Traditions matter to young wine buyers

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      This past January at the California-based Wine Market Council’s 2016 consumer-research conference in New York, a bunch of U.S. wine-industry facts and figures were presented. Although the shared data was America-centric, it certainly spoke broadly to what is happening in the wine world today.

      Plenty of information was shared, but here are two facts that illustrate where we’re at. One, there are more millennial adults in the U.S. than there are baby boomers: 79 million millennials versus 75 million baby boomers.

      Two, there are more millennial wine drinkers in the U.S. than there are baby boomer wine drinkers: 36 percent versus 34 percent. And as of January 1, 2016, every millennial is now of legal drinking age. (Source: Opinion Research Corporation survey of census-adjusted U.S. adults, June 2015.)

      That right there is what has the wine industry scrambling to figure out how to target millennials and putting way more effort into social media, sometimes to awkward or clumsy effect. It seems as if many have a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mission. I shuddered when I recently read about Gïk Blue Wine, a sweet (and, yes, blue-coloured) wine created in Spain and, apparently, taking Europe’s millennial generation by storm.

      In a recent interview on Munchies, the food website by Vice, company cofounder Aritz López said: “It tastes sweet and fresh and has no heritage.” He continued: “It is about reinventing traditions.”

      I found this at odds with my experiences with millennial colleagues, and coming-of-age wine fans, too. I have to admit, though, that being a part of Generation X (I’m 42), I’m slightly envious of this generation that the wine industry is falling all over itself to adopt. Back in the 1990s—and I don’t know if it was because we were perceived as slackers or simply indifferent—I hardly recall any large-scale targeting of my generation other than the launch of Wine X magazine, aimed at those wearing plaid and Doc Martens, with hot names of the era like Tori Amos and Ally McBeal’s Gil Bellows gracing the covers. On the upside, no one was trying to hawk us blue wine.

      When I’m talking wine with those younger than me, I find it is indeed those traditions and stories behind wines that get them interested in the first place. Now more than ever, it’s how you are selling wine to your tables in a restaurant rather than rattling off a series of tasting notes and leaving it at that. As our knowledge increases about where our food comes from and how it’s grown, I see many millennials looking at their wine the same way. Tradition and heritage do matter.

      And this whole broad brushstroke of millennials being entitled or even lazy is simply unfounded from where I’m sitting. I can confidently say that young sommeliers leading the pack in Vancouver are decidedly more educated about wine than a good host of peers and I were back in the 1990s, when I got into the game.

      First off, there’s more wine education available, but in today’s market you also can’t sit idle on your knowledge or experience. Look at those wine directors trusted with some of the biggest wine gigs in the city: Kieran Fanning at Chambar is 24; Justin Everett at Wildebeest is 29; Jason Yamasaki, who runs the wine program for the entire Joey Restaurant Group, is 30. There are many more I can mention, and they’re a curious, ambitious, and brilliant bunch.

      I just got off the phone with Nicole Campbell, a (29-year-old) colleague who imports and sells wine Canada-wide for Lifford Wine and Spirits, and I asked her how she finds selling to the millennial generation of sommeliers, compared with Generation X or even boomers.

      “It’s certainly a very different experience,” she told me. “I find the younger millennial buyers are more interested in those with great stories to tell, the smaller producers making unique, terroir-driven wines from the indigenous varieties of their sometimes little-known regions honestly, with minimal intervention.”

      She went on to tell me how sales meetings with milliennials are often more like casual conversations with like-minded folks about a mutual passion. “With the previous generations, though,” she continued, “it seems like it’s more of a traditional buyer-and-seller, conventional meeting where sales potential, inventory management, cost control are key topics covered, often with an eye towards more established wines and global growing regions.”

      When asked if she has a preference for one style of meeting over another—basically, whether she enjoys selling to millennials or previous generations more—she assured me that both are necessary and valid ways of conducting business. “And, really, I think that they can all learn from one another by sharing both philosophy and passion.”

      And so, with this passing of the torch from one generation to another, dare I say that it’s the same as it ever was? Those who have been around in the industry longer have much wisdom and experience to pass along, while, well, the kids are all right.