“Aging in.” It’s a seemingly immutable reality for modern wine marketing as a concept.

In a nutshell, the idea posits that fine wine — at least as it has existed in the market during our lifetime — requires cultural experience, intellectual investment, and refinement of taste to finally flip the switch of the proverbial lightbulb. For some, what starts as a romp with backyard kegs of cheap light beer, nightclub tequila shots, or hangover lord Boone’s Farm, eventually leads down the yellow brick road to a magical, moderated land of Rioja, Riesling, and Rhône.

And while the currently vexed network of wine hustlers attempts to stop the bleeding in the lower half of the market triggered by an overall generational shift in drinking preferences, another segment is about to find out just how the ongoing red alert will affect them.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

The structure of the global wine market exists — much like many consumer goods — in a familiar pyramid configuration. The aptly named bulk of production forms a ground floor and foundation in the manner of entry-level bottles, boxes, and jugs spread across its familiar seas of supermarket shelves, cooking wine, and “house” pours. As of late, it’s this vast ocean of offerings, typically $15 and under, that has seen the worst of the economic woes visited upon the wine world.

Scale up the edifice above this base, and premiumization has buffered the blow to some extent. With the exception of post-pandemic inventory drama continuing to crunch cash flow, many of these producers, generally $20 to $30 and up, are chugging along and more or less weathering the storm. The levee may have a few leaks, but it’s still holding against the tempest of a generational shift and neo-prohibitionism. Nonetheless, there remains a festering trepidation for the future and how to adapt to changing market realities in this middle ground.

But at the top, there’s the collector market, a storied, isolated realm populated by legendary bottlings, and for most of us, shrouded in mysterious intrigue.

What’s happening way up there? And what does the future hold for its hallowed halls during this turbulent era of massive change in the wine world? For most of our collective memory, this privileged club has been dominated by boomers. But with younger generations now gaining access, the wine industry is wondering: Will there be a paradigm shift in high-end collector mentality altogether?

Climbing the Wine Collector Ladder

In order to understand what will happen at the top, it’s critical to be cognizant of how folks find their way to it in the first place. If wine appreciation, in general, requires “aging in,” then the collector market recruits its elite federation via the additional filter of “climbing up.”

Like many true super-luxury products — and not the “new money” slap-a-name-on-a-gold-toilet sort, mind you — initiates are ushered through the educational gauntlet and guided to the gates by experienced elders. “Historically speaking, younger generations were never truly impactful on the ‘collectables’ market,” says Scott Torrence, owner of Chapter 4 Fine + Rare Supply, a private cellar consultancy and sales outfit in Los Angeles that caters to this lofty segment. “As the associate moved up through their career ladder or on to business ownership, they were often exposed to wines through their adjacent older colleagues.”

It’s a whittling down of potential buyers that limits the top echelon of the wine pyramid to the very select few, relatively speaking. Mike Zima, former New York sommelier and founder of curated luxury online retail and import outfit SommPicks, agrees with that viewpoint. “Most of our clients that get into it on the younger side are connected to it through knowledgeable older colleagues,” he says. “[And] restaurants play such a pivotal role in piquing the interest of future clients.”

“Who among us can predict where the influencer class will set their gaze next? Taste can be both collective and individual. Remember what the movie ‘Sideways’ did to the Merlot market?”

For anyone who has experienced the savage reality of on-premise bottle prices lately, though, Zima’s comment about restaurants should induce a bit of an uh-oh cringe. Wine pricing on lists across the U.S. has become prohibitively disconnected from everything else on the menu, and this could potentially clog up the flow of what should be curious younger initiates into the top tier of wine consumer geekdom.

“Restaurant pricing increases aren’t tenable,” he says. “That limits the economic viability of sommeliers,” a tremendously valued evangelist of initiate knowledge for the wine collector ladder.

So while there are plenty of young climbers receiving the wisdom of their older wine sensei, if the restaurant wine balloon continues to float away from attainable reality, it stands to reason that the elite top of the market might take a hit — especially when combined with a jarring overall generational transition in taste.

Different Generation, Different Taste

The global marketing crisis for the wine world has been well documented as of late, with doom and gloom still the assumed forecast despite occasional glimmers of hope.

