Wines for a New Generation

Play hard, work later: this is the cheeky mantra espoused by Portlandia, a wine made with grapes predominantly from Larkin Vineyard by Judy Thoet, in Dundee, Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA. Although Thoet’s bottles of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, with labels flaunting playful images of bicycles and eyeglasses, are not connected to the hit IFC comedy show of the same, both the wines and Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s antics are meant to exemplify the quirky lifestyle that is distinctly Portland’s.

This artistic, edgy, local approach to winemaking is exactly what appeals to that most influential of demographics, the Millennials. As the youngest Millennials become legal drinking age in 2015, the total wine-drinking population continues to grow, according to the Wine Market Council.

Research compiled for the Council’s 2014 Consumer Consumption Habits report also reveals that 59 percent of Millennial high-frequency wine drinkers consumed more wine in 2014 than they did the year prior. Additionally, 62 percent of Millennials drink sparkling wine or Champagne each month. While most of the wine swilled in the U.S. continues to be done so by Baby Boomers—41 percent, the Council reports—Millennials follow closely behind at 29 percent. The gap between the total wine volume these two generations drink is much narrower, however: Baby Boomers consume 37 percent and Millennials, 34 percent.

So what does this robust number mean for retailers? It behooves them to pay attention to Millennials, an intelligent, social media-loving generation with significant buying power that still appreciates the power of a good bargain. According to Nielsen, purchasing on “sale” is a more important factor for Millennials than other demographics. Power of value aside, there is unbridled enthusiasm among Millennials, who are willing to fork over extra dollars in the name of exploration.

“Millennials take their choices seriously and are willing to spend generously,” says Tom Geniesse, proprietor of Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit, in New York’s Flatiron neighborhood. “They are adventurous, curious and unpretentious. They are unafraid to seek guidance and they ask good questions. They are focused on quality, authenticity, humor and ethics. They have media Teflon and will communicate at the speed of light, but will give their attention to a genuine message. At Bottlerocket, we know we will continue to attract Millennials if we provide them real value and remain true to our spirit. Staying a little bit humble, a little bit fresh, always authentic and a tiny bit fearless goes a long way.”

Geniesse notices that his Millennial clientele bring mature tastes and experiences to his store and are “not motivated by safe choices.” California-made Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, are typically entry points for budding oenophiles, but Geniesse says he sees Millennials seeking out bottles that are “cool, smart and value-driven. In this respect, they are bucking the trend of earlier generations.”

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A Different Kind of Generation

Napa might be the birthplace of American wine, but many Millennials are captivated by the allure of more burgeoning destinations such as South Africa and Jura. Napa often connotes the past — something stodgy their parents might curl up on the couch with and drink.

To reach the Millennial and show off Napa’s more youthful side, Franciscan Estate Winery attempted to shift the region’s old-school definition by partnering with the wine societies of esteemed MBA programs at such tony schools as Columbia, Yale and Harvard. The fact these universities even have wine clubs points to a soaring interest among younger audiences. Franciscan, capitalizing upon its affordability and respected name, gave eager students a chance to ask questions like where the importance of wine in business settings, through lively demonstrations.

While Franciscan Estate has helped change the image of Napa among Millennials, the demographic is also looking further afield. At Vine Wine, in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood (which swarms with young creative types), owner Talitha Whidbee sees her customers gravitating toward more obscure French grapes like Trousseau and Pineau d’Aunis.

“Godello is gaining traction as we head toward summer and there is a renewed interest in classic grapes such as Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, as well as cider as a category,” she points out. Whidbee notices that Millennials take an especially keen interest in how wines are made, who is making them and their impact on the environment.

“I think the Millennials are pretty savvy about being marketed to, so the direct sell is best, like contact with winemakers and the opportunity to taste,” she says. “We don’t target tastings for any one subset, but we do find that our natural inclination towards smaller production wines and more interesting wines attracts that age group.”

“The Millennial consumer comes already armed with wine knowledge and a sense of their own palate,” she adds. “Some of these customers have been exposed to a variety of wines for years, and because of the internet they’re able to read about and track down wines more readily than any other consumer group.”

Keeping in mind that Millennials are also drawn to great values, Whidbee’s frequent buyer program is particularly successful, letting wine shoppers apply the average value of 12 bottles purchased to their thirteenth.

“This allows the consumer to buy something that might be outside of their normal price range, as well as feel comfortable taking a risk on something new,” Whidbee points out. The good news is that Millennials are actively choosing to make wine more and more a part of their everyday routine, but that often translates to bottles that are attractively priced and under $15. Big-splurge, special-occasion buys are more often connected with the old-guard buyer.

Purchasing on Social Issues

This trend creates a great opportunity for unconventional packaging. Consider Public House Wine, the brainchild of best friends who noticed their fellow pals were as intimidated by wine as they were interested in sipping different varietals.

To solve this discrepancy they launched their boxed wine company, a ten-percent cardboard box containing four bottles-worth of wine, either Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blan – along with ten cups. This alternative packaging is portable, sustainable and ensures wine maintains its freshness, which are all attributes that appeal to socially-driven Millennials.

To accentuate this aspect of its brand, Public House launched a slew of New York events like pop-up supper clubs and BYOB dinners, in which the first 20 people to RSVP spent just $25 for a night of wine and food.

On the West Coast, Gary Marcaletti, proprietor of San Francisco Wine Trading Company, says that his main target is the 30-55 age group, but his 21-29-year-old customers show a propensity for different trends. Among his Millennials, organic wines and the heritage of wineries are not as important factors as they are at other stores, he points out. Instead, he sees this group “moving toward spirits, and mostly to bourbon and all other whiskies. Promotions don’t necessarily work for them. Having them taste is the best way to get their attention.”

At Storyteller Wine Company in Portland, Oregon, owner Michael Alberty says it’s just happenstance that most of the wines he wants to showcase currently jive with what Millennials are looking for. What exactly is that? For Alberty, he’s seen many younger consumers seeking lower-alcohol, high-acid wines.

“There’s been a particular surge of interest in wines from the Loire Valley, with a lot of purchasing of Gamay Noir and Melon,” he says. “I think folks in this age group that come to my store are looking for wines that are food-flexible and well-priced so they can be opened any night of the week.”

Alberty also sees a spiked interest in natural winemaking. “Millennials have been reading about it; now they want to know what it means and what it tastes like,” he says. “I’m also seeing an increased interest in dry farming. Irrigation and long-term sustainability of our aquifers is a big deal on the West Coast, and I’m seeing more people trying to support vineyards and wineries that don’t irrigate, or that irrigate as little as possible.”

Wine brands that take the time to craft breezy, conversational social media posts will also resonate with Millennials. A look at the Facebook page of Jordan Vineyard & Winery, in Healdsburg, California, is peppered with such interesting kernels as weather reports, photos of cows who roam the estate and snapshots from Valentine’s Day dinners hosted for Jordan Estate Rewards members in the dining room.

Combine that with the winery’s own thoughtful blog, covering such disparate topics as the revamp of the Jordan wine label, as well as complementary video tutorials on making flaky pie crusts. The whole program helps build a credible, authentic brand that intrigues younger people.

Ultimately, the Millennial is an intrepid risk taker who wants to make wine just one part of a meaningful, experiential life. “They are more willing to try new wines and new grape varietals,” Alberty says. “Offbeat wines from offbeat regions don’t seem to scare them off. They aren’t set in their ways yet and they seem quite eager to be assisted in their wine journey.”

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