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New Order: Millennials Reach for Wine, But What Do They Want?

The question everyone selling wine is puzzling over
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 11, 2012 11:00am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

When the Nielsen Company surveyed members of different age groups in late 2010 on how many of their wine shop purchases topped $20 a bottle, Boomers averaged 12 percent. For Generation X, the number crept to 14. Millennials, however, paid more than $20 for one in every four bottles they bought.

"Young people have absolutely no problem coming in and buying a bottle of Le Nez de Muse for $25 on a Monday night," Justin Chearno, the wine buyer at Uva Wines, told me, referring to an organic cuvée from small Burgundy producer Les Faverelles.

Another fun fact, from the Simmons National Consumer Study: In 2010, 24 percent of Krug drinkers in America were between 21 and 24 years old; another 20 percent were 25 to 34. If you are in the business of selling wine right now, you may be very interested indeed in learning more about this demographic of "impressionable young people who are easily parted with their money."

Well, I too am wondering who this twenty-something buying $169 bottles of Champagne is, and if she is single. So I gathered some data and spoke with some flesh-and-blood Millennials (and the sellers who love them) to find out more about what the folks who are still early on their wine journeys are drinking now.

Today, I'll look at guys and gals living in big-city markets like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, where the wine buffet offers more opportunity to be choosy and educate yourself. In a follow-up, I'll try to divine whether these markets are incubators of national trends or just a scattering of bubbles.

The new guard seems bent on smashing the old idols. "Older drinkers, all they know are three varietals: Cab, Chardonnay and Merlot. [Young drinkers] are not really interested in those anymore," Katarina Maloney, 28 and a PR manager at Kobrand, told me. She wasn't done: "People in their late 30s and 40s, they're still kind of obsessed with varietals that were hot five years ago, like Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec."

"I'm selling more Austrian Grüner Veltliner than I am California Cabernet," declared Jeremy Quinn, sommelier at Chicago's Webster's Wine Bar. "Six years ago it was the opposite." (Quinn is also sommelier for the recently opened Telegraph, which exclusively traffics in small European producers.)

Most anyone born in the '80s has a sixth sense for seeing a boardroom behind every brand, so you can stash your gimmicks as well. "When something looks overly focus-grouped," said Chearno, customers balk: "No way. I will take the wine with the castle on it over the wine with the dog on it." ("Brand-allergic" seems to be le mot injuste for this phenomenon, as I recently heard it grumbled by a rep for a big distributor.)

There's a prevailing stereotype that "trendy" young drinkers won't touch anything made by more than two Burgundians, a flock of yeasts and the horse those yeasts rode in on. That's not the full truth, but there's something to it. Natural, organic, "as non-interventionist as possible," family-owned, unusual, "European-style": These were the terms used by virtually all the industry folks I spoke with to describe young drinkers' preference for what is perceived as authentic.

Chearno's store opened in 2002 as the first fine wine shop in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn; the area was and still is a magnet for young creative types. When I lived there, among the concoctions I either bought or tasted at Uva included a quinoa-infused gin, an oxidative-style Chardonnay from northern Italy and a Rhône red that was 100 percent Counoise (the grape doesn't get a lot of press, let's say).

As for Telegraph, "People walk in here and they literally say—this is a direct quote—'I don't recognize anything on this list. This is the best list I have ever seen,'" said Quinn.

A Wine Market Council survey of "core" once-a-week-or-more drinkers corroborates this adventurousness: Eighty-five percent of Millennials "frequently" or "occasionally" purchase unfamiliar brands; that number drops to 76 for Xs and just 61 percent of boring old dads. (Incidentally, survey says: Age is inversely proportional to hours logged at wine bars.)

It's easy to commit to the occasional (or even frequent) glass of intrigue, but for many, the road less traveled is the main highway to wine love. Brooklyn Winery's Conor McCormack, who in 2010 and 2011 ran a custom-crush service, "had one group last year that wanted a barrel-fermented Riesling. They talked about it and tasted side-by-side samples, and said, 'Let's do this.' I found more of that, more adventurousness in trying different things here." This was rather a departure for McCormack from his previous position as cellarmaster at Crushpad, where "90 percent or more" wanted freight-train Cabs and Chardonnays.

So I asked around what styles, grapes and regions the kids are hip to now: Dry rosé (McCormack bottles one at $32 and it sells like a dream), orange wine (Quinn pours as many as 13 at Telegraph), Riesling, Sicily, Primitivo, Lambrusco, Torrontés, Crémant de Bourgogne, Prosecco, Muscadet, the Jura, southern France and, yes, Malbec, all came up.

For small-time winegrowers, it's not easy to make a living off most any of these, but such producers should be heartened: Young drinkers are taking chances on winemakers who take chances.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  September 11, 2012 7:07pm ET
As a wine lover i most enjoy trying wines from different countries, regions, states and using different varietals and blends. If you are still obsessed over California Cabernet you're missing a lot of good wine out there.
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  September 12, 2012 3:03pm ET
Going for obscurity purely for the sake of obscurity, or because smaller may be seen as necessarily better, will result in a lot of good wine being missed.

The tired analogy could be opting purely. For indie music and ignoring the great wealth of music already out there (whether that be the stones, the dead, the who or even traffic and Jeff beck). The big houses/chateaux must have gotten something right.

Embrace it all. Explore it all. Have fun with it. I love my offbeat wines, but I also love my Columbia crest grand estates. There is a season (turn, turn turn, etc.).

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