Dumbing down wine is not the way to sell more to millennial customers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 6:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 4:17pm

Before any parents reading this start composing sternly worded letters, this isn't an article peddling wine to 15-year-olds. "Millennial" is a poorly defined demographic, sometimes described as those born post-millennium, but according to our ultimate millennial resource, Google, it is "a person reaching young adulthood around the year 2000".

Millennials are among the most maligned and marketed-to groups. Employers bemoan their sense of entitlement, laziness and constant demands for feedback while marketers wet themselves at the prospect of selling to them en masse.

Having partied like it's 1999 in braces, spectacles and the company of my parents, I suppose I am a millennial. However, I don't pretend for a moment to represent the millennial wine drinker. Having joined the wine trade seven years ago, I've had access to wines that are way above my pay grade.

However, wine for millennials is a subject close to my heart, having watched an industry I love dearly turn itself inside out trying and failing to win the hearts and dollars of my less wine-soaked peers. How is it that so many other industries have cracked that market while wine seems unable to?

Wine's closest rivals, craft beer and boutique spirits, which have remade two fairly generic categories in the image of wine, have surpassed it.

One possible reason for their success is that craft beer and spirits are not patronising. A genre like Scotch whisky, arguably the peer of wine in complexity and expense, welcomes young people into the fold, encouraging them to geek out over distilling minutiae. Wine, meanwhile, attempts to connect with youth by putting cartoons on the label, assigning quizzical names like "Arrogant Frog" and "Menage a Trois" and dumbing the whole thing down. These tactics work well for the mass market, evidently, but don't attract anyone to the far more profitable premium wine sector.

Dumbing down is not limited to young people, with wine usually taking the same approach to "new" demographics (women) and markets (China). And yet neither of these groups - nor young people - wants simplicity. Maybe wine needs to stop assuming it's the smartest person in the room.

Yes, this critique is a generalisation and disregards the geeky wine culture built around "natural wine" that has attracted fans here and in New York, Paris and London. But there is a limit to the number of customers who are turned on by sulphur-free, skin-fermented whites and unpronounceable grape names. Something has to fill the chasm between the ultra-generic and ultra-specific.

Craft beer and spirits started from a place of relative simplicity and sexed themselves up with complexity. Wine has complexity in spades: the permutations of producer, grape and origin are limitless, but this leaves many with no solid ground to stand on. To start to understand and care about wine, one can't simply go around drinking any syrah or Burgundy. The language with which wine lovers communicate - despite the disdain attached to the term "brand drinker" - is, in fact, brands, just like any other non-staple.

Official wine education is somewhat hamstrung because it (rightly) is not allowed to talk about brands. Instead, the focus is on regions and grape varieties. Yet, assuming that two pinot noirs grown on near identical, adjacent plots will taste the same is a tenuous bet if they're made by starkly different producers.

Millennial-targeting brands fail to make people fall in love with wine because they try to wipe out the complexity entirely.

But for premium wine, what brands represent, above all, is a guarantee of style and quality. Perhaps we should try talking about brands first, grape and ground second.

To quote fellow wine commentator Fongyee Walker - I may well get lynched for this, but, hey, I'm just saying.

Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer