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Wine, beer and spirits for Millennials: which is cooler? (Hint: It’s not wine)



If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I’m interested to the point of obsession with industry issues, such as who’s buying wine, how it’s doing with Millennials, price points and so on. One thing I’ve been keeping my eye on is restaurants. Everybody loves to eat out, but what are they drinking with their food?

The conventional wisdom of the past few years is that wine is losing ground to craft beer and cocktails. I’ve tended to agree: Beer and mixed drinks are getting a lot of love from the media, with all those tattooed mixologists and craft brewers grabbing the headlines (and spotlights; layout editors know exactly who looks good on the page or screen). Wine by contrast seems stodgy. It’s not, of course, and never has been, and remains my favorite; but for some reason, wine seems less hip lately than beer and mixed drinks.

Forbes has written an interesting article along these lines, citing Paul Franson, of Wines & Vines, that Millennials [have] gravitated toward cocktails and craft beer,” and moreover, that when Millennials do drink wine in restaurants, the wines tend to be those that are “hot,” which I take to mean things like Muscat or orange wine, which have no lasting value at all.

This squares with my observations of my Millennial friends in Oakland, a very hip town, on the cutting edge of most cultural things, and thus an interesting case study. What happens in Oakland, from hip hop to fashion in clothing not to mention politics, often leapfrogs across the country.

And the truth is, my friends in their 20s and 30s like to drink; in fact they drink a lot, bless their little souls, but what they’re not drinking is wine. They are, as Forbes and Franson point out, downing cocktails and beer.

Why? The answer is important, but not simple. On one level they see wine as the alcoholic beverage of their parents if not their grandparents. Why is that? Because beer and cocktails don’t make a big deal about their intellectual components, the way wine does with notions of terroir, etc. Another is that beer and cocktails don’t pretend to be about anything else but getting buzzed. Wine tries to hide the impact of its alcohol. It always has, especially at the top levels, where it portrays itself as offering an experience that is intellectual, sensual, hedonistic, imaginative, fabulous—anything and everything but a liquid that makes you high. Wine seems almost embarrassed by its alcoholic content, which is why this entire argument against alcohol levels has arisen. Is vodka embarrassed by alcohol? Is tequila? Are IPAs? Of course not. But wine likes to pretend it has no alcohol.

I don’t know how we got into this situation. Possibly it’s because the intellectual conversation about wine got started a lot earlier than our conversations about beer and spirits. Between the Bible, the medieval references to wine, Thomas Jefferson and so on, wine has assumed an august place in the culture. Nobody was praising beer and spirits two and three hundred years ago. Maybe, back then, they were ashamed of wine’s alcoholic effects on the brain and body, so they avoided writing about them. We have inherited that tradition today.

I’m not suggesting we should brag about how high wine gets you. But the fact that beer and spirits tend to be grabbing Millennial attention strongly suggests a new approach to how we portray wine. We need to make wine cooler, sexier, and more relevant to a generation that instinctively recoils against canned messages and cheap advertising slogans. There is, in its essence, no reason why wine is less attractive than beer and spirits. But the way we’ve been communicating about wine hasn’t been enough to convince Millennials that it’s something they should feel cool about ordering in a restaurant. Can we change that?

  1. Hi Steve, Thanks for the thoughts. But I think you’re missing the point. My experience with Millennials is that “cool” is not about the libation or high or tradition. It’s about authenticity and “the story”. Wine in restaurants and on grocery store shelves has, for most, gone the way of the corporation. Millennials, and me for that matter, as an artisan vintner, are repelled by this trend. Craft beers have a place and time that speaks to passion, art, craft and creativity. These values resonate with Millennials. The new generation of mixologist also speaks to iconoclastic and adventurous expressions of creativity. The drink has a traceable source, provenance, if you will. And the price is accessible, even if more than the “well”. This is a core value percolating through our culture today, demonstrated by Millennials in their choices. I think it’s a healthy and important trend toward supporting community. It can’t be countered by attempting to make wine more “cool” through messaging.

