The numbers are in and Millennials are ditching wine for beer and cocktails. Is it too late to win them back?
By Chef & Somm’s Rebecca Meir Liebman
It was 2016 the first time I heard it suggested that wine was no longer attracting a young crowd the way it once had. A fourth-generation Rioja winemaker – one of my favorites, who I’d met at the Wine and Culinary International Forum in Barcelona – was lamenting the fact that Spanish Millennials are more interested in cocktails and beer than wine. He said wine is something many of them associate with the past; it’s what their parents and grandparents drink.
It was a surprising and intriguing bit of information; something I wanted to take a closer look at. Was this peculiar to Spain or a global shift? According to wine consumption data collected by Vinexpo and IWSR, Millennials drink less wine than the generation before them, and it is Italy, not Spain, that has seen the most dramatic decrease in wine consumption; down 14% from 2010 to 2018.
In the USA there has been an overall increase in alcohol consumption, but wine is still the least consumed alcohol, with liquor and beer at the top, especially among Millennials.
Has the wine industry lost touch with Millennials – a consumer group born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, which, as of 2017, accounted for 27% of the global population? What is driving this shift in consumer preferences from wine, to beer and cocktails; and if wine is not that trendy among young drinkers, then where does that leave the art of wine and food pairing? Well, I’ve given this some thought, and I’ve come to a few realizations about my industry.
It’s all about the Money
A winemaker from California told me in confidence that in his fifth year in business he had tried to sell his very well-crafted Zinfandel for $80 a pop, but not enough people bought it. When a friend suggested he raise his price to $250 a bottle, he sold out within a month! It is amazing how much the consumer judges a wine by its price tag, even if only subconsciously; a hefty price equals a good wine. We have a hard time taking any wine under $30 seriously.
I led a tasting a while ago, where I secretly transferred a $73 bottle of Italian Brunello into a wine-in-the-box package. Naturally, all in attendance noted how cheap the wine tasted. We are so influenced by price and packaging that we immediately equate less expensive with less tasty and lower quality.
Something else I often hear, is that decent wine is just too expensive, whereas with cocktails or beer, it is believed that one can enjoy a quality tipple for much less money.
As someone who tastes countless wines I want to question that. There are many winemakers who create great wines with real artistic expression at very reasonable prices, but, because of a lack of good marketing; because they are produced with less-famous grapes, or are from unpopular wine regions, remain underappreciated.
It’s the reputation we wine professionals, wine aficionados and sommeliers created around wine – that it’s only for the rich – that made wine exclusive rather than inclusive.
If you think about it, before Napa had the reputation it has today, their wine prices were much lower, but did that mean the wine was of a lesser quality? Do wines from Napa actually taste ten times better today, now that the prices are ten time higher, or is this, to a great degree, a reflection of good marketing, popularity and what the market will bear?
For generations, wine equaled status. Just like a luxury auto or yacht, a cellar full of fine wines is a showy and clear indication of one’s wealth and status.
And therein lies the rub.
Millennials, unlike their parents, the Baby Boomers, are just not that obsessed with money, nor do they have as much of it as previous generations.
There are numerous articles detailing how the currently young generations are much more interested in spending their hard-earned cash on experiences, such as travel and dining out. They’re also more likely to live in tiny condos, and are therefore less inclined to buy and accumulate stuff, such as a cellar full of dusty bottles.
If you consider the cocktail, there is an artistic freedom and celebration of exploration, mixing of colours, foams, and creating textures, it keeps on evolving and is not focused on a price tag. The world of cocktails and bar chefs enjoys a playfulness, immediacy, and creative freedom that the wine world has, to a great extent, lost to the pursuit of status and elitism.
Diversity vs. Inclusion
If you do a Google Image search of ‘people drinking wine’, you’ll be presented with dozens of photos of mainly well-dressed white people holding glasses of wine. Sure there is the odd image including a person of colour, but overall, the industry doesn’t take into account or promote diversity when advertising wine.
The same – sadly – is true of professional wine events. Drop in on any tasting, and you’ll find a room full of middle- to upper-income white folks, which is problematic for any number or reasons, not the least of which is that Millennials are political! They’re concerned about, and discuss diversity and equality, while the wine world is busily focusing on who they assume can afford to buy their wines.
Moreover, in times where we are striving to be accepting of and create space for a-genders or non-binary, trans, and queer folx; while validating different types of attractions and connections, we remain reluctant to offer that degree of inclusion within the world of wine.
You’ll rarely see gay couples depicted in wine marketing. The prevailing clichés are still the giggly white women sipping rosé, and the silvered haired white men appreciating a serious red. Gender roles and binary thinking still prevail in the wine industry, while Millennials are rejecting that sort of thinking, and more and more, engendering inclusivity and acceptance. The wine industry would be well-advised to do the same.
The Snobbish Sommelier is Alive and Well
As I touched on earlier, Millennials gravitate to experiences more than stuff. So, what kind of experience does the wine industry offer them? I hate to admit it, being a sommelier myself, but there are many among our ranks who still maintain a very elitist attitude. A few sommeliers have tried to shake off the old image of the snobbish sommelier by dressing more casually, but more often than not, it’s simply window dressing; the language and the approach hasn’t changed, and in some ways, has become even more snobbish.
