Millennials and Wine: Revolution or Evolution?

There’s a lot of Internet buzz these days about the effects the millennial generation is having on wine. Much of it is quite breathless and reminds me of the journalistic cliché in which the reporter intones at the end of his story, “One thing’s certain – things will never be the same again.” Of course they won’t. Are millennials drinking more wine at an earlier age than their baby boomer parents? Yes. Are they trying different wines than their parents did at that age? Yes. Are they learning about and communicating about wine differently than their parents did? Of course. They are a product of their age, an age their boomer parents made possible, an age this millennial generation appears to be seizing to full advantage. More power to them.

I’ll have more to say about this subject in my next post. This is a column I did for The Washington Post Food section, published October 23, in a week when the paper’s Lifestyle reporting focused on ways millennials are changing Washington D.C. After I submitted it but before it was published, I ate at Vin de Chez with Jancis Robinson, who was in town for the launch of the World Atlas of Wine, 7th Edition. There were no millennials at our table, though Uber-Millennial wine blogger David White happened by. He later published an interview with Jancis.

The District’s most interesting new wine venue is Vin de Chez, a pop-up bar in the parking lot of Union Kitchen, a shared commercial space in Northeast. It’s the creation of Liz Bird and Tom Madrecki, two 20-somethings intent on proving that wine can be taken seriously yet still be fun. It also gives me the perfect excuse to discuss millennials and wine; after all, baby boomers tend not to drink wine in parking lots.

Tom Madrecki shaves a truffle over Dover sole

Tom Madrecki shaves a truffle over Dover sole at Vin de Chez, October 20, 2013

So what do millennials drink? Madrecki, who runs a private supper club called Chez le Commis out of his Clarendon apartment, fashioned Vin de Chez’s wine list to feature natural wines, primarily European bottlings from small family producers that use a minimalist approach and often flout the bureaucratic rules that dictate how wine should be made. It’s an eclectic, slightly subversive list with a decidedly anti-authoritarian bent. You are more likely to read about these labels in obscure wine blogs than in magazines such as Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator.

For Bird, 27, and Madrecki, 25, wine reflects a sense of adventure as well as irreverence. Both have traveled widely and worked in the restaurant business. Madrecki briefly apprenticed at Le Chateaubriand in Paris and Noma in Copenhagen, while Bird boasts “extensive experience at Pizza Hut” and Bodo’s Bagels in Charlottesville. (The two met while working on the student newspaper at the University of Virginia.) Vin de Chez is their way of taking wine outside, by overturning convention and expectation. (The most recent iteration of the pop-up, in which Madrecki cooks and Bird runs the front of the “house,” took place October 20; check www.vindechez.com for 2014 dates.)“Wine is transitioning to something people can enjoy on all occasions,” not just dinner or special celebrations, Bird told me via e-mail. “It’s less stuffy, less pretentious and generally more fun. So people gravitate to bottles that reflect this.”

Jancis Robinson tucks in

Jancis Robinson tucks in

Millennials have reached legal drinking age at a time when more wines from more countries are available than ever before. So it’s not surprising that their tastes are adventurous as they explore and form their own preferences. Trousseau gris is a trendy favorite; their parents probably hadn’t heard of it at that age, as they were being locked into preferences for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Washington area millennials are also poised to enjoy the golden age of Virginia and Maryland winemaking, whereas their skeptical parents recall sampling the local product when it was more vinegar than vin.

Bird’s sentiments echo findings of market researchers who have surveyed millennials about their drinking habits. According to the Wine Market Council, about 39 million U.S. adults drink wine several times a week. Millennials make up 29 percent of that group, while 39 percent are baby boomers.

Millennials are more likely to spend more than $20 on a bottle, although their total spending on wine is considerably lower than that of boomers, says John Gillespie of Wine Opinions, a market research company in California.

Millennials came of age in the Internet era, scanning photos of wine labels into smartphone apps such as Delectable and Vivino and sharing their tasting notes with friends over social media. They tend to trust a recommendation from a friend (even a virtual one on Facebook) more than a retailer’s suggestion, and they are more likely than their elders to be influenced by a wine’s colorful label or catchy name, according to a study done by researchers at Sonoma State University. They don’t pay much attention to wine reviews in magazines or newspapers, leading to end-of-the-road predictions for wine critics such as Robert Parker and others. Yet they do apparently trust shelf-talkers, those little cards you see in wine stores that are based on published reviews.

“Millennials are more adventurous and more willing to try new things — if presented to them properly,” Tom Madrecki says. A new thing might be an inexpensive wine with a pretty label, but it could also be a higher-end wine with a story. Just take the pretentiousness out of the occasion. Like, maybe in a parking lot.

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About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of DrinkLocalWine.com, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (dmwineline.com).
This entry was posted in Biodynamic, Food and Drink, France, Jancis, Washington Post, Wine and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Millennials and Wine: Revolution or Evolution?

  1. Norman Holly says:

    Who but millenials trust the judgement of millenials?

  2. Les Hubbard says:

    Dave,
    What you say about millenials in the first paragraph holds true and any winery that neglects them in their marketing do so at their future financial peril. However, all the stuff written in recent months about the millenials’ influence may have been taken out of context on who is spending the money today in America for wine and that remains the boomers with the Gen Xers not far behind. This is simply the phenomenon of income growth as one ages and achieves greater income.

    What is important is the millenials approach to wine without pretension and their willingness to try new things, experiment if you will, regardless of whether it is a catchy label or shelf talker that attracts them. In my retail contacts with millenials I’ve found they have such traditional traits as wine buyers and seek value (are you listening Jeff Siegel?) and are becoming ever more discriminating in food/wine pairing. With those who I’ve had time to discuss the latter it usually was a result of having made a bad pairing – an experiment gone bad?

    Gotta love the Vin de Chez approach! Anything that attracts new people to enjoying wine and broadens their selections, especially those involving traditionalist European wine makers who are among the lessor known, is a great step forward in my view.

    Les

  3. Rob McMillan says:

    The future is always with the youth but the overhyping of the Millennial is beyond the pale. I addressed the referenced article in the SVBonWine blog last week. The short rendering is even though the Millennials are the widest in terms of the number of years (e.g., all of the cohorts have varying numbers of years making it hard to compare…), Millennials are still the smallest cohort in wine sales representing something less than 15% of total wine sales, depending on the source. The Boomers are still the largest and the Gen X’ers second. Poor Gen X’ers get no respect even at #2 in cohort status vis-à-vis wine buying.

    The aging of the Boomer is going to be a real headwind on business in general and the Millennial won’t take a clean handoff in wealth. Is it important to market to them? Absolutely in a product sense, just like The Dancing Raisins moved up the sales of raisins as a product. But at the company level, wineries have to know who their customer is and market accordingly.

    Another stat that’s tossed around about Millennials is they are the least loyal of any cohort. Marketing to them as a brand manager if you know they can’t afford your wine is a poor return on investment dollars. Everyone has a budget. Palates evolve over time and the inexpensive wine that the Millennials are buying today and made by large wine companies (in general) will at some point prove to be not to their liking. They will move up in their purchasing and seek out wines to their liking – like everyone before them. There is no reason to think that will be any different.

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