  2. Fascinating article – certainly gives the wine industry a lot to think about!


  3. J. Stallcup says:

    A few years ago I helped Dr. Liz Thach of Sonoma State conduct a video survey of millenials concerning their attitudes about wine and towards the wine industry. One of the questions we asked was: “What word comes to mind when you think of the wine industry?” The two most common responses by a large margin were “Snooty” and “Snobby”. The words cool, hip or fly were never mentioned. It would be interesting to repeat that survey now. When TIm Hanni MW and I conducted the online adoption migration study of wine consumers for WineVision (7,800 respondents) the respondents associated Jazz and classical music with wine. Not rock n roll, hip hop, rap, country western or folk music. The brand positioning and framing of wine in the consumer’s mind is a direct result of the longstanding trade focused marketing behavior of the industry as a whole in relation to positioning and building brands. Not likely to change. Requires a different skill set and attitude.

  4. In the marketing of beer and mixologists, there is so much emphasis placed on the sourcing of ingredients and the meticulous process that creates the final craft product. From the proliferation of named hop varietals, “small batch” mixers and vermouths, celebrity mixologists/brewers, all of the buzz is on the difficulty and expertise required to produce the final product.

    In contrast, the majority of wine marketing is often placed on how a vineyard or winery is innately great and the fruit practically makes itself into wine, with as little intervention as possible. Oddly enough this couldn’t be further from the truth; wine has the highest stakes with the least margin of error and is the most difficult form of adult beverage production I can think of. You have one chance to get it right and the people who work in the vineyards and in the cellar have to be virtually perfect or everything can be lost. I feel if there was a way for millennials to learn more about the process and talk to growers, winemakers, enologists of their generation they could truly get excited about wine in the very same way they are excited about cocktails and beer.

    This is a very interesting subject to me and I would be happy to discuss it further if you are looking for more depth.

  5. I’m surprised you didn’t mention venue of drinking. For beer and booze, you hit a bar. For wine… well, specialty wine bars have popped up but not all that much. (Ordinary wine at a bar and most restaurants is usually no more than “good enough to get by” – hardly an impressive standard.) Other than at very high price point locations (or your own wine cooler), the great wine experiences are still had by hitting the road and going straight to the winery.

    This has got to change, I think.

    I live in a part of Los Angeles regarded as hip and trendy these days, Koreatown a 4-minute walk from the Wiltern Theater. There are scads of bars, or restaurants with bars, where gallons of beer and liquor are consumed. There are, however, barely any wine bars. St. Martha’s has been the stand-out. Ca’Brea moved into the neighborhood and has hit a surprisingly high quality for low price point. There are a couple of others. But, really, there just aren’t as many places to go hang out and slosh down wine, even in a neighborhood like this, compared to beer and booze.

  6. J Stallcup says:

    Last time I saw the numbers about 18% of the gallons of wine in the US are consumed on premise. This represents about 50% of the retail dollars spent on wine, which indicates the challenge wine faces as a “reasonably priced” alternative to craft beer, spirits, or mixed drinks.

  7. Most of my friends are millennials, and one reason they don’t drink much wine is price point. You can get a really nice 6-pack for under $10. Most interesting wines are over $20. In restaurants, obscure wines at $12/glass don’t really move the needle. I believe the higher price-point of wine is causing young casual drinkers to move on to other alternatives.

  8. I agree with you Jim. The normal place one might go to just for drinking usually does not have a good wine program. In most cities, there are many more “drinking only” places that focus on craft cocktails and fun beer lists than good wine programs. Usually, to get good wine, you have to go to a place that sells food. I experience this in my own life. As a wine lover, I try never to order wine at bars because I don’t have confidence in the product. I don’t want to drink cheap, shitty wine if I drink wine. But I am willing to drink cheap beers and cocktails.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Here is a more sanguine report on craft beers and wine drinking by Millennials . . .

