Sipping snapping and crowdsourcing
Cheers to change: tech savvy, environmentally conscious, thrift-loving millennials change up the wine scene
The Instagramming/Yelping/Snapchatting generation is drinking wine—lots of it. Millennials, generally those born between 1982 and 1999, are poised to overtake the baby boomers as the largest wine-consuming demographic. The industry’s taking notice, and wine’s being marketed and sold in some new, decidedly less stuffy ways.
“I think millennials are more adventurous than the older generation, which is great for me, because we’re able to bring in more obscure grapes,” says Paula Paradise, co-owner of Paradise Wine, located on Rhode Island Street in Buffalo. “I find younger buyers are really willing to experiment. It gives me a free hand to buy these obscure wines and have fun with it.”
Millennials now beat out the baby boomers demographically at seventy-nine million compared to the older generation’s seventy-five million, according to the US Census Bureau. While boomers do remain the largest wine-consuming generation, millennials are rapidly closing that gap, according to 2016 statistics from the Wine Market Council, a nonprofit research group.
A look at the way wine’s being consumed and sold in 2017 reflects established millennial traits: digitally savvy, environmentally conscious, open to new experiences, and so thrifty it borders on a competitive sport. Also, story matters. “Boomers have more preconceived notions about wine,” says Buffalo native Julia Burke, who now works at a winery in Oregon and has been working in the industry for nearly a decade. “I find they come from a time when wine was much more of a status symbol and even more intimidating than it is today. This makes them more likely to stick with what they know. Millennials, especially women, seem to try anything as long as it’s affordable.”
Millennials care less about how an expert rates wine and more about what their community thinks. This egalitarian quality contributes to the popularity of apps such as Vivino and, to a lesser extent, Delectable, which make wine a community experience. To use Vivino, shoppers use their smart phones to snap photos of wine labels, upload them, and instantly receive information about the wines, as well as personalized recommendations. SevenFifty, an online platform for browsing and ordering beverages, is also popular.
“We are a generation that’s more about, ’What does the review aggregate system say?’” says Brendan Flake, a wine buyer for Gates Circle Wine & Liquor, noting the example of the movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes. “We care more about what the community or crowd thinks. That, to us, is more reliable than one monolithic source.”
These apps, in addition to offering a rating system, also make wine easier than ever to get. Gates Circle recently began using the app Drizly, says Flake. It connects users to the store’s inventory and employs a driver to bring wine, or other alcoholic beverages, to customers in one hour or less. “If I can sit on my couch and quickly pull up what a thousand people thought of a specific bottle and have that bottle sent to my home—well, that is a game changer for a lot of people,” Flake notes.
With this new digital accessibility, the stigma of wine—namely, of it being fancy or even elitist—is disappearing. No longer is it something people drink during expensive dinners. It’s being consumed more in the everyday way typically seen in European countries. A big part of that is price. Trader Joe’s sells “Two Buck Chuck” (from the Charles Shaw winery) for under three dollars a bottle. In some parts of the country, the discount grocery store chain Aldi also sells wine around a similar ultra value price point. Blame crushing student debt or just that inherent thriftiness, but millennials know the value of a dollar. According to Wine Opinions, nearly eighty percent of millennials are buying wines that cost under fifteen dollars.
Buffalo resident Erin Hy, twenty-two, loves any wine that’s “pink and sweet,” and she fits the millennial wine-buyer statistics perfectly: she purchases in the eight-to-twelve dollar range. “Honestly? I go for what’s cheap,” she says. Despite the low price, few feel they’re sacrificing quality. Hy, for example, is emphatic on whether a taste difference exists between cheap and expensive, insisting, “Absolutely not!”
Paradise opened her store seventeen years ago based on this “everyday wine” concept. The bulk of her wines sell in the ten-to-fifteen dollar range, with a smattering under ten dollars. She’s glad the elitist stigma is dying. She offers free tastings on Fridays, among other community outreaches, where importers come in and share stories behind the wines, to break down the stigma even further and make the experience less intimidating. Paradise also prefers to work with sustainably farmed, small production wineries. In Bon Appetit’s September issue, the store was even named one of the magazine’s favorite natural wine shops. “This is coming from the whole farm to table movement, but also concern for the environment,” says Paradise. “There are a lot of people, especially in this part of the city, who are eating that way and want to drink that way, too.”
In addition to responsible consumption, the narrative also matters. Often it’s the most important selling point. Flake says his favorite story is the one behind a winery in France. The winery rebelled against government restrictions on producing cabernet sauvignon in its region. It grew their grapes and sold the wine anyway, and became a tremendous success. It’s that rebel spirit story that Flake loves and others connect with, too.
An affordable new label, 19 Crimes, also celebrates the defiant rebel spirit story. The wine, made in Australia, pays homage to the hardy souls banished from Britain to live in Australia; if they didn’t go, they faced death for crimes committed. “These nineteen crimes turned criminals into colonists,” its website reads. “As pioneers in a frontier penal colony, they forged a new country and new lives, brick by brick. This wine celebrates the rules they broke and the culture they built.”
Paradise also recognizes the importance of story. In addition to including a write-up about each wine in the store, she sends a newsletter every week to customers with the wines’ background. “When you have a story it’s like taking people to the wineries themselves,” she says.
Burke once taught a class on terroir, the combination of factors, including soil, climate, and sunlight, that gives wine grapes their distinctive character. It was one of her most popular classes, she says, noting that it speaks to customers’ desire to know the narratives behind wine. While Burke falls squarely in the millennial demographic, and while she celebrates wine being more accessible than ever, she also says she’s OK with it keeping some of the magic and mysticism of yesteryear.
“It’s also a really challenging and cool thing that does take expertise,” she says, “and I’m OK with it having a little romance.”
Naomi Sakovics is an editor with Bee Publications.