Wine on Instagram used to look like a glass of white held over a bubble bath and a Boomerang of you cheers-ing in the air. It was cheeky prosecco with the girlies or steaming cups of mulled wine in Europe. Unless you were in a particular corner of the digital world, the detail behind the glass or the bottle itself often didn’t matter as much as the communion of drinking and the knowing, shared experience of getting tipsy after a long day.
But the way many people see wine has shifted. Funky, natural wines have risen in popularity and orange wine has gone from curiosity to mainstay. The bottle is as much a feature as the wine itself and your mates who previously drank solely IPAs have started talking seriously about maceration and sulphur dioxide. The old image of wine on social media is still there – in Instagram stories and wine mum memes on Facebook – but a new, aesthetically and environmentally conscious wine consumer has taken hold. Their birthplace, more than anywhere else, was Instagram.
The stereotyped wine drinker, culturally, has fallen into two buckets: the 'don't care what it is as long as it's in my glass' drinker and the fusty, snobby drinker with exacting standards. These have developed in tandem, thanks to the way wine has been introduced.
Historically, wine was a very elitist drink, says Andrew Misell, director for Wales at Alcohol Change. Unlike beer, which has been available from alehouses and pubs for centuries, wine had to be imported and was the preserve of the rich and powerful for a long time. "And when wine started to become popular in this country in the 1960s," says Andrew, "it was a very high-status product and very expensive."
This shifted as wine became more available and therefore cheaper. Although elitism around higher-end wine continued, there was also an entry point for the average person (particularly the average woman) to consume it. Wine became the drink of the home and the homemaker, gendering the beverage and leading to the idea – with which many of us subconsciously grew up – that wine is for girls and beer is for boys.
This led to the split in how wine is seen. There are the 'proper' wine drinkers, sometimes women, who understand the alienating language and have a legitimised interest thanks to the previously established elitism; and then there are the rest of the wine drinkers, often women, who the proper wine drinkers would push against in a pungent mix of sexism and snobbery.
There has, however, been a shift in the wine world, which has sped up dramatically in the pandemic. "Instagram has completely democratised the way people drink wine," says Hannah Crosbie, a wine writer and the founder of Dalston Wine Club. Thanks to the number of wine writers, importers and passionate wine people sharing notes about tasting and the winemaking process, the previously closed-off, secret language of wine is opening up. And the digestibility of Instagram as a primarily visual platform makes otherwise alien concepts much easier to understand. "More young people than ever," says Hannah, "are getting involved and using their language to translate what was the old, fusty language of old-guard wine into something much more palatable."
Brodie Meah, cofounder of the restaurant and natural wine retailer Top Cuvée, echoes this, saying that followers are "not as shy to reach out and DM and have a more personalised conversation, whereas in a restaurant you're normally talking to a group at a table."
Orange wine in particular has piqued the interest of those who otherwise knew nothing about wine, growing in popularity over 2020 and 2021. As Hannah puts it: "Discovering wine could be orange was a really good segue into learning more about wine. You’d ask yourself: Why is the wine orange? If it's not made of oranges how does it get the colour? What's maceration? How does the kind of grape factor in?" That leads to more and more questions.
In a similar way, the rise of natural wine in part stems from people beginning to think more about what they are consuming under lockdown, with the natural wine movement encouraging people to drink less and drink better. This argument rests on the fact that the grapes are not only organic but also fermented and aged with varying degrees of lower intervention processes, particularly using low or no sulphur dioxide. With this comes the promise of the wine being more environmentally friendly and in theory better for you, with some even claiming (perhaps falsely) that natural wine frees you from hangovers.
Natural wine is particularly appealing for younger generations, says Claire Lancaster, a senior strategist in the food and drinks team at trend forecaster WGSN. As we all become more aware of food and drink production and the impact of seasonality, it brings up questions about how wine is made. When natural wine producers remove all the controls that produce consistency in wine, "you get these really funky, interesting, inconsistent flavours that people are unfamiliar with," says Claire. "The wines are not created in the same way and that storytelling element is really appealing to millennials and Gen Z." Even the palette has more generational appeal, as the fermented funkiness of natural wines is far more familiar to younger consumers who have grown up with more global consumption patterns.
