Hopes of the wine industry rest on millennial shoulders

March 20, 2012

I recently received a news release and some samples of a “new, edgy” brand of wines called TXT Cellars. The line included the following four bottles:

OMG!!! Chardonnay

LOL!!! Riesling

LMAO!!! Pinot Grigio

WTF!!! Pinot Noir


OMG!!! Chardonnay from TXT Cellars. (Vision Wine and Spirits)

The punctuation is included, and I am not making this up. The marketing material talked about how these wine were “unpretentious” and “easy to relate to,” and how their tasting notes avoided “wine geek talk” because “We don’t like wine geeks.” Ahem.

Recommendations: Gateway wines for millennials

TXT Cellars certainly isn’t the only wine company targeting millennials these days. Brands such as Cupcake Vineyards and Middle Sister Wines and the multicolored store displays of the HobNob line make no secret as to their target demographic.

But it isn’t just cutesy brands. I hear a lot of chatter these days about marketing wine to millennials. Many believe this enormous generation, ages 21 to 30, will be the saviors of the wine industry.

Market research seems to back that up. In late January, the nonprofit Wine Market Council released a survey showing that millennials most closely mirror what the council terms “high-end wine buyers” (meaning people of all ages who buy bottles priced at more than $20 at least once a month). Like high-end wine buyers, millennials are more likely than other demographics to try wines they’ve never heard of before, more likely to consult wine reviews and more likely to visit wine bars. Millennials also consume more wine per occasion and use Twitter and Facebook overwhelmingly more to talk about the wines they drink.

“Millennials are drinking more wine and better wine at a young age than any other generation has,” says Leah Hennessy, owner of Millennier, a marketing and design firm based in Los Angeles that works with wineries to reach millennials.

This is all very exciting for people in the industry who hope millennials will lead an adventurous new age of wine consumption: caring about both quality and value; championing hip grapes such as gruner veltliner, carmenere and Riesling instead of old standbys such as Chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon; and challenging, once and for all, the stuffy wine establishment.

Still, when I hear this high-minded talk of millennial wine drinkers, I often think about the university students I teach, who mainly fall at the younger end of the Millennial generation. Lots of my students have studied abroad and are more educated about, with more fully formed opinions on, what they eat and drink than those in my generation at the same age. However, another segment of my millennial students told me about something called slap the bag. This is a drinking game in which the bag of wine is removed from, say, a box of Franzia. The bag is held high, and everyone slaps the bag while someone chugs from the spout. The harder the slap, the bigger the chug.

Now, I make no judgment. But my point here is that the true wine-drinking nature of a generation as vast as the millennials probably falls somewhere between that of the educated, high-end wine buyer and those who play slap the bag.

“Each generation has a different approach to wine,” says Hennessy, herself an older millennial. “A lot of millennials drink wine as a social accessory. It says something about us. There’s a mystique, it’s mature. You’re not drinking beer, which already says something about you.”

One important theory the Wine Market Council’s survey verified is that wine labels matter. A lot. Millennials were twice as likely as baby boomers to cite the importance of a “fun and contemporary” wine label. “If your label is too traditional, it’s off-putting,” Hennessy says.

With millennials, Hennessy talks about the importance of “gateway wines,” or wines that hook young people and cause them to seek out more. “The whole point of a gateway wine is to feel empowered to try something else. Is it interesting in some way? Is the label interesting? Is there a story?” she says. Price point is also an issue: It has to be under $10.

I recently assembled a half-dozen millennials for a small blind tasting. I included some of the cutesy brands such as Cupcake and HobNob, as well as a selection of my own choice of gateway red wines, mostly $8 and under from Spain and Portugal.

When the paper bags were removed from the bottles, the labels were absolutely important. Innovative labels and bottle designs, such as the slender blue bottle and sans-serif font of Relax Rielsing (“A perfect party wine”), were given high marks. Another favorite was the cool, modern label of Grooner Gruner Veltliner, with its hip illustrations and copy that read, “Perfect for Parties . . . Great with Food . . . Picnics too!”

Still, the millennials in the group were much more impressed with the modern labels for the reds from Spain and Portugal that I had assembled. They prefererred the bright orange labels of Borsao Garnacha and Peromato Tempranillo, and the spare, black Monte Velho from Herdade de Esporao in Alentejo, Portugal, none of which overtly screamed “millennial!!!” “This is what I want a wine bottle to look like,” said a young man named Alex. “It’s aspirational. It feels mature.

“I drink wine for the same reason a 50-year-old woman does.”

In the tasting, I also included the TXT Cellars wines; they received the harshest criticism. “Ohhh noooo, I hate this so much,” said one 20-something named Kinsey. “I’m embarrassed that this is what they think people my age want.”

“This conveys, like, partying or drunkeness to me,” Alex said. “If I’m going to get drunk at a party, I’ll just drink vodka.”

Recommendations: Gateway wines for millennials

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist. Dave McIntyre will return next week.

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