Illustration: Janne Iivonen
By Wall Street Journal
They’re the reason you use emojis instead of email and Snapchats instead of real chats. But will millennials also upend the wine establishment? As Lettie Teague discovers, this relationship status is complicated.
“SO MANY MILLENNIALS ARE interested more in the narrative of the wine rather than the wine,” said Jason Jacobeit, the 29-year-old head sommelier of Bâtard restaurant in New York. “A lot of mediocre wine is being sold on the basis of a story.”
Mr. Jacobeit lamented the fact that few of his generational peers took the time to understand why certain wines are greater than others. The rustic sparkling wine Pét-Nat (short for pétillant-naturel), for example, may be hip and fun, but it will never be as great as Champagne. Mr. Jacobeit said that his peers need to learn to distinguish the difference between “being excited about wine and wine that is genuinely exciting.”
Taylor Parsons, the 35-year-old wine director of République in Los Angeles attributes these “gaps” in millennials’ wine knowledge to their incessant search for the next cool thing, be it orange wine or Slovenian Chardonnay. “We get tons of requests for Slovenian Chardonnay,” he said.
Which might just mean you’ll soon be seeing many more Slovenian Chardonnays on restaurant wine lists. After all, millennials have been heralded as the generation capable of changing everything. The largest generation to date at 75 million strong, they certainly have clout. This group of 18- to 34-year-olds is technologically savvy, environmentally engaged and eager for stories about the things they love. They’ve helped transform the way we connect with one another, but will they also (re)shape the way we drink? I’d say “perhaps,” although a millennial might answer “Yaaaasssss!”
In search of an answer, I talked to as many millennial sommeliers, winemakers, retailers and wine drinkers as I could. I also began combing through piles of data, starting with an August survey from Wine Opinions, a California-based wine-research group. In the survey, the results of which will be released later this month, the group polled 2,634 wine drinkers from three generations—millennials, Gen X and boomers—about their wine preferences, buying habits and information sources.
One of the biggest divides turned out to be the numerical rating system. Millennials regard the 100-point scale as the creation—and the provenance—of their older wine-drinking peers. They won’t be “duped” into buying an expensive wine just because some critic awarded it 92 points; they value stories and a personal connection.
Though their rebellious tastes can lead them into trouble, millennials’ enthusiasm for the obscure has also been a boon. As Mr. Parsons observed, it means “you can have a restaurant wine list today without Napa Cabernet or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,” two wines that achieved fame thanks to Gen Xers and boomers.
But a wine list designed to appeal to millennials shouldn’t be too pricey. According to Wine Opinions, they spend less money per bottle than their older peers—79% of regular millennial wine drinkers bought wines in the $10-$15 range. (This isn’t all that surprising since most young wine drinkers have less money to spend.)
So how and where are millennials getting their wine education? “Millennials don’t like ratings, but they like some kind of review,” said Adam Teeter, the 32-year-old editor and co-founder of VinePair, a New York-based online wine magazine for millennials. “They have a great thirst for knowledge.”
That’s why you’ll find a good deal of VinePair editorial content devoted to educational articles, including an extensive Wine 101 section where readers can learn the names of important grapes and how to taste wine. It’s also why Mr. Teeter says some of his non-wine-professional friends have sought to become certified sommeliers. “I don’t remember my parents’ friends having sommelier certification,” he said.