Last weekend, in a New York Times profile on famed Napa Valley grape grower Andy Beckstoffer, he repeatedly referred to the millennial generation as “millenniums” and seemed to liken them to a plague.
Beckstoffer, 80, saw his concerns validated in a recent wine industry report by Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank, which reads: “The issue of greatest concern for the wine business today is the lack of participation in the premium wine category by the large millennial generation.”
But for the generation of people born between 1981 and 1996 who work and live in the Napa Valley, it isn’t that simple. After all, 75% of millennials surveyed in 2019 said they would spend more money on wine if they had it, according to Business Insider. Perhaps the problem is less about taste and more about access.
Gina Schober, the 34-year-old owner of Sans Wine Co., thinks so. On May 9, she tweeted a Google Doc in response to the New York Times piece on Beckstoffer. “We don’t have a seat at the table to participate in either the arena of owning land or the solution to attracting consumers,” she wrote.
Schober and her husband Jake Stover rent a house in St. Helena and make canned wines from organically grown, old-vine vineyards. Schober has worked as a beverage manager and sommelier and sells wine for a premium California wine broker in addition to running Sans, while Stover operates his own vineyard management company.
To Schober, the problem with the ultrapremium Napa Valley wine industry is not the consumer, it’s the industry itself.
“Napa specifically lacks diversity,” she says. “In ownership, in experiences and in wine. Millennials care about the environment, farm-to-table, connection. With money tight, where are you going to spend your money? You want to support families, people you know, wineries where you’ve tasted with the winemaker or owner.”
“It’s not that millennials are not consuming red wine,” says Erin Di Costanzo, 40, a Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree in 2013 and former sommelier and wine director who launched Di Costanzo Wines with her husband, Massimo, 40, in 2010. “Where Napa Valley fell short was so many brands started appearing only at the highest tier wanting to be on par with each other without earning that price point in the market. This was a disservice to a wine-hungry and curious community eager to consume and learn.”
The Di Costanzos don’t own land or a winery. Instead, they host guests for tastings out of a small shared office space in downtown St. Helena.
“Napa specifically lacks diversity. In ownership, in experiences and in wine.” —Gina Schober, owner, Sans Wine Co.
Erin remembers when she started working as the wine director at Acme Fine Wines, a specialty retailer that stocks both established and up-and-coming Napa labels. In 2008, Acme sold three or four wines priced $300 or more. Now, she says, there are more than she can count.
“It was so vital for us when we launched Di Costanzo to earn our place, overdelivering from that moment on and earning every price increase,” she adds. “We are making wine we believe in and that has endeared us to a hungry, excited and well-educated set of consumers who happen to be millennials.”
With these consumers, the personal touch has meant everything. She finds her millennial guests are eager to learn and make a personal connection.
Still, she isn’t so sure she could launch a self-funded Napa Cabernet project now, with grape prices in the Valley as high as they are. “I wonder if there will be fewer of us,” she says.
Michelle Lipa worked as the communications manager of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group before she founded Trig Collective Design and Communications, a firm that helps smaller Napa Valley producers and restaurants with brand strategy and public relations.
“I don’t think all is lost with millennials,” she says. “It’s just going to take longer for most to come to Napa because of all the financial strife, since 9/11 to the pandemic.”
And yet there are, like the Di Costanzos, still many small family producers that provide authentic, personal hospitality to visitors of all ages.
“There are families that have been here since the 1990s who haven’t changed the price of their wine,” adds Lipa. “We’ve got the food and wine at all prices, the outdoor activities. I feel like there are a large few who give a bad reputation to all.”