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Metro Pulse Wine for the "Whine" Generation

The Wine Brats are attempting to in Gen-Xers over to the wily ways of wine.

By Hillari Dowdle

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  It's only Thursday night, but the clubhouse at Eagle Point III—one of the many cookie-cutter pseudo-upscale apartment complexes spreading like a bad rash across West Knoxville—is hopping. Here, there, everywhere, incongruous groups of young people mill around meeting and greeting, having been lured here by a mutual interest: wine.

They're like a cross section of Gen-X Knoxville, this crowd. Frat daddies, young suburban professionals, night clubbers, intellectual brooders, swinging singles, goth posers, and even starter parents—they're all here, playing nice together for the sake of learning more about the drink that Benjamin Franklin so famously cited as "proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy."

The focal point of the room is not the big stone fireplace, or the kitchenette bar laden with appetizers, or even the pool table—it's a brightly lit, fold-up table displaying the night's pouring potables, an array of 12 wines that run the gamut from a super-sweet peach, mango, and raspberry zinfandel to a leathery cabernet sauvignon, with a little of everything in between.

The wines are gratis, this evening, courtesy of Knoxville's wine distributors, representatives of which are doing the pouring. They're here hoping to earn the devotion of a segment of the U.S. wine-buying market that was until recently nearly ignored—the group of 21-to-36-year-olds less-than-affectionately known as "Generation X." Their emissary is a 34-year-old nuclear engineer and studied wine enthusiast named Paul Cakanic, the man responsible for this evening's main event: the launching of the Knoxville chapter of the Wine Brats.

Founded in California in 1993 by a group of children of Sonoma Valley winery heirs, the Wine Brats exist to proselytize on behalf of the fermented grape, to beseech their would-be 21-to-36 year-old apostles to turn away from the false idols of beer, tequila, and Jagermeister, and follow instead the more civilized, sophisticated, Epicurean, and altogether more grown-up gospel of wine. It's a message, it seems, that Gen Xers are ready to hear—in five short years, the Wine Brats have attracted quite a following, more than 10,000 members in 32 chapters across the United States.

Having stumbled upon an article about the Brats in USA Today, Paul Cakanic knew it would be his destiny to bring the good word to Knoxville. "I'd wanted to start my own wine society for a while," he explains. "Nothing against the wine society they have here, but it's pretty exclusive; it intimidates a lot of people. A lot of friends of mine would never join the wine society.

"Then I read about the Wine Brats tasting wines with food, and making it very, very fun. So I called them."

It's easy to see that Cakanic would; he's a self-starting type guy with energy to spare. And it's equally easy to see, as he zooms around the room in an attempt to meet everyone in attendance and drop pearls of wisdom hither and yon, that he's just the kind of charismatic force that can usher such an entity into Knoxvillian existence. Into each outstretched hand, he presses a flyer for the next gathering, the first "official" Wine Brats event, a tasting of Australian Rosemount wines to be held at B & T Distributing. It will cost money, he explains; tonight's freebie is only to generate interest. But at $15, even the most impoverished slacker can afford to attend. As he whizzes onward into the crowd, he exhorts those in attendance to, "Enjoy yourself! Have fun!" And they smile over the rims of their glasses ever more warmly, and nod. Clearly, he's preaching to the choir.

One month later, the Brats find themselves installed in at fluorescent-lit conference room, sitting around a U-shaped table and awaiting the next pour. Already, four different Rosemount wines—a traminer/Riesling, a sauvignon blanc, a semillion/chardonnay, and a chardonnay straight up—have been poured in the 30 or so glasses of the Brats in attendance. What with stationary seating around the conference table, there's much less mixing and mingling at this tasting, but it's a lively atmosphere nonetheless. The Brats are busy debating the merits of each wine, and scoring them on the official Wine Brats scale: X = Good (pour more); XX = Very Good (pour lots more); or XXX = Awesome (give me the damn bottle!). No Xs awarded, the score sheet notes, Means It Sucks.

Theresa Gross, a leggy blonde, is clearly in her element. Having learned about the brats from a friend, the 26-year-old health-care administrator is here to forge new friendships, and learn more about wine. "Wine interests me," she explains. "I don't know that much about wine, and I'm open to learning. I've been drinking the same old drinks for years—dollar nights and all that—and it gets really, really old."

