Are millennials illiterate? Uninterested in where wine comes from? Or are they wine’s Greatest Generation?

My working assumption has been the latter: that people in their 20s are willing to spend money on wines from anywhere, and are more concerned with drinking something interesting than impressing their peers.

 

But if you look at companies set up to sell wine to millennials — some created by millennials — their reading of that market makes it seem smug and uncurious and more interested in the app the wine is bought from than the bottle itself.

W. Blake GrayExample 1: Uproot Wines, a new company hyped by Forbes that sells wines by color coding and flavor profile. Rather than selling Sauvignon Blanc, it’s selling a wine with a color-bar label that tastes like “mandarin orange, pineapple juice, mint mojito, fresh lemonade and basil.”

Sounds like Yellow Tail, but this wine comes from Napa Valley and costs $42.

Example 2: Naked Wines, one of the most innovative companies in the wine business. It sounds like crowdfunding, and celebrates the cult of the winemaker over terroir.

On the first page of Naked Wines, you’re encouraged to define yourself as a Wine Snob — with a picture of a smug, jowly baby boomer frowning through reading glasses — or a Social Drinker, with a picture of pretty young Caucasian professionals.

I was honest, I clicked on Wine Snob, and was told I couldn’t buy anything. So I lied and said “Social Drinker,” and the next page asks if I’d rather have my wine made by “Salesmen” or Talented winemakers.” 

Then I’m asked if I want to “Pay more” or “get more.” Here is where I decided Naked Wines makes the color-coded, overpriced, mojito-flavored wines of Uproot seem smart. What’s the next question: “Would you rather have your genitals skewered with a rusty nail gun, or drink good red wine?”

I’m sure there are some millennials who read my first question in this column and have been waiting to write “U suk dmbss wine snb bomer shtfck.” You are the perfect customer for Naked Wines! But you’re still entirely too verbal for Uproot. Can you give me that insult in colors, please?

This type of marketing doesn’t jibe with millenial wine drinkers I see in San Francisco. They’re the folks who are happy to try the Croatian red while their parents insist on a Napa Chardonnay, preferably from a brand they’ve been buying for years. Millennials are the ones who order by the glass, partly because their total expenditure is less but also because they can try more than one type of wine.

But San Francisco is not mainstream America, and neither is Brooklyn. Somebody’s buying this stuff, and in the case of Naked Wines, they’re commenting on it. A lot.

This is the best thing about Naked Wines. There’s a built-in community of “social drinkers.” As with Yelp, there’s some signal and plenty of noise. 

Example: a Lodi red wine blend called “Fair Angel” from winemaker Jim Olsen. Julia C. writes, “I thought it would be sweeter than it was.” Brandi H. counters that it’s “just sweet enough without being too sweet.” Kelly H. opines, “Sorry, this was just too sweet for me.” But Diana H. says, “I prefer a sweeter wine. My husband also likes sweet, and did not like this one.” 

Nobody talks about Lodi or the grape varieties. Maybe that’s the way most people see wine. 

I looked at Jacqueline Bahue’s Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir to see if that’s a theme, because I believe Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir is one of the best and most distinctive wines in California.

Buyers took that wine more seriously — it costs nearly double — tasting things like chokecherry and raspberry leaf and “warm stables in the cool autumn.” There’s still that Yelp effect, though. Robert B.: “Nice full body.” Linda W.: “One of the boldest Pinot Noirs I have ever tasted.” Kent R.: “Light, bright and fresh.” 

I love that the winemaker jumps in and responds to people who taste her wine. I love the community, and it’s really not surprising that one woman’s “bold” is another man’s “light.” I’ve sat at many tables with people who taste wine for a living and heard them disagree like this. And you gotta love that “archangels” from the company jump in and offer replacement bottles to people who don’t like what they bought.

What’s missing is simple: What are these wines? Where are the vineyards? What’s the climate like there? 

 

Why are the wines the way they are?

The winemakers have some personality on the site. There are pictures, a very brief profile, and you can exchange comments. But the grapes … to be fair, we do know the region and the variety, and that’s a lot. But how did they get those grapes? Who grew them?

People learn, over time. Millennials currently spend less on wine overall than boomers because they have less money to spend. But they occasionally buy more expensive bottles than their parents did at the same age.

As Uproot founder Jay Levy says, their customers “are willing to spend $600 for a bottle of Grey Goose in a club. Regularly. They’re paying for the experience. That’s why they’re going to Starbucks. They’re paying for the lifestyle.” He has had customers spend $3000 on his wines.

I ask too much of millennials. I want them to be wine’s Greatest Generation. I want them to reward the right people, the ones who spend all summer tending the vines, not the winemaker with the best profile pic.

But I ask too much. For years, boomers over-rewarded big companies that mass-produced and manipulated wines. Now millennials might over-reward companies that make a personal connection. It may be color-coded and sometimes non-verbal, but it’s still a lot of progress in one generation.

