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Do Millennials find wine “dull”? Let’s talk

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Once a headline is out there, it becomes “reality”—whether it’s based on reality or not. Thus, “Millennials: Wine Dull, Cocktails and Beer Exciting”, which is the header of this online article, is repeated on Lewis Perdue’s Daily News Fetch, so that people who don’t have time to actually research the topic—which is most of us—go away with the impression that Millennials are turning away from wine (if, in fact, they ever embraced it) in favor of the latest signature cocktail or craft suds.

The “dull wine” meme comes from this story in Wines & Vines, which based its own headline, “Wine Losing On-Premise Sales,” largely on the remarks of an MW who is the beverage director of a large restaurant chain, who said, “Cocktails and draft beer are more entertaining to [Millennials] than wine.” In a key quote concerning his own beliefs, the MW inplied that, for younger drinkers, beer and cocktails “feed the souls,” while wine presumably doesn’t, since it is not associated with the visual feast of “attractive, muscled bartenders with tattoos shaking cocktails like maracas and blenders whirling.”

Wow. I’ve seen plenty of muscled winemakers with tattoos, but it’s true that they’re not on public display the way mixologists are (and maybe they should be). Still, as much as I doubt the entire truth of the premise that Millennials are turning a cold shoulder to wine, there is in my own life some evidence of it. I have friends in their 20s and early 30s who really don’t care much about wine, but they do love a good glass of beer and if they’re in full party-on mode (which they frequently are late at night) it’s hard liquor they turn to. It’s always dangerous to base one’s conclusions on anecdotal evidence, but there’s little doubt that there are folks out there in their 20s and 30s who for whatever reason don’t perceive wine to be as cool as a local mini-brew with a badass label, or a glass of something hard with all kinds of fruits and colors swirling around.

Still, I come down on the side of Sara Schneider, the wine editor at Sunset, who was quoted in the Wines & Vines article as saying she doesn’t agree with the MW. Calling wine “almost de riguer in new restaurants,” she pointed also to the proliferation of wine bars as proof that Millennials, and drinkers of all age, remain dedicated fans of the grape. And then there was the floor manager I met yesterday from BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. I asked him if his young customers think wine is dull and he said, in essence, hell, no. So once again this confusion underlies the fact that the market is incredibly complex; there’s no such thing as “Millennials”, there are individual millennials, and divining what they like and don’t like is an inexact science.

So it may or may not be true that Millennials see wine as dull; there are studies, and then there are studies, and you can generally find anything you want to with a Google search. Be that as it may, there are clues in this little debate concerning what wineries should be doing, from a marketing point of view, in order to remain competitive with beer and booze. If my experience is any indication, and I think it is, they have to get out there any and every way they can: on social media, on wine lists, at meet-and-greets, pouring in hotel lobbies and hosting events and in general hitting the road. The market is wide open right now for wineries to make fast, smart moves, by-passing traditional gatekeepers (who tend to be the most conservative people on earth) and plowing new ground. A winery that believes it’s been shut out of a particular market, such as Millennials, will be, because we make our own reality.

  1. Good morning Steve: I follow your blog, although not every post, but frequently through Perdue’s rss feed.

    I work for the Ohio grape and wine industry and am somewhat active in a couple of the national trade associations – and manage a marketing conference for wine professionals, mostly focusing on the eastern US. In addition I give frequent talks at wine and tourism conferences, again mostly in the east, about the importance of segmenting your marketing messages to the various age groups, including millennials.

    I found you piece fascinating – and somewhat validating re the observations I have both in the general media and among the circles of friends among my kids’ 20-30 something age groups.

    Although I know there is lots of enthusiasm for wine among this age group, fifteen years ago, I would not even have imagined the topic being of discussion – as wine had NEVER been considered dull by any group [unapproachable, intimidating, off-putting, maybe, but not dull]. So just the fact that it comes up is a bit unsettling. Evidence my favorite magazine: Coastal Living. While I will never likely have time to relax in an infinity pool in the Keys, I do read their publication every month. A decade ago, all the images included wine on the tables, more recently, there was lots of lemon water and even more recently, beer is showing up……

    Researchers tell us that our tastes in music, art, clothing, cars, and beverages are molded from about the ages of 15 til our early thirties. [Our parents drank martini’s, our generation drinks wine….] If we are not vigilant we may find ourselves in trouble when these millennials reach the height of their earning power in their 40’s and 50’s.

    In any case, I have been preaching that our industry needs to stay on top of the trends that will determine our future……….so a request: If I provide attribution, may I forward your article via my Tuesday marketing post: Tuesday Tidbits, which goes to about 4000 subscribers around the country………

    Donniella Winchell
    Executive Director
    Ohio Wine Producers Assn.
    800-227-6972

  2. It’s the business of market research to generalize, hence the effort to determine who Millennials are (if they even exist) and how they spend money, which, apparently, they don’t have a lot of, it being difficult for young people to find jobs nowadays. The onus falls upon importers and producers not to elucidate the infinite layers of a generation’s tendencies and then come to a conclusion but to make the best wines they can at affordable prices and ensure that the story behind the wine is quickly but vividly told.

