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Younger Drinkers Reaching for Wine

Wine companies, in turn, are reaching out to younger drinkers

Eric Arnold
Posted: March 27, 2006

At the annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers tasting in San Francisco this January, many visitors looked as if they had taken a wrong turn on their way to a Strokes concert. A popular local disc jockey, Hooman Khalili from rock station Radio Alice 97.3 FM, was recording sound bites uttered by frisky attendees. Young women clutching glasses were lifting their T-shirts to show off new temporary wine-label tattoos on their bellies. But the twenty-something set had indeed come for the wine. In fact, San Francisco nightlife Web site Ovahere.com had been hyping ZAP for weeks in advance.

Adults ages 21 to 29 are the fastest growing segment of the wine market--39 percent drank more wine in 2005 than they did a year earlier, according to a 2005 study by the Wine Market Council, a trade organization of winemakers, importers, retailers and others. Only 30 percent of Generation Xers and 8 percent of Baby Boomers could say the same thing. And wine companies have caught on to the trend, aggressively targeting the post-college market with new labels and new promotions.

Born in the 1980s and '90s and known as Millennials because most of them will have reached adulthood after 2000, these younger drinkers are "a significant force in shaping the market for wine in the U.S.," said John Gillespie, president of the Council. That's partly because they are "entering the wine-consuming market at an early stage of adulthood," he added. While Boomers tended not to reach for wine until they hit their 40s, Millennials have started picking up corkscrews much earlier.

Millennials are also important because there are so many of them--70 million, or roughly 26 percent of the U.S. population--and more are turning 21 every day.

Already, about 38 percent of wine-drinking Millennials are so-called "core" drinkers, meaning they consume wine once a week or more on average, compared to 41 percent of Baby Boomers. Those core Millennials consume an average of 2.89 glasses of wine per occasion, compared with 2.41 glasses for Generation X core drinkers and 2.27 glasses for core Boomers. And Millennials are more open to new experiences, with 85 percent saying they frequently or occasionally purchase a label they've never seen before.

Constellation's 3 Blind Moose brand is just one of several aimed at Millennials.
So it's no surprise that wine companies are launching a growing number of new labels meant primarily for them. Generally made in a fruit-forward style and priced around $10, the wines often have colorful, irreverent or even gimmicky labels. These brands use tech-savvy marketing, such as podcasts, and stress fun over sophistication (loft parties in Brooklyn instead of five-course wine dinners at pricey restaurants).

For example, Click Wine Group, which already has brands such as Fat Bastard (a French wine featuring a hippo on the label) and Bootleg (Italian wines shrink-wrapped to look like leather boots), will launch two more labels this year. One of the biggest marketers to Millennials has been wine giant Constellation Brands, which in the past two years has introduced 3 Blind Moose, Four Emus, Monkey Bay, Smashed Grapes and Twin Fin, with more entry-level offerings in the pipeline.

"This [Millennial] group has been willing to try new things and look for new styles," said Ben Dollard, president of Pacific Wine Partners, the Constellation division that makes Twin Fin. The label features a red convertible with a surfboard in the backseat, meant to convey the laid-back California lifestyle. "They're looking for brands that look good and make them feel good."

You won't find much traditional talk of terroir on these labels or in their marketing materials. 3 Blind Moose, for example, features cartoon moose wearing sunglasses (reminiscent of Joe Camel) and sipping wine. "The label tells a story, but not a wine story as in, 'This is made from the top of a mountain.' It's not serious wine speak," explained Gary Glass, vice president of marketing for Constellation's Centerra Wine Company, who estimates that 3 Blind Moose has sold about 175,000 cases since its August 2005 launch.

Wild Bunch asks wine drinkers, "How wild are you?"
Virgin Vines, launched last year by Richard Branson, explains standard wine terminology on its Web site while simultaneously mocking it with new definitions in so-called Virgin Vernacular. (For example, "body" is "what everyone shows off when they are young, and hides when they are older.") And the Web site for Montevina's Wild Bunch line from Lodi, Calif., gives visitors a multiple-choice quiz that tests not wine knowledge but "How wild are you?" (The conclusion is either "You need an immediate injection of Wild in your life." Or "You're WAY WILD … Show off that new tat, jump on the bar and shake what yer mama gave ya!")

Even established regions and labels are being marketed to Millennials in new ways. The wines of Beaujolais are being promoted and poured at trendy bars and clubs in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Constellation-owned Blackstone, best known for its $10 California Merlot, sponsors Austin City Limits, a three-day outdoor music festival in Texas that last year starred acts such as Coldplay, Thievery Corporation and Wilco. Even high-end labels, such as Patz & Hall, which produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from top appellations in Sonoma and Napa, are getting into the music scene. Last year, the winery held a tasting at Crash Mansion on Manhattan's Lower East Side, followed by a performance by alternative rock band Blow Up Hollywood.

Wines like Virgin Vines are a response to the overall trend of fun, fruit-forward wines.
Millennials don't seem to mind being overtly marketed to in this way, nor do they seem to care whether a brand is from a large company or a small offbeat producer, according to industry experts. "Millennials are not nearly as turned off by the big brands the way the Xers were," explained Geoff Meredith, founder of consulting firm Lifestage Matrix Marketing, which works with companies such as Coca-Cola, Kellogg's and Levi's.

In the long run, however, the U.S. market probably won't see a major shift in terms of what's inside the bottle or what's on the label, said Gillespie. Fun, fruit-forward wines are just the trend of the moment, like the white Zinfandel craze of the 1980s and the Kendall-Jackson-inspired Chardonnays of the '90s. "Wine styles never have stopped evolving," he said.

Millennials will keep evolving too, he added. They are more interested in reading and learning about wine than their elders are, according to the Wine Market Council study. And though Millennials have a limited income compared to the average boomer, "when they feel it's appropriate, they're not afraid to spend real dollars on wine," Gillespie said. "Their level of sophistication is already well on its way to being something that can appreciate the mid-range--the $25 bottles of wine. Not just, 'Here's a fun animal on the label, let's open the bottle, have a laugh, watch MTV and drink wine.'"

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