    “Craft Is Not Yet Taking Share From US Millennial Wine Drinkers”

    [Preface: There is no clear evidence that craft beer and spirits are taking share from US Millennial wine drinkers, according to Christian Miller of Full Glass Research…]

    I went looking for more expansive editorial coverage of this research report. Found this at Beverage Daily:

    Who is Chris Miller?


    What is Full Glass Research?

    (“Full disclosure”: I have no professional or personal involvement with this company. I was unacquainted with their work until launching this afternoon’s query. And I cannot vouch for the veracity of their research findings.)

  10. Bob Henry says:

    A Nielsen research report on Millennial drinkers’ media consumption and shopping habits:



    “Millennials are a key demographic for the alcoholic beverage market, both because of how big the group is as well as how much it may purchase going forward. And as a result, the battle within the alcoholic beverage industry has begun to win over this group’s hearts, minds and wallets. Tastes within the group, however, vary when it comes to alcoholic beverage preference. For example, Millennials 21-34 represent about 25% of adults 21 and over, but they account for 35% of U.S. beer consumption and 32% of spirit consumption. Comparatively, they represent only 20% of wine consumption.”

    In the jargon of marketing, Millennials “index above average” for beer* and spirits** consumption, and “index below average” for wine*** consumption.

    The math:

    *Beer . . . 35% beverage category consumption divided by 25% of adult population representation equals 1.40 (140 index). Beer consumption is +40 index points ABOVE the population percentage.
    **Spirits . . . 32% beverage category consumption divided by 25% of adult population representation equals 1.28 (128 index). Spirits consumption is +28 index points ABOVE the population percentage.
    ***Wine . . . 20% beverage category consumption divided by 25% of adult population representation equals 0.80 (80 index). Wine consumption is -20 index points BELOW the population percentage.

    Clearly, the wine industry vis-à-vis the beer and spirits industries has both marketing challenges and alcoholic beverage market share opportunities ahead in appealing to Millennials.

  11. Ryan Pease says:

    The issue at this time with the Millennials is they do not have the disposable income to buy wines that have a great story as those wines are generally made in small quantities that require a high price point. They cannot afford “authentic wines” so I am more focused on marketing to Generation X right now as they are starting to become a generation that has money to burn. It is the best educated generation by percentage of bachelor degrees or higher and they are now becoming a powerful economic force. It will be interesting to see how student debt affects the Millennial generation in the long term and it will be a huge factor into whether they ever get into wine or not.

  12. If restaurant sales of Beer and Spirits is hot, there’s a simple explanation; profits and margin. Restaurants are getting smarter about marketing their highest margin business…beer and spirits! Thus driving demand.

    A single glass of high-quality “craft” beer brewed in San Francisco packaged in a 15 gallon keg and sold through a distributor costs $1.15 per 12 ounce serving to a restaurant or bar. That bar or restaurant marks that beer up to between $6-$8 per glass. Low waste and pour costs. No one squawks about a $6 craft beer these days. No one.

    A single can of average (not Bud, Coors, or PBR they are roughly $0.75 a can wholesale) “perceived craft” beer will cost $0.96 per can. The pub or bar will charge usually $3 minimum per can and in some towns, $5 or $6. Zero waste and several hundred percent return per can. Beers cans are cool, way cooler than a wine bottle.

    A single bottle of reasonably high-quality California Pinot or Cabernet will cost between $10-$14 wholesale to a restaurant. The restaurant will then charge the cost of the bottle, minimum, on the first glass of wine, thus recovering their cost on the bottle. Ahhh, but now we deal with waste. What happens if no one else that day orders another glass from the bottle? Waste. Lost revenue. Zero net return. Compare that lost revenue of wasted product to a beer in a can that won’t go bad in 3 days.

    But the wine story gets worse. Let’s say the cost on the bottle is $25 for a premium pour, not unseen in steakhouses and Bay Area or Napa Valley restaurants. The potential loss in revenue is $75 if they throw out the bottle after Day 2. Realistically, how many people have a budget to spend $25 on a glass of wine? So the restaurant simply recovered their cost if they pour a single glass of wine out of bottle that holds 4 glasses of wine.