It helps of course that these wines are all so aesthetically appealing. The world of natural wine has a particular visual language that stands in contrast to traditional wine labels, which is in part due to the nature of the wine itself.
Sophia Longhi, a wine writer and teacher who goes by @skinandpulp on Instagram, says that natural wines "by their very nature are a little rebellious and avant-garde. They’re usually from regions that aren’t bound by traditions and rules so they can afford to be much more creative with their labelling." This all plays perfectly on Instagram, where image is king.
Bold illustration, unusual typography, playful shapes and striking colour palettes may have been relatively uncommon in wine but they’re far from new to the drinks world. You can see the parallels between natural wine and craft beer. Sophy Hollington, an artist who worked on the psychedelic pagan goose label for Top Cuvée’s mulled wine, sees a clear line between the two.
"When it comes to packaging design, independent winemakers now seem to be following in the footsteps of their craft ale brothers and sisters in taking a really liberal approach to what can go on a label. There seems to be a shrugging off of fusty wine snobbery and a new, younger audience of drinkers are embracing an aesthetic that reflects the sense of fun and rebellion found in the natural methods of winemaking."
The aesthetic mirroring only underlines the story coded into a bottle of natural wine. "The packaging communicates a certain ethos that's associated with a certain graphic design style, colour palette, typography," says Claire. "Natural wine’s label art is really benefiting from this conflation of what's natural and what's authentic. The small producers, the independent wineries and unique artists – it's all tapping into that same exact interest."
All these different pieces – the story behind the wine, the interesting colour or organic credentials, the deliberately eye-catching artwork – are coded into the new aesthetic of wine on Instagram. It exists separately from the overexcited chugging of cheap bottles in your early 20s and the more florid overconsumption of older generations and has become another part of a curated life, the kind that thrives on Instagram. In some instances it even works as a prop, settling into #shelfies and amid tablescapes.
As Sophia says: "Wine [on Instagram] has undoubtedly become part of the 'aspirational lifestyle' and spending more on a trophy bottle goes hand in hand with that image. Perhaps, even more than what the bottle costs, it’s about what your chosen wine says about you." Claire puts it more bluntly, calling it a form of 'virtue signalling'. "It's like the drink equivalent of one of those New Yorker tote bags. It says everything it needs to say about a person in one shot. It's a very layered choice."
That showing yourself to be enjoying exciting, natural wines is read so positively can be attributed in part to an influx of male interest. Hannah points to Action Bronson’s foray into natural wine as critical to its recent popularity. "He really brought it to the masses and I think because he's such a hypermasculine, interesting guy he empowered a lot of men to drink wine for the first time. As soon as men felt comfortable drinking wine, they realised the fallacy of 'beer for boys, wine for girls'. Once you've conquered that other 50% of the population, it only grew from there."
Democratising the world of wine for everyone, as well as encouraging explorations of new forms of wine, is only a good thing but there is potential for new iterations of elitism to emerge. After all, there’s still a snobbery about having a cheeky prosecco with the girls. The health halo that comes from calling something ‘natural’ can lead to an unnecessary binary between ‘good’ natural wine and ‘bad’ wine that hasn’t labelled itself as natural. But as Hannah points out, based on her work with a fine wine importer: "Any winemaker that is worth their salt isn't going to add shitloads of sulphur to the end recipe. They aren't going to add loads of herbicides and pesticides. Some of the greatest burgundy domains don't use herbicides or pesticides but they wouldn't call themselves natural wines."
Then of course there are the similarities with the discourse around slow fashion and even veganism. Many people will want to opt for the product that is better for the environment and workers but simply can’t afford it.
Perhaps most important of all, the positive credentials and aesthetic aspirations in this new world of wine can elide the fundamental fact that all alcohol is alcohol.
"The most important thing about any alcoholic drink," says Andrew, "in terms of what this is going to do to you physically and mentally, is the alcoholic strength of the drink and how much of it you have. A bottle of organic wine with an ABV of 15% is going to do more damage than a wine that has been grown on a non-organic farm that has an ABV of 10%."
Happily, as this new vision of wine as aesthetic emerges, so too does the movement to drink less but drink better – a net good not only for your liver but also, arguably, for the wine producers themselves. It’s just a plus that when posted on the grid, what you drink can also tell the world who you are and what you care about. Chin chin.