  3. I work as a wine buyer for a small grocery store that has an amazing domestic microbrew section. The wine section before I took over was standard Safeway crap, much of it I have to keep to sustain my numbers. I’m 26 and love the “New California Wine”/Jon Bonne style, clean, no oak chips or bombs over 15% alcohol. I heard someone say recently if you get a customer to pick up a bottle off the shelf and look at it, you’ve won 3/4 of the battle. Remember, I’m next to the beer so I am competing with hipster-nostalgic bourbon bottles and fantastic beer labels (Praire Ales, Anchorage Brewing Co., etc) so why would someone my age pick up a bottle of wine with a crap label of some old rich white guys name embossed on a a nice piece of construction paper? (As one of my big wine distributor reps said to me recently to impress me about a wine he was showing me: you know Hess has one of the largest art collections in the world?” Great.) I brought in a very good wine recently called Sofa King Bueno (ehhh?) and I’ve seen multiple people my age pick it up and say “I have to buy this for the label”. Rickshaw Wines, Folk Machine, Sans Liege, and Field Recordings are just some of the wineries I think who have picked up on bringing great artwork to wine bottles. Am I saying make labels more shiny? In a sense, yes, though don’t do what Kendall Jackson is doing with their new Millenial-line, Avant (the wines pretty tasty though). I’ll end on this: I took my girlfriend out to dinner recently to a fairly nice seafood restaurant. I ordered a Chenin Blanc to go with my fish, my girlfriend got an IPA because she likes hops. The busser gave my girlfriend the Chenin Blanc and me the IPA.

  4. Leif: Interesting comment. One question: If the Avant was pretty tasty (and you took the time to point that out), then why reject it or have at attitude toward it? I mean that sincerely, and would love to hear your further thoughts. After all, isn’t that the primary responsibility of a wine (or any other food or beverage): To be pretty tasty?

  5. Wine can be dull at any age if it’s presented that way. Or, you can present in a way that’s cool and refreshing no matter what age you are. See Club W … http://clubw.com

  6. Steve:

    Thanks for noting the article. Many wineries don’t want to hear it, but I think they should be aware of Sandy’s view.

    One note: Sara’s comment was that wine on tap, not wine, is de rigeur in new restaurants in the West. She was contrasting that to Sandy’s experience at Legal Seafoods in the east.Obviously, every restaurant has wine.

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/06/04/how-millennials-remade-americas-wine-scene-one-tacqueria-at-a-time/?hpid=z4

    Perfect article in the WaPost that addresses this very well, and I can name a hundred other similar places in DC, NYC and Chicago. The wine scene among millennials is thriving. It’s not wine that they find boring. It’s boring, overpriced, cookie-cutter wine that they find boring.

  8. Bill Haydon says:

    “Leif: Interesting comment. One question: If the Avant was pretty tasty (and you took the time to point that out), then why reject it or have at attitude toward it? I mean that sincerely, and would love to hear your further thoughts. After all, isn’t that the primary responsibility of a wine (or any other food or beverage): To be pretty tasty?”

    Wine is meant to be tasty, and that is its fundamental goal. Beyond that, however, it can be much more. Why should somebody be interested in a 170K production wine that was cooked up as much in a marketing department as in a vineyard when they can get an equally (probably more) tasty Chardonnay at the same price with a real sense of authenticity, a wine that was grown in a single vineyard on a chalky hillside in Macon or Monferrato, farmed and made by the guy whose family name is on the bottle and produced in lots of hundreds of cases rather than hundreds of thousands of cases.

  9. Bill Haydon: The answer to your question comes from an event I attended two days ago at which Avant was poured along with a bunch of other wines. I spoke with numerous people–all young [20s] who said Avant was their favorite wine at the tasting. They frankly couldn’t have cared less about its production number. People who look at production numbers are just as short-sighted as people who look at alcohol content and make their decision based on that. Sad…

  10. Steve: The marketing for Avant came off to me as gimmicky but I bought the wine for my store. The last part of your comment about case production wasn’t a part of my argument though I can see how you might have inferred that from my rambling, I was specifically talking about the labels.

    Bill and Steve: As for attitude I displayed towards KJ wines, I have to compete with certain staple wines that Safeway carries. I also try to differentiate the selection to make it a combination of smaller wineries I’d like people to take a chance on, the usual suspects of wine, and local Central Coast wines. It can get annoying trying to figure out if a new featured big time Young’s Market/Southern Wine/Kendall Jackson product is gonna work because I have to take into account it’s availability across my city because the wine reps may get it into every store.
    My personal opinion is that the big guys have enough money so I don’t buy their wine personally but contradictorily do for my store (ahh the contradictions of capitalism). Finally, have you dealt with some of their quoata-thirsting reps and accounting departments? These companies can be a corporate hellscape to try to get credit back for a wrongly shipped product.) Who I choose to do business with is also about personal relationships with company representatives, some I enjoy seeing, others I dread.

  11. I’m not sure if Millennials find wine dull. My guess is that the assertion they do is somewhat specious.

    I can say with certainty that they didn’t find wine or a winery dull this weekend, judging from the reaction to the music festival at Gundlach Bundschu:

    http://www.huichicamusicfestival.com/#buzz

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