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Wine For a New Generation Millennials bring different values and habits to the table—wine lists should better suit their tastes

Millennials are drawn to wines that have a compelling story or offer a new flavor experience rather than a particular brand.

Lauren Friel, beverage director at Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., a Mediterranean-Arabic restaurant that consistently garners great reviews for both the food and wine programs, has more refined tastes and a more experienced palate than the average person. Still, she represents the way Millennial wine drinkers think, and what she says about her own wine list contains a viewpoint every restaurateur should keep in mind these days:

“I get bored easily, so I don’t want to see the same wines all the time. Exploring the varietals that are native to a particular area or only grown in certain parts of the world or even near extinction is very interesting to me. Why wouldn’t you want to know more about these rare breeds and what people are doing with them?”

Friel, a 30-something at the far edge of the Millennial group, plays out her point of view in her list, which is loaded with varietals like Assyrtiko, Xinomavro, Scheurebe and Frappato, as well as wines from Lebanon, Corsica and other areas less known here for wine making. It may be more culturally relevant to have nuanced and balanced wines from the region rather than the oaky sort so traditionally popular in this country, but there’s also a sense of curiosity and exploration that places a list with this sort of diversity right in the sweet spot for Millennials.

Looking for Adventure
As the Millennial cohort ages (the group, according to think tank Pew Research Center, defined as those 18 to 33 years old, born between 1981 and 1996), their behavior becomes more crucial to understand, and so marketers and researchers are busily slicing, dicing and scrutinizing what they like and why. Already known as consumers exhibiting very little brand loyalty, Millennials are frequently said to be food and drink explorers on a quest for new experiences, especially compared to older age groups like Baby Boomers, whose predictable habits operators have depended upon for many years, giving rise to wine lists dominated by Napa Cabernets and California Chardonnays.

“Millennials are much more adventurous—we call them ‘restaurant seekers,’ out looking for something new and different—and they are much more attracted to those independent kinds of restaurants compared to the big chains,” says Warren Solochek of the research firm NPD Group.

He points out that the economic pressure on this ethnically diverse age group, who entered the job market during the recession, makes dining and drinking out more of a special event. Boomers tend to find a place and are much more inclined to go back to the same place over and over again, while Millennials are looking for something extraordinary.

Social Media Drinkers
In practice, when it comes to beverages, Millennials have been driving the steady growth of craft beer, and they are showing great interest in craft cocktails, brown spirits and other emerging drinks. Many beverage pros have noted that they tend to surf a beverage menu and are as likely to order, say, a Spanish Albariño and then a New Zealand Pinot Gris as they are to order the same wine twice in a row.

And rather than seeking advice and guidance from sources including publications and critics, they are more likely to turn to their friends and associates on social media for tips and suggestions about where to eat and what to drink.

“I think the research is correct about their behavior, though there is more to it,” says James Tidwell, master sommelier and beverage manager at the Four Seasons Resort & Club in Irving, Texas, and co-founder of the annual TexSom sommelier conference. “Millennials are experiential and much more open to trying new things, but at the same time they are very much influenced by personal connections and what their friends are drinking.”

He compares the constant flow of information via social media to the way ideas circulated in European coffeehouses of the 1800s. “But now the separation of many miles doesn’t matter—you can find out what a friend in New York is drinking while you’re in a restaurant in Los Angeles.” While older customers might search for a wine’s various scores, Millennials are more likely to seek validation from other sources instead.

Tidwell agrees that diversity in the wine list is crucial today—especially for Millennials, but for wine drinkers in general. He’s loaded up his list with numerous Texas wines, championing regional products with the confidence that Millennials want to sample local fare more often. He also sees an opportunity for sommeliers to exert greater influence on Millennials than on previous groups because of their interest in making personal connections.

“When a Millennial makes a connection with someone, they trust them personally, and sommeliers, who love to introduce people to new wine experiences, are likely to be the people they go to during the dining experience,” he says.

Alpana Singh, proprietor and master sommelier at The Boarding House in Chicago, concurs regarding the importance of digital communication with Millennials. “The big difference is social media and the social currency it brings. The idea of why they would want to try a wine could be different from someone a little older—there has to be some social currency. It’s not even about flavor,” she says. Millennials are far more interested in a compelling story about a wine than they are in reviews, scores, luxury imagery or tradition.

