For the Win
Mâconnais, Burgundy’s southernmost region, is where to look for good-value chardonnay (with little or no oak) that puts similarly-priced American chards to shame. Look for appellations such as Mâcon-Villages, Saint Véran, and Viré Clessé. Or look for Mâcon + a specific village, such as Mâcon-Péronne, Mâcon-Lugny, or Mâcon-Prissé. 2021 is considered to be an excellent vintage in Mâconnais.
Peachy, fresh, and bright, with notes of the entire stone fruit: flesh, skin, and blossom. Has elements that American chardonnay fans will recognize, but the underlying herbal notes and juicy acidity make it something else entirely. Aged 80 percent in stainless steel, 20 percent in oak.
Fruity, flinty, floral, and seamless. Aromas and flavors or ripe pear, white blossom, and a long mineral finish. Aged in stainless steel.
Juicy and opulent, with aromas of orchard fruit, chamomile, and honey, and a fresh palate of lemon and herb, expansive at midpalate, with underlying saltiness through the finish. Aged in stainless steel.
I dislike the adjective “crushable”… but this is that. Fresh and vibrant, with yellow apple, ginger, and pretty white blossoms on the nose and lime zest, lemon curd, and a hint of something tropical, with a crisp, mineral finish. Aged in stainless steel.
Super lively and bright, with aromas of ripe pineapple, white blossom, and nutmeg, and flavors of mango, apricot, and melon—all balanced by great acidity and minerality. Aged in stainless steel.