 

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

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11 Responses

  1. Ryan O'Connell

    Appreciate the feedback, Blake. And the attention! Believe it or not that 4 question survey with the obvious answers gets a lot of people (not always millennials) to become Angels. That said, I take the point about fruit sources to heart and want to develop that a lot more. So many of our wines have great stories – we should really be telling them all over the wine pages. Soon! Not during the holidays, but SOON!

    And for the record, we’re not trying to talk down to people (millennials or otherwise). There’s just a great track record for getting folks to remind themselves that they like independent producers and saving money before asking them “Would you like to support independent producers and save money?”

  2. Kyle Schlachter

    Blake, you could at least spell millennial correctly… I’ve made that mistake before, but I guess I ask too much of the greatest wine blogger on the planet.

    • section 34

      You used to write about wine, Kyle. Now you’re just a snipe. What happened?

      • Kyle Schlachter

        Blake, don’t you think disparaging a generation’s literacy while misspelling that generation’s name is a bit ironic? It really wasn’t that big if a deal and in fact I mentioned that I’ve also been guilty of the same error. You dish a lot of criticism, but can’t take it? You used to write interesting articles, but now much of your writing is currish or just jejune. What happened? And yes, I used to write more about wine and I should get back to that. You are 100% correct.

      • davidhonig

        Spelling errors are editing errors, not author errors. We apologize for any erroneous spelling, both to the readers and to the author.

      • Kyle Schlachter

        David, that’s completely understandable. I was trying to point out the error in a light-hearted manner. I apologize to Blake if it came across as sniping.

  3. rminto

    Great post but speaking as a boomer Archangel, Naked Wines is not just for millennials. It’s for anyone who loves good wine and saving money. As to what makes an Archangel, they are not company folks, we are just long standing Naked Wine customers who believe in winemaker crowd funding and sharing good wine with others.

  4. Randy Caparoso

    Blake serves up a lot of good food for thought, but I still can’t help thinking: think about what the previous generations drank — White Zinfandel, wine coolers, Boone’s Farm, Riunite, Blue Nun, tutti-fruity Chardonnay, Mateus and Lancer’s, et al. The Millennials, no doubt, are neither as dumb nor as smart as the 20-somethings who came before them. As a group, however, they do seem to be more inquisitive, or curious, than previous generations — undoubtedly because they have infinitely easier access to instantaneous information (we used to write letters, for Pete’s sake, whenever we wanted to respond to things we read, like what I’m doing now).

    But “illiterate?” I can’t agree with the connotations of the post’s title. My two cents: it’s people who market to Millennials who are suspect. When you assume that people can’t read or absorb information, you are obviously underestimating your customer. It’s my own personal theory, but I think companies that underestimate this current bunch of new wine drinkers will be the ones holding the short end of the stick before long. Younger wine drinkers a lot smarter than you think; and if you don’t think so, it will probably bite you in the ass some time soon.

  5. Felicity Carter

    Maybe there has only ever been a small subset of people who were interested in the technical aspects of wine and, for most people, the taste is everything. Everyone wants to be the person to discover something first, so it’s more likely now that a wine with a great taste and good price will jump out at some point than it was in the past. The sharing nature of digital media means good (and bad) news can spread far and wide at speeds that could only have been dreamed of in the past, which can only be a good thing for wine.

    And maybe sharing based on taste is not a bad approach anyway. I love books, but I pay only scant attention to the typesetting, the personal life of the author and the name of the person who edited the manuscript. I am, however, very interested in hearing about whether a book is good or not from people whose literary tastes are close to mine.

    As for pictures, it’s the price of doing business online. I’ve written a couple of editorials now, practically begging wineries to take this seriously and get a professional photographer to take photos of key people. But bad selfies continue to proliferate, even at wineries where they’re known for their meticulousness.

  6. Chad Watkins

    As a wine writer who is also a millennial, I find that one of the biggest challenges is writing informative material that is also relevant. It is extremely important to me that wine drinkers understand what they like and why they like it. And for me, someone a bit obsessed with wine, this means finding out who made it, where it came from, what the grapes are and whether it was microoxygenized, etc. or not. But what about those people who don’t care about these things and really only want to know whether they will like the next bottle they buy? For me, it matters that limestone soils in a cool climate region usually translates into a high acid wine, but how do I simplify that into something that matters for all wine drinkers everywhere?

    Of course, it’s not nearly that simple, and that’s one of the greatest things I love about wine: it’s never-ending complexity. But that’s also what makes it daunting for novice consumers. I would hope that the goal of companies like Naked Wines and Uproot is to make wine more accessible, and not just to capitalize on the millennial wine-drinking trend. But I agree that there is certainly a danger in perpetuating a lack of knowledge by not educating the consumer. This is why the wine writing community needs to constantly be evolving and changing to meet the consumer where they are. We need to write in ways that are relevant and not arbitrary and educational without being arrogant.