“If there’s one word that describes their approach to wine, it’s ‘Cool!’ To them, an interesting wine experience is cool, while to an older generation, they might think of wine like a connoisseur,” says Singh. “These folks don’t put wine on a pedestal, they don’t have an overabundance of reverence, are more traveled, been afforded more opportunities and, since they have no barriers or anxiety about wine, they are less likely to be intimidated.”

Make It Interesting
Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of the Adult Beverage Resource Group of research firm Technomic, says that, in general, the behavior of the older Millennial differs from that of the younger ones. “Once they pass the 25-year-old mark, their engagement with beer, wine and spirits is higher, and you see some sophistication emerging,” she says. “When we talk about them, it’s really important not to lump them into one homogenous group.” Younger Millennials, according to her reports, skew exceptionally high for sweeter wines like Moscato, but also for sparkling wines. Overall, Millennials are exploring wine at a much younger age when compared to previous generations.

As they age, older Millennials are becoming more diverse in their choices and more educated about them, yet continue to seek authenticity, even developing some forms of brand loyalty. In fact, she notes that in some of her research for a 2014 BAR TAB report of consumers and on-premise trends, Millennials show more interest in wine brands than previous generations, although this could be because older generations have long tended to order wine by varietal on-premise. “Interest in brand is less for badge for these folks and more about authenticity,” she says.

Justin Amick, another sommelier at the older edge of the Millennials, has run beverage programs for a number of restaurants owned by Atlanta-based Concentrics Hospitality, including The Spence, where wines from Croatia, Brazil, China, Eastern Europe and other non-traditional regions were featured to go with the eclectic fare. But now he’s opened The Painted Pin, an upscale boutique bowling alley and gaming parlor that serves cocktails, wine, beer and food. As much nightlife as restaurant, The Painted Pin is perfect for grazing Millennials, and Amick’s 20 by-the-glass list has enough quirks to suit them.

“With Millennials, they’re more wine savvy than their parents and grandparents at these young ages, partially due to tech and all the info that’s out there. They’re also willing to spend money as long as they feel like they’re getting value. It’s just a click away on an app to figure out how much an operator paid for their wine, what the margins are and all that, and you must take that into account. It’s not that their palates are more refined, but they are willing to try more things, to push the envelope,” he says.

Amick says Millennials want to see wines they don’t recognize on a list, that the familiar and the tried and true aren’t as attractive as they are to older wine drinkers. On his list, a mix of the comfortable and the lesser known, the one rosé is a Spanish blend, Txakolina from the Basque Country, far from a household region. He sells a couple of cases a week. “Of course, it’s my only rosé, but that’s a way as a sommelier to get people to try new things, forcing people to choose what you’ve filled a particular slot with.”

Alpana Singh says there are advantages to selling wine to Millennials beyond the sommelier’s love of telling a bottle’s story at the table. For one, since most servers are in the age group, their familiarity with peer-to-peer education makes them perfect ambassadors once they have training.

She also says that Millennials are open to wines being grouped in completely new ways, such as by female winemakers or young guns or American grand crus—any way that invites exploration and a sense of fun. It’s something Friel has done at Oleana: Wines are gathered under rubrics including “melon and fennel” and “baharat, dried cloves and candied plums” to convey aroma and flavor experiences, rather than grape or country or age.

While the Millennial manner of eclectically sampling wines might mean that trends move faster, a wine seller’s job hasn’t otherwise changed, says Tidwell. “It might be a little more complex because they aren’t as brand loyal, and it could be that they need a personal connection to a region, or be reminded that they’ve seen it on Instagram,” he says. “Their influences are far more diverse, and they’re synthesizing information from more sources.”

Solochek points out that many will eventually develop more loyalty—to wine, or a wine style, or varietal or region—and that connecting with them now will pay off later. “In wine, we saw that they were looking for new and different kinds and sampling a lot, mostly because they could and these things were available. And they were seeking out those kinds of places that had broader menus,” he says. “It’s a mistake to only cater to an older generation because they’re visiting you or drinking your wine now, because as time goes by, they will be visiting less often and spending less, whereas Millennials will be drinking wine for a while, and they will eventually settle on styles. And you want to be there when they make that decision.”

About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.