The nation’s largest wine-consuming class is also among its youngest. According to Wines Vines Analytics, wine sales were near $46.5 billion in 2018, and millennials are drinking much of it. In fact, 40 percent more millennials than the overall adult population drink regularly throughout the year, according to stats on consumer wine consumption by the Wine Market Council released in 2016. But what millennials and the upcoming Gen Z generation are drinking is an ever shifting dynamic.
If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a bottle shot posted to Instagram may just be worth a thousand glass pours. That’s one of the major wine drinking shifts sommeliers across the nation are experiencing. Wines, or wine regions, that appear in the social media feed of millennials gain instant currency. Back in the 1970s, it took importer Kermit Lynch three months of traveling Europe to chase down wines, days typing up those wines, and weeks for that information to reach the right audience. “Now, if Raj Parr is at a great vineyard in Burgundy, he takes a photo and puts it on Instagram. That connection to information has influenced what people are looking for, and it happens almost immediately,” says Matthew Kaner, wine director and partner at California wine bars Good Measure, Dead or Alive Bar, Bar Covell, and Augustine Wine Bar.
While in the past marketing shifts took time to happen, today they are nearly instantaneous. “Now, someone puts something on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and the next day people are asking for it,” Kaner says. “That can really course correct a market quickly, and, if you’re not paying attention, it passes you by.”
Such attention to social media and devices may be behind one trend apparent to Rebecca Fineman, a master sommelier and wine director and managing partner at San Francisco wine-centric restaurant Ungrafted.
“What I see overall among both groups, millennials and Gen Zers, is a lack of commitment,” Fineman says. Cocktails, beer, and splashes of wine may be in, but full bottles are definitely not. “It just seems like people don’t know how long they’re going to be staying anywhere, and a bottle is an hour commitment that they don’t necessarily want to make.”
A shift from older generations, younger generations are also increasingly more aware of unexpected wines. Gone are the days when a 20-something-year-old walked into a wine bar asking for a California Cab. Instead, requests are for anything from a Slovenian natural wine to Pinots from tiny Oregon producers.
“What I’m noticing is that the classics are not popular anymore. They’re great at steakhouses and they’re great on the auction market, but I think younger wine drinkers are caring more about the way things are made and how people are treated,” Kaner says. People aren’t asking what Bordeaux a restaurant has, but instead what natural wines are offered. “And they’re open to where those wines come from,” Kaner says. “It’s more about how the wine is made.”
“The trigger word right now for millennials is sustainable,” Fineman says. “Sonoma County has pledged to be 100 percent sustainable by 2019, and they will be first [American Viticultural Area] in the U.S. to achieve that. That’s going to be a really huge sell to millennials.”
But it isn’t just microproduction that has millennials attention. Fineman sees a continued interest in the lusher more exuberant wines of the world, like Malbec from Argentina, Australian Shiraz, and juicy Pinots from the Russian River and Napa, California. “That’s probably because when you’re developing your taste, you tend to latch on to a style that’s really easy to recognize. The more you drink, the more you start to look for more subtleties,” Fineman says.
But that taste for subtleties is emerging, too. “I do see more people drinking white wine than I used to among younger people. That’s something you usually see when people are really getting used to wine drinking. I’m seeing more and more of that. People will ask for a Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes even something like Chablis. And sparkling wines—maybe not Champagne but off-the-beaten-path, cool, quirky, sparkling wines of the world,” Fineman says.
Millennials aren’t to be easily dismissed. As they’ve aged, their wealth has increased, as has their savviness. Best of all, the younger generations are really open-minded, and curious, say somms.
“These people are receptive; they want to listen. Older guests may not want to hear what you have to say; they know what they like, but the younger generation wants to hear what you have to say about the wine,” Fineman says. Now 20-something-year-olds walk through the door, she says, and ask for something out of the norm like sherry. Younger generations are taking curiosity to the next level—in the glass.