Welcome to the latest episode of enophile freakout, where we all give in to our fears that Millennials will never be wine drinkers. For a few years now, as Baby Boomers have been retiring and cutting back on their wine spending while Gen Xers, like me, struggle to remind folks we exist (Helloooooo?), the fear has been building: Younger consumers don’t like wine. Younger consumers have no spending money. Younger consumers prefer cannabis. Younger consumers prefer avocado toast. Younger consumers are all too busy being sober curious.
The latest terror is: Younger consumers have all gone loco. Actually, Loko, as in Four Loko, the brand that originally made its name by asking, Why should consumers have to pour vodka into their Red Bull? Let’s save a step and combine an over-the-top energy drink with alcohol. Think of it as the Taco Bell of beverages.
Four Loko announced on Aug. 13 that they’ve released a hard seltzer. Their new offering combines a gentle fizz with 14 percent alcohol-by-volume and a “blue raspberry flavor.” Most hard seltzers contain about 4 to 6 percent alcohol, so Loko has gone edgy by matching the ABV of a Sonoma Pinot Noir.
Four Loko is really just the tip of the wine industry fear pyramid. The deeper worry is that Millennials are never going to be regular wine drinkers because they prefer hard seltzer. It’s time to grub up the grapevines and start planting cannabis or perhaps blue raspberries.
I’m less concerned, as you might have guessed. When I hear about Four Loko or White Claw or Truly Hard Seltzer, an old jingle from my childhood pops into my head. I imagine Bruce Willis on a porch on a summer day, hanging out with the guys. “Seagram’s Golden Wine Coolers … It's wet and it's dry — my, my, my. Me and the boys love, love, love it all the time … Seagram’s Golden Wine Coolers!”
White Claw? It’s really only a few steps away from wine coolers, a mix of wine, fruit flavors and bubbly water that swept America in the mid-1980s. Ronald Reagan was President. Wine sales had boomed in the 1970s, but then flattened out in the early 1980s and declined in 1984. Sales would have dropped 5.9 percent in 1985 as well, were it not for wine coolers, which helped the industry grow 4.7 percent, according to Impact, a sister publication of Wine Spectator. By 1987, Gallo had a runaway hit with Bartles & Jaymes and wine coolers made up 15 percent of the wine market.
When excise taxes on wine rose in 1991, companies dodged the taxes by turning their wine coolers into flavored malt beverages. Coincidentally, hard seltzers are also flavored malt beverages.
A lot of the trends we see in wine and alcohol today echo the days when Boomers were maturing. Prosecco? May I introduce you to Asti Spumante and Riunite. Rosé All Day? Meet my old friend White Zin. Red blends? Sounds a lot like Hearty Burgundy. Heck, even wine coolers are back. Jordan Salcito, director of wine special projects at Momofuku, has introduced a canned wine cooler, called Ramona, made from organic Italian wine and citrus flavors. History has a way of repeating itself with each generation.
Despite all the panic, younger people are drinking. But if wine companies are serious about reaching them, they can’t market their wines the way Napa did 30 years ago or Bordeaux did a century ago.
Prosecco and rosé have boomed in recent years because they’re fun and different. What I would love to see are more wines that bring freshness and fun to the market while not sacrificing authenticity and quality. Because at the end of the day, fads are fads. They don’t last. Good winemaking does. But you can still do new things and not compromise what makes wine special.
The last thing winemakers need to do is go loko.