Sommeliers use sophisticated words and a secret lingo to describe wines – minerality, earthy, tannic, balanced – without explaining to the average wine drinker what they mean. I’ve even witnessed sommeliers expressing thinly-veiled disapproval and surprise when a client shows a lack of knowledge, as if to say, ‘Wow, you really are not too sophisticated!’ A dentists or mechanic doesn’t expect their clients to understand the lingo, so they explain it, without attitude. Wine professionals should, readily, do the same.
A common attitude among oenophiles and sommeliers, is that wine is for the entitled; it sits at the top of the pyramid, above all other beverages or foods. Many sommeliers consider themselves more important than the chef, and even the very clients they serve.
The snobbish somm might not wear a suit or hang a tastiven cup around their neck anymore, but many still don an outdated attitude. Sure, it’s a demeanor that may have appealed to generations past, in another time and place, but it’s one most of the younger generation find pretentious and repellant. Millennials are a more casual lot, and appreciate a straightforward, simple, fun, honest, and real approach.
Modern Food and Wine Pairing is Constrained by Stiff Old Rules
In wine schools there are rules and examples of “perfect” pairings, as if it’s an exact science. It’s almost like following colour combination rules to create the “perfect” painting, but when creating art – at the easel or dinner table – rules should not control the creative process! Intuition, a sense of style, and a deep understanding of flavours should guide us.
Millennials are more attracted to cocktails and beers because of the emphasis on artistic creation and craft, an image both sectors have worked hard to engender. By adhering to rules – with an almost religious ferocity – which were written 100 years ago, and not adjusting them to reflect the modern palate and new cuisines, we lose the next generation.
Let me give you some examples: A classic pairing rule says a sweet dessert should be paired with an even sweeter wine. But, most people today don’t enjoy an overly sweet finish to a meal. Let’s say the meal is finished with a slice of carrot cake; pairing it with a super-fruity yet earthy, complex and full-bodied red wine with soft tannins – Dolcetto – or even a fuller-bodied Beaujolais results in a beautiful, playful, and unexpected pairing. On the flipside of this pairing, instead of serving a late harvest Riesling or Icewine with the dessert, I might reserve these wines for the soup course. I’ve paired a sweet wine alongside corn soup with a salty popcorn garnish; the saltiness of the popcorn tempers the sweetness of the wine. Think of the last movie you watched and how good that sweet soda and popcorn was together. Adding some spice to the soup further mellows the sweetness of the wine and makes it more interesting, adventurous, and tasty to the modern palate.
Now, think about the classic pairing of foie gras and Sauterns; to this day, there exists an unbreakable commitment to this old pairing, even though, for the modern palate it’s far too rich and much too sweet. The heaviness and fattiness of the foie gras and the syrupy thickness and sweetness of the Sauterns isn’t in step with the tastes of many of today’s diners. So why then, is this outdated pairing still to be found on menus everywhere? Perhaps it’s the fancy factor? Both items are extremely expensive and denote luxury, and as I mentioned before, the wine world loves to align itself with the hallmarks of wealth.
Personally, I much prefer pairing foie gras with Moulin Touchais – an aged late harvest Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley. It’s not as sweet, has more acidity, and is much less expensive than Sauterns.
Another by-the-book pairing is Cabernet Sauvignon and beef tenderloin, but today, people eat their tenderloin more rare than in the recent past, and a delicate piece of rare tenderloin can easily be over-powered by a typical Cabernet Sauvignon. I prefer to pair rare beef tenderloin with a Barbera or Brunello, as they are not as big and bossy. This is just the tip of the new food and wine pairing iceberg, and it is time for the wine industry to wake up and embrace the fact that palates and politics are changing – have changed! – and it must evolve too, or risk becoming a luxury of the past.
So Now What?
Wine is all about variety – different colours, flavours, and terroirs – and by its very nature, is an expression of diversity. The wine industry can use this to connect with this very political and woke generation.
Wine is available at every price point, and it is my job as a sommelier to celebrate the wines that are great within their price range – whatever that price range might be – without snobbery. Wine is about flavour and the backstory – the winemakers, the grapes, the land – and we should focus on that, while keeping it fun, simple, and yes, even gently and non-judgmentally educational.
The art of food and wine pairing is a game for the imagination; it’s all about exploring and experiencing the interactions between wine and food, and exploration requires freedom from stifling rules.
If the wine industry wants to draw the next generation back into the fold, we’re going to have to loosen up, get creative, be playful and political, too.
Sommelier & Consultant
As co-owner of Chef & Somm, the GTA’s only Bespoke Private Dining and Sommelier service, Rebecca has acquired over a decade of experience in some of Canada’s – and the world’s – top dining rooms.
She earned her hospitality, service and sommelier skills at top restaurants – Canoe, Luma, BLÜ Ristorante and Maple Leafs Sport & Entertainment – but Rebecca is always learning, tasting, and cultivating relationships with winemakers, local and abroad.
Her thirst for wine knowledge is a never-ending quest; Rebecca brings an unquenchable curiosity and authority to any dining experience.