Gross thinks part of the Wine Brats appeal is that it offers a new way of drinking to the post-party crowd. "The parties I went to in college were just big beer fests," she says. "You know, throw down as much beer as you can at the cheapest price, and get really, really drunk. People don't come here to get drunk—they come to learn about wine, to feel that they're past the college scene. They're here to learn about wine and meet people and listen to some music. I love it that it's really laid back, and not stuffy."

Cakanic knows that lack of stuffiness is the key to the Wine Brats success; that's its the perception of stuffiness that have kept Gen Xers away from wine in droves. "When people see people on TV enjoying wines, the guy is always in a tux and the woman is in an evening dress, and the waiter comes in showing them a $600 bottle," he explains. "People think wine has to be expensive, and it has to be enjoyed only on a rare occasion. Or they're drinking it out of a box. There's very little middle ground."

At 40, Dean Jackson—a commercial training developer and wine consultant to ABC Package Store on Campbell Station Road—considers himself a Senior Brat. He's out of the demo in both age and taste (he's known for his ability to select the world's best Bordeaux), but as a good friend of Cakanic's, he's devoted much of his time and energy to getting the local Brats chapter up and running.

"The challenge is how can you have fun with wine and educate the 21-36 crowd on the enjoyment of wine without getting them bogged down into the bourgeois mentality of wine," he says. "You know, you have to drink it at right temperature, in the right glass, swirl it the right way, drink it with the right meal...We're trying to get people to understand that drinking wine doesn't have to be a picky, stuffy special event. Drink it out of a mason dry if you want to, just enjoy it."

Another thrust of the Wine Brats is teaching wine newbies about combining wine with food. "Wines can complement and enhance food, and flavors of wine can make food even better," explains self-proclaimed "wine geek" Chuck Crockett, 31, wine manager for Cedar Bluff Wine and Spirits. "When you match food and wines, and you get a really good match—and there are millions of good matches like Gewurztraminer and Asian food—it has this noticeable effect on the foods. When you get a really good match, it can open your eyes to what the fascination is really all about. When you start thinking about what you're eating with wine, and cooking for wine, that's when the wine obsession seems to really kick in."

Across the room, Cakanic is busy coaching a group of girls in their early 20s through the great beef experiment. As they swirl and sniff their Rosemount Grenache/Shiraz, a light and peppery red, he has them taste it, sample a bite of the roast beef on hand for this tasting occasion, then taste again. "Isn't that smoother?" he inquires, and they nod, astonished. "Red wine has tannins, which are astringent and give you that cottony mouth feeling. Fat cuts through tannins, they balance."

Aha! The great wine-food connection has been made, the Wine Brats' mission accomplished. Cakanic moves on, smiling. Again, he summarizes the Wine Brats raison d'Étre: "We're showing that you can drink wine and you don't get drunk, and have food and enjoy a good time with your friends," he says. "You don't have to get hammered, or anything like that—and you can still have fun."

"You don't have to save wine for a special occasion," he concludes with a feel-good message. "For me, every day is special."

All of which is not to say that the Wine Brats is not without its exploitive commercial angle—Gen-X outreach programs never are. Along the back wall of the B & T conference room lurk a half-dozen or more observers, representatives of wine stores and distributors who have a vested interest in seeing that the Brats move up en masse from Natural Light as their beverage of preference.

"Everyone has to start somewhere—I started with white zinfandel and now I'm into the heavy reds," says Cakanic, whose own tastes have progressed toward $300 bottles of Burgundy (and whose personal climate and humidity controlled wine cellar boasts 600 bottles of the stuff). "That's the ultimate investment: show them what wine is at a younger age, and they will be life-long wine drinkers. And when their tastes progress—and they do progress—they will buy fine wines, and at an earlier age. My friend Mike likes to say that if you can get folks drinking wine in their 20s, then you might have 20 more years of Lafitte Rothchild drinkers 20 years down the road."

For their part, the Brats themselves are unimpressed by this insidious marketing plan—they're used to it. If crass commercialism means cheap wine tastings, so be it. "Whatever," says Laura Smith, 32, in sum. "Just pour me some more of that Cabernet."

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