There’s Panic Out There: Millennials Changing the Wine World

About two weeks or so back there was a tweetstorm regarding whether millennials and their “disrupting” shopping/eating/drinking habits will destroy the wine industry.  It’s fascinating how pretty much anyone reacts to millenials, given that they’re pretty much coming of age, voting, and paying into the social security trust fund we hope to collect in the not-all-that-distant future.  While they perceive the world in different ways, and see everything through the possibility of being made simpler/more convenient/on-demand through digital tools, they’re not bad – but they are changing the way things get done.

First came this article that a million of the wine people I follow on twitter tweeted and retweeted and replied to – with all kinds of millennial-hating hashtags.

“[Millennials] lack financial capacity, have a current preference for premium spirits and craft beer, and have been slow getting into careers. Cannabis demand skews to younger males today, and that is also likely playing a role in the cohort’s delayed appreciation for wine,” McMillan told the industry as he delivered his State of the Wine Industry Report earlier this month.

When it comes to what he calls “the buzz for dollars” scale, McMillan notes, “You can get a $27 bottle of Maker’s Mark that doesn’t oxidize, or you can get a $27 North Coast wine that you have to drink that night… We don’t have a mixologist in the wine business that’s sitting at the bar doing something that’s incredibly cool. Talking about warm days and cool nights, special grapes and special soil, it’s not going to fly.”

Now there’s the reason to be concerned.  At a good winery, a good bottle is going to start in the high $20’s and head into the $40’s and beyond fairly quickly.  If you can get a good bottle of Tito’s vodka for less and get a lot more drink out of it, and if your career entails retail, you’re likely to go cheaper.  Plus there’s the whole legalizing cannabis business going on, which changes the landscape in other ways.

What’s interesting is that the millennials aren’t interested in the interaction and the wine education, or at least that’s what the article contends.  But the tasting room, as it adapts, (which I’ve written about previously), is a great place to interact with wine professionals, socialize and spend time.   The article contends that the tasting room model is stale, and millennials prefer to Amazon and Uber Drinks (just wait for it to come) their wine to them.  Hmmm…. there is my retirement career…. just a few legal hurdles to get over – hey, Co-pilot – that’s your realm!

The solutions came a few thousand tweets later, in the form of this blog post, saying that the industry must adapt, but provides some practical (and common sense) suggestions.

  • Standardized ingredient labeling would reward wineries which aren’t using added chemicals. However, industrial wineries have all the political power, and they’re bringing the industry down with them….
  • Meanwhile, if you look at the wines millennials are excited about — they are NOT heavily manipulated Cabs and Chards. Millennials like uniqueness. I did a story for Wine Business Monthly about amphora wines that hasn’t run yet. One winemaker told me a few years ago he couldn’t sell his amphora wines; now he can’t keep them in stock. They’re different. They’re interesting.
  • Tell us who YOU are. Why you make the wines you make. What you like to do on Sunday mornings. Be a person! And people will relate to you as one. There’s a reason Josh Cellars is the fastest-growing wine in America, and it isn’t the juice. People think Josh is a real person. You can’t compete with high-grade image creation; what you can do is actually be a real person.

These form some interesting arguments – you cannot provide a re-packaging of the Riunite or Gallo my mom drank and expect me to shell out $45 a bottle (or box) and be excited.  Millennials are focused on what is in the food/drink and want to know what you’ve put in the bottle, and need to see the label/trust the process.  Millenials love craft cocktails and beers that are unique to their place and producer and carry labels and credentials like “Biodynamic” or “non-GMO.”  Local wineries can capitalize on that, by expressing what makes them special rather than re-packaging and copying what others have already done.  This is my argument about why Virginia can out-do the heavy hitters by out-Virginia-ing them, instead of imitating them better than they can imitate themselves.  And of course, there is the tasting room experience itself – millennials want some connection to place and space as well as to understand (as this blog post contends) why the winemaker is doing what she is doing.  They want to have experiences that connect them to the product, and to the friends they bring along.

I’m quite hopeful about the wine industry and millennials.  They’re currently hitting large wineries that have massive spaces that basically feel like a yuppie fraternity party with wine instead of kegs and grain punch.  As they mature, they’ll move forward from these places to better wineries with more sophisticated wines and seek what the writer above asks – connection and story – how does this wine connect to where it was made and who are you as a producer?  More and more wineries are providing that interactive, personal touch.

There’s a lot I dislike about the way millennials are changing our world.  I hate Uber for destroying union taxis that are inspected and regulated – and Uber drivers literally park in the middle of the high traffic road to do whatever they want, (though I confess to using my two free Uber Eats delivery codes this past week).  I really don’t care for services like VenMo because I actually do like writing checks.  But the world must change and adapt, and old ways of doing things will pass in favor of new ways that have their own advantages.  And I am a grumpy old man, so get off my lawn, kid.

I’m really curious what the actual winemakers are seeing and hearing from customers, and whether they worry about this?  Millennials are disrupting every industry, one by one.  Do you worry they will disrupt how wine is shared/sold?  Will it signal the end of the tasting room as we know and love it?

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