"The VCR changed everything, because it's the first time in history that kids knew how to do something their parents didn't," declared Tyler Balliet, the founder of Wine Riot. VCRs explain Millennial wine habits, he contended as we talked over beers (there would be time for wine later, at the Riot), because the generation between 21 and 34 doesn't need to take purchasing cues from the tastes of elders or "authorities." No one online lacks for information coming at them on every platform, from Twitter to ads in their own inboxes. "All other generations are information seekers; we're information sorters."
Balliet's company Second Glass began Wine Riot in Boston in 2008 when he was 28; by the end of this year, the traveling circus of a walkaround tasting will have stopped at six cities: Boston, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, New York and L.A. He now reaches 15,000 drinkers annually through the Riot—virtually all under the age of 40—and he's the one who sorts what information they experience in his careful selection of around 50 vendors. Balliet has honed the vibe of the Riot such that it is the antithesis of stuffy, yet not unserious. There are temporary tattoos, a DJ and a photobooth, but these distractions just help attendees feel relaxed; as Balliet put it, "Nobody will laugh at me if I ask a question" about wine.
Most booths poured wines at attainable, rather than super-premium, price points, wines curious drinkers can find in stores later (obviously you will have logged favorites on your Wine Riot app). Selections, which varied by location, came from respected names like California's Hess Collection, Germany's Dr. Loosen and Mionetto Prosecco, as well as smaller quality producers with a U.S. presence like Domaine du Vieux Lazaret in Châteauneuf, Sauvion in the Loire and Elderton in Barossa. Balliet also emphasized wineries local to each city, such as Red Newt in New York's Finger Lakes. Perhaps most importantly, Balliet has designed the tasting to educate. The Loire Valley Wines booth, for example, was backed by a 10-foot-high partition splayed with a giant, colorful map of the region, with grapes and styles pinpointed.
Balliet does not paint quite the same picture of the sophisticated, moneyed Millennial connoisseur of obscure Burgundy cuvées and the Jura's finest Savagnins that I discussed a few weeks ago; his audience is more national and, perhaps, more casual than the New York/San Francisco wine bar set. But the habits of Millennial drinkers nationwide follow those in the gourmet enclaves in three important ways. One is the thirst for education. Another is the draw of wine at a younger age than earlier generations felt it. The third is that "their open-mindedness to wines from all places, all grape varieties is much higher," said Tom Steffanci, VP of marketing for Deutsch Family Wines. "This generation grew up with eating sushi, Mexican food, Italian food. They would of course want to try wines from all over the world."
Steffanci added, "These are consumers that grew up in a mass marketing age, and they're quite conscious of being advertised at." Balliet claimed, "Nobody knows what the 100-point system is" (guys!). So you have a huge, growing segment of drinkers who supposedly (granted, these aren't the first assertions that have been made about Millennial tendencies) don't trust ads, don't care about reviews, don't know much but are eager to learn, and would rather do so by hopping around the world of wine than picking a favorite Cali Cab and sticking with it. How do you market to these crazy people?
"How do you invite people into your universe? That is the challenge." Prince Robert of Luxembourg, whose family owns Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion and others, knows a thing or two about the headache of marketing Bordeaux to Americans, especially the young. The answer at his Domaine Clarence Dillon is a new wine (circa 2005) called Clarendelle that addresses several common gripes about the region—overpriced, dominated by corporations as small growers struggle, undrinkable in youth—as it's priced at about $20, sourced from small farms around the Gironde that could use the boost, blended by the Haut-Brion/LMHB team and held till it's ready to drink (the current release vintage for the red is 2005). Prince Robert considers the unique project "an answer for Bordeaux [at large], a new mix that would be successful in attracting a younger audience."
Château Guiraud, in Sauternes, just started up a U.S. office this year: It is brand ambassador Fiona Perrin, 22. "When people look at me presenting this kind of wine, it gives another image" than the idea of boring old France that the new drinker might have, she told me. Guiraud's ground game is a work in progress, but by pushing the attractively priced second wine, Petit Guiraud, and encouraging Sauternes in mixology—also an angle for other niche styles like Port—the chateau, like DCD, clearly sees payoff promise in the American Millennial market.
A slew of brands like Petit Guiraud and Clarendelle have either been created or repositioned in the last few years largely to reach the Millennial drinker, but many are marketed sloppily, even condescendingly. Deutsch, however, excels at this game. One label, HobNob, aimed squarely at young drinkers, has quickly grown to 200,000 cases. In the last three or so years, Deutsch has stepped up its overtures to the kids' table even with its established brands like Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau and Yellow Tail.
Steffanci cited some recent successful Deutsch campaigns. HobNob sponsored a stage at Austin hipster music mecca South X Southwest, played by a series of rock acts I had not heard of. "You could drink the wine and enjoy live music, and we were tweeting from there and posting on Facebook what was happening," said Steffanci. But he adds, "We weren't telling people to go buy HobNob. What we've tried is not to talk at them, but more to show that our brand can be relevant in their lives." Deutsch is serious about this approach, especially in the digital sphere: They even commissioned Yellow Tail Facebook fans to come up with names for two new labels, with fans selecting "Sweet Red Roo" as a favorite in a competition; in another promotion, a fan suggested "Tree-Free Chardonnay" for a new unoaked wine.
Another: This year's DuBoeuf Nouveau theme is "magique." The label art was designed by a Swiss man named Marco Tempest who is "the forerunner in techno-magic"; when you wave your smartphone in front of the bottle "the label actually comes alive," said Steffanci.
So, winemakers, the bad news is a heart label and a tagline that sounds like Mom's impression of a twentysomething pick-up line isn't going to cut it. I'm gonna need a mindblowing, yet immersively educational, techno-magic, rock 'n roll, Facebook extravaganza, priced at under $20, please. But I'll take care of the name for you.
You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.
Tina Caputo — Santa Rosa, CA — October 25, 2012 4:40pm ET
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