    So what’s a restaurant to do? Buy cheaper wine from unknown areas of the globe for $4 a bottle and mark that glass up to $12/glass and see the same returns as a can of beer? Now the average buyer of wine has a negative perception of wine. A $4 wine tastes like it should…crappy. But the consumer paid $12/glass for the displeasure of it and won’t return. Add the fact that the wine at that low level is inconsistent. Well Vodka with grapefruit is consistent almost everywhere you go. So is PBR for $3/can.

    The choice is clear…drink some of the best, true craft brew, ice cold from a clean tap in the Bay Area for $8/glass or a really great Pinot that was opened yesterday (maybe) for $18/glass or a crappy import from South America for $12/glass that someone forgot to gas over the weekend?

    That’s an easy one to answer. Give me a beer (says the winemaker)! Or make me a Negroni or Manhattan for $14.

    Unless I know the restaurant/bar or bartender and know that the wine I’m buying BTG is “fresh”, I’ll probably opt for something else or buy the whole bottle of wine.

  13. Bob Henry says:


    According to hotel and restaurant management university programs, a 25.3-ounce 750 ML wine bottle of wine holds five (not four) 5-ounce glass pours.

    Your observation about wine-by-the-glass program beverage freshness and waste is a good one.

    When I recently put together the wine list for a wine store/wine bar, I insisted that the owner install an argon-dispensing wine preservation system for his wine-by-the-glass program.

    The eliminated wine waste rapidly paid for the argon system.

    Moreover, it worked as a marketing tool for selling wines on the sales floor by allowing any wine in the store to be opened for sampling. (The open bottle then went into the wine bar’s line-up.)

    As retailing researcher Paco Underhill noted in his classic tome “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” product sampling is the best tool for overcoming consumer resistance to adopting a new product or service.

    ~~ Bob

    (Postscript: bartenders pouring “by inspection” wines-by-the-glass can also lead to reduced restaurant revenue — as they are more likely than not to be over-pouring into oversized wine glass bowls.

    See this Wall Street Journal article on the subject:

    “The Accidental Binge Drinker: How Much We Really Pour” )

  14. Bob Henry says:

    (Second postscript. A more recent Wall Street Journal article on the subject of large wine glasses.

    “Larger Wine Glasses Encourage More Drinking, Study Finds;
    University of Cambridge researchers found that wine sales were 9% higher when larger glasses were used” )

  15. Bob,
    Perhaps the comments I’m going to make are best left in the Know Your Audience section:

    ‘Round here (Fresno and Bakersfield), there are a lot of 6oz pours of wine in a glass that probably fits 8 ounces, hence my 4-pours per bottle assumption. Some of those wine glasses are also filled with ice…If Steve only allowed pictures in his commentary section! If there are 4 people at a table and they are ordering a bottle of wine, the whole bottle is poured in one round at many restaurants without question. 6 people at a table causes problems for many a server because the wine won’t make it equally into each glass, because of the heavy traditional pour. This works out well for the restaurant, as bottle two gets poured on round one.

    Again, Central Valley bias and anecdotal, but several restaurants in the Central Valley have opted for a smaller glass filled to the rim, rather than a larger glass filled with a standard 6oz “Valley” pour. Perception in many Central Valley restaurants is that a full glass of wine is a great pour.

    If you order off the wine list and the restaurant pulls out “the fancy glasses” (read Riedel Vinum XL) and pours 5 ounces per guest, the perception is a “short pour”, especially if the wine is $14/glass. People start doing the math real quick and determine that a cocktail might give more bang for the buck, especially if they are not a self-proclaimed “wine drinker”.

    I’d love for a study like the one you reference in the WSJ to be done in Fresno. The above comments/observations are less relevant in Sonoma County and many a Bay Area restaurant.

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