In the last decade, millennials have been accused of “killing” an array of industries and institutions. A writer at the New York Post accused them of unseating the Manhattan power lunch, the Philadelphia Inquirer claimed they killed mayonnaise, and, in a 2017 report, Toys “R” Us blamed stores’ declining sales on their lack of children. Be it diamonds or real estate, millennials have had the weight of the economy on their shoulders.
And yet, millennials, or those born between 1981 and 1996, and their successors, Gen Z, born after 1996, might just save the wine industry.
As a group, they’re often committed to sustainability and social change, and willing to financially support companies that uphold their ideals. These generations could rejuvenate wine, a tradition-bound business projected to lose nearly $6 billion this year.
To survive, wine professionals need to recognize that change is good. The industry may pride itself on long-held values, but it will need to adapt to reach new customers. There’s a fine line between being rooted in tradition and being stuck.
So far, that’s been a struggle. The business is “reckoning with beliefs,” says Justin Noland, vice president of GoldLine Brands.
“The wine industry continues to feel outdated in the ways they communicate with and listen to their customers,” he says. “Younger millennials and Gen Z want to know what a company believes in. Are you making donations to meaningful organizations? Are you backing that up by changing the way your organization works, recruits and interacts with the community?
“We have seen this with wineries being lost in how to have a voice on #MeToo and Black Lives Matter,” says Noland. “It’s not O.K. anymore to just say, ‘We’re a business, we have no position.’ ”
Mistakes can hurt a company’s bottom line. Despite having come of age during recessions, millennials have $1.4 trillion spending power, according to a 2020 report by New York public relations firm 5WPR.
“It’s not O.K. anymore to just say, ‘We’re a business, we have no position.’”—Justin Noland, GoldLine Brands
Gen Z is similarly valuable. It comprises a whopping 32% of the global population, and is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation this country has seen, with 48% coming from communities of color. Though the oldest member of Gen Z is around 24 years old, it already holds more than $140 billion in spending power, a number that is only projected to grow.
“Social justice and anti-racism is a huge concern for millennials and Gen Z, so brands that don’t use their voice to stand alongside their customers risk losing their customers to brands that do,” says Marcella Tompkins, account director of McCue PR, a firm that works with Sonoma County businesses like Ferrari-Carano and Vintners Resort.
“The best example of this is Nike,” she says. “Their sales and stocks have surged ever since their 2018 ad featuring Colin Kaepernick and their ongoing support of Black Lives Matter.”
Sidestepping social movements that matter to younger generations, like #MeToo and BLM, will likely hurt the wine business in the long run. “The wine industry is so steeped in tradition and ‘this is how it’s always been done’ attitude,” says Johnston. “That just won’t appeal to millennials or Gen Z.”
Dr. Elizabeth “Liz” Thach, MW, distinguished professor of wine and professor of management at Sonoma State University, says these generations value storytelling and word-of-mouth marketing. It is key that a company shares the “why and how” of its brand.
“Millennials want an experience, while Gen Z wants cool concepts and cutting-edge marketing,” she says.
These generations have already impacted the wine business. Millennials created the thriving rosé wine market, and Gen Z, which has never known life without the internet, demands better online marketing.
“I would love to see more wineries cater to a younger, more diverse generation,” says Jenna Fischer, a millennial born and raised in Sonoma County. “As much as possible, I want only to support brands who are in line with my personal values regarding sustainability and human rights. I would like to see more affordable brands that don’t gatekeep wine.”
Gen Z and millennials seem eager to carve out their own experiences with wine. While previous generations embraced the formality of wine scores and noble grapes, younger audiences are excited about cofermentation methods, lesser-known wine regions and varieties, and brands that align with their values. They may ask, “What’s the product’s carbon footprint? Were people paid a fair and equal wage to make it?”
Younger generations are also interested in how alcohol impacts their health.
“We want products that fit our lifestyle,” says Hayley Johnston, assistant winemaker at Mill Creek Winery and a millennial. “We want to see sustainable practices that give back to the environment. We want a story, something that makes us feel connected to the product.
“We want to feel like the brands we spend our money on reflect our values. It starts with getting more diverse voices into the wine industry.”
One way to diversify wine’s appeal is to amplify the voices of younger members of the industry.
“It’s frustrating to see these panels at every conference talking about the millennial wine market without a millennial on the panel,” says Jennifer Reichardt, a millennial and winemaker at Raft Wines.
Martin Reyes, founder/principal of Martin Reyes Wine Group, and cofounder of Wine Unify Foundation, sees the philosophies that these generations embrace as part of a continuing shift of attitudes toward wine in the U.S.
“In the ’90s, the wine consumer was asking, ‘Who made this?’ ” says Reyes. “In the past decade, it was, ‘How was it grown?’ I believe the next question, the one that Gen Z will ask is, ‘How did my wine get here?’ The ethics of farming and the wine’s carbon footprint will be in question. The bottom line will be accountability.”
These generations tend to be increasingly knowledgeable about food and beverage culture. Nearly 60% of Gen Z list “food and drink” among their top five interests. They’re also amenable to new ways to approach wine, like in cocktails and cans.
“Both generations are more open to experimental wines, such as cofermentations with grapes, apples and watermelon,” says Justin Trabue, a Gen Z assistant winemaker at Lumen Wines.
What does a wine industry that embraces millennial and Gen Z ideals look like? Some say rethinking hiring processes, like opening the door from the vineyard to the winery, and encouraging employees who pick grapes to become tasting room hosts.
There are also calls for cultural education, more women in wine, increased BIPOC and LGBTQ+ representation, and restructuring the sommelier sector. It will need to prioritize gender-neutral marketing, storytelling and plenty of authentic YouTube content.
“I think videos that are easy to digest will be huge, changing the vocabulary from stuffy to modern,” says Reichardt.
Noland agrees. “This is an absolute must for any winery that wants to exist 10 years from now.”
Some companies seek to get ahead of the curve. GAZE Wine Cocktails produces cans of unexpected blends like Moscato-Chardonnay with coconut water.
Teneral Cellars, a female-owned and -operated wine company in El Dorado County, California, is focused on greater diversity in the industry. It donates 10% of its profits to organizations committed to women’s empowerment and those devoted climate change and social justice. “It’s a company that isn’t afraid to take a stand, and I love that,” says Noland.
Millennials and Gen Z aren’t going away, but where they direct their dollars and attention will be determined by those who know how to reach them.
“The first thing the wine industry needs to do is stop telling [these generations] what we want or why we’re not buying wine, and start listening,” says Thompkins. “Spend the time and money to learn about our interests, our values and what it would take for us to choose wine over other beverages in the market. Then do those things. It’s not that hard.”