Factor in the younger generation’s additional penchant for novelty and under-the-radar, esoteric wines, and it’s fair at least to extrapolate up the ladder and question the future stability of the collector market as it exists today. “Who among us can predict where the influencer class will set their gaze next?” says Torrence. “Taste can be both collective and individual. Remember what the movie ‘Sideways’ did to the Merlot market?”

“A lot of young people don’t have access or budget to have great Bordeaux from the ’80s. Everyone is seeking value now.”

So what exactly will these budding aficionados be plucking from the spicy stew of freshly hyped curiosities?

When considering the inquiry, it’s necessary to cleave the idea of collecting from enthusiast buying.

For the general consumer, yes, the effect of what Zima calls the “cool kids wine du jour” now has the ability to upend swaths of the market on the whim of a viral social media post or hot new series — a sideshow cast of orange wine this and Josh wine that, all waiting in the wings for 15 minutes of sudden inexplicable disruption. This generational novelty-seeking is certainly an understandable phenomenon considering the immense financial wall now towering between middle-class wine enthusiasts and established classic producers. “A lot of young people don’t have access or budget to have great Bordeaux from the ’80s,” says Zima. “Everyone is seeking value now.”

But ask that crystal ball specifically about the literal collector market, and certain concepts come into remarkably sharp focus. “At the very core of wine marketing and social pleasure is the ability to convey stories,” Torrence explains.

Both boutique purveyors agree that the story — communicating highly vetted pedigree, long-established history, assured ageability, and finite exclusivity — is utterly essential to the art of future-gazing for the collector market. And given those parameters, most visions are of the European sort.

“Esoteric in Europe can often be a fifth-generation producer,” says Zima. He offers Italy’s Taurasi, Portugal’s Colares, and the creative anti-establishment young guns of Champagne as potential candidates, while Torrence points to Loire Valley and vineyard-designated Cru Beaujolais as contenders. Yes, these regions may be perceived as strange newcomers for those in the general wine market, but in truth, they’re already longtime icons for hardcore wine nerds.

But the questions swirling around the other half of the equation remain: What will happen to the established classics of old, and how will that affect the overall health of the collector market?

The Citadel of Classic Wines

Charles Antin holds an enviably unique perspective on the collector segment. As a veteran wine auctioneer wielding the gavel for the likes of Christie’s, and as the current global head of wine auctions for Zachys, he literally commands a front-and-center view of exactly what’s happening at the tip of the wine pyramid in real time.

And from his position — at least so far — there’s no need to fret.

“I have access to wine auction catalogs going back decades — and even to the 18th century — and it’s not like Bordeaux has gone out of fashion,” he says. The classics are classics for a reason. And because of that, they’ll always be both coveted by collectors of any generation, and consistently in high demand. “Our business is Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Napa, Piedmont, [and] Tuscany. Pretty much in that order.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t think that change is on the way. But as opposed to the contracting wine market and wildly shifting tastes in the lower echelons, Antin views the “new-gen” esoteric additions to the collector market as a welcome complement to the old-guard of widely coveted classics. “We’re always adding new categories,” he says. “For example, when I started in auctions in 2006, I wouldn’t have guessed Clos Rougeard or Vatan would cost hundreds of dollars a bottle.”

Established pedigree, long histories, and extremely limited supply — all paired with a thriving millionaire class — should support the collector market well into the foreseeable future despite shifts in culture and taste. And yes, there will most assuredly be some fun new toys from previously underrated regions lining the cellars of the world’s wealthy oenophile set.

While the pros have some educated guesses as to what those newcomers ultimately might be, there’s no way to be sure. But the same principles of the established classics will undoubtedly still apply, dramatically narrowing down the range of prospective new stars.

And when the time comes to pull the trigger on cases of these potential diamonds in the rough, Torrence suggests sticking to a tried-and true methodology. “Buy what you like to drink,” he concludes. “At least you’ll drink it if no one else values it.”

This story is a part of VP Pro, our free platform and newsletter for drinks industry professionals, covering wine, beer, liquor, and beyond. Sign up for VP Pro now!