New Generation Drinks Outside the Box
When I first got into the wine industry over 16 years ago, I did so because I believed that wine needed to become more accessible. There seemed to be an air of exclusive, hoity-toity pretension around the beverage creating a profitless aura of intimidation for younger consumers and wine novices. My how things have changed.
Today, wine bars are packed with 20- to 40-year-olds who are redefining society’s wine culture with their open-minded, unfussy approach to wine. Where their parents often put wine on a pedestal, they see it as a fun social beverage without the seriousness. They still want to learn about it, but without the stuffiness of the previous generation. In fact, I suggest that when the current generation reaches the same age as their parents, they will be more knowledgeable on the subject because of their willingness to drink outside the box.
The “box” is the Bordeaux, Burgundy, France in general, Barolo, Napa Cabernet categories of wines that many of the older generation of wine drinkers believe are the only wines worth drinking (even Napa Cab is relatively new to this category). To some extent that is understandable, as 25 years ago, the quality of many wines outside this category, particularly from New World countries, was not as good. But the fact that many of this group continue to hold onto this belief today is ludicrous, given the tremendous quality and diversity of wines being produced globally.
The Millennials’ and Generation Xers’ approach to wine may be due to few factors. First, they were exposed to wine at an earlier age than their parents. Their parents grew up in an era where their parents drank cocktails and spirits after (and at) work (watch Mad Men) as opposed to wine. It wasn’t until the Baby Boomers got older that they started drinking wine. For today’s young adults, seeing their parents open a bottle of wine with dinner would not be an unusual occurrence.
Second, every generation holds a natural aversion to conform to their parents’ habits for fear of becoming their parents. As a result, they would not want to drink the same kinds of wines as their parents. And, significantly, the wines their parents drank are no longer priced affordably for everyday consumption. The cost of a first growth Bordeaux in the early 70s was under $20, compared to several hundred dollars today (even upwards of $1,000 per bottle).
And wine is definitely more accessible to younger consumers in formats and settings they can relate to. Check out Joel Gott’s funky videos on YouTube. Charles Smith with his rock ‘n’ roll “it’s just booze — drink it” approach, and the numerous wineries that are using social media to engage the up-and-coming generation of wine drinkers. The hard sell approach just doesn’t work on this generation.
The Outside Lands festival, held in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, combines music, food and wine. This past summer saw over 100,000 people attend the festival headlined by Arcade Fire. But instead of the usual concert fare, restaurants of every cuisine had booths, there was a “food truck forest,” and most notably, there was a wine tent. Over 30 wineries were pouring tastes and glasses to a tent jam-packed with 21- to 35-year-olds who were having a great time discussing the fruit-acid balance, the differences in Cabernet from particular regions, the merits of California wineries trying to produce Italian varietals, and on. They’re not intimidated by wine, they’re fascinated by it.
And let’s face it, if wineries didn’t take this inclusive approach, their sales would be suffering. Their established clientele is dying off (literally) and the current generation of wine drinkers isn’t interested in the chi chi exclusivity of wine that probably attracted their parents. It helps that the next generation of winemakers and winery owners such as Gott share the same philosophies as their target markets. This is clearly evident at Gott’s Roadside, a classic walk-up diner, owned by the Gott brothers in Napa Valley. They serve freshly made burgers, ahi tuna burgers, fish tacos, milkshakes, and so on, all using the freshest local ingredients and produce from their own garden alongside great quality and value wines in a casual setting. The philosophy is to demystify wine and put it into an everyday setting.
And the young wine-drinking consumer has responded, though their buying and drinking habits are considerably different than their parents’. Sam C., an early-30s financial planner, makes great money, loves to travel and loves wine and food. His parents have a cellar filled with Bordeaux and high end California Cabs. He happily imbibes when his parents open a bottle, but isn’t impressed by “the show” each time his father retrieves a bottle and recounts the pedigree and current value of the wine. Sam says drinking the wine is a cerebral, somber experience. No one says much, but they all nod their heads as they drink, acknowledging the reputation of the wine, as no one would dare question the quality of a $700 First Growth Bordeaux regardless of how it actually tastes. The experience, he says, lacks enjoyment.
Sam and his wife buy wine based on what they like. They attend tastings and wine dinners, hold dinner parties in their home and love to travel to wine country. They mostly buy to drink, and while Sam’s parents’ cellar is upwards of 1000+ bottles, their cellar is about 100 bottles with wines from Italy, Chile and California, most in the $30 to $60 range. Their everyday wines are in the $20 to $35 range.
Manfred K. is under 40 and works in the industry at a conference centre. He is loves to cook and loves wine. He likes to support small producers and makes an effort to “drink local” whenever he can. He doesn’t see the value in most $100-a-bottle wines, particularly when he can buy four to six bottles of really great quality and value wines for the same amount. He doesn’t have the budget to cellar many bottles, so instead splurges on the occasional special bottle. Manfred K., from my experience, represents the majority of the wine drinkers in their 30s.
Jason S. is 25 and thinks wine is cool. He and his friends have attended a few tastings, and are more intrigued by the story behind the wine than any of the technical blah blah like pH, amount of residual sugar, whether the wine’s been acidified, etc. Their main concern is that it tastes good, and he admits that on several occasions, he and his friends have drank wine right out of the bottle. They’re not trying to be disrespectful, they’re just having fun and enjoying themselves and they see wine as just another drink. He says that he and his friends are just as likely to drink wine while watching a hockey game (with all the accompanying junk food) as they are beer or whisky. While Jason says he would like to learn more about how wine is made and the whole “farming thing,” he figures that will just come as he gets a little older.
Jason’s girlfriend Julie admits she used to buy wine just based on how much she liked the label. She’s decided that she wants to learn more it, particularly because she loves going out to eat and she would be more comfortable picking a wine off a restaurant’s list if she knew a little bit more.
The next generation of wine drinker is not concerned with pedigree, they are not caught up in pretence, and they are much more willing to experiment with different grape varietals and wine styles than their parents. They believe that you can enjoy wine without over-intellectualizing it. They will happily drink from their parents’ cellars, but they would not buy those wines themselves. They see wine as fun … which is what it’s supposed to be. The future of the wine industry appears to be in good hands.