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Guy Woodward: On growing into wine

Published:  09 March, 2023

Our trade is not prone to hysteria, but there has been a pronounced bout of bedwetting recently. The cause? Studies showing how the younger generation is turning away from wine, with commentators quick to respond via apocryphal prophecies of doom if the industry doesn’t better engage with millennials.

First we had Wine Intelligence identifying the industry’s key challenge as “remaining relevant to its emerging consumers”, with figures revealing that only 26% of 18- to 39-year-olds drink wine regularly in the UK, compared with 37% in 2010.

Then Silicon Valley Bank issued its 2023 State of the Wine Industry report in the US, pointing to the over-60s as the main source of growth, with the market share of under-60s declining. Noting that 35% of consumers in their 20s don’t drink wine at all, it concluded that: “Future sales weigh on the industry’s ability to appeal to a new generation.”

Read more: Millennial fallout threatens premiumisation

Cue much hand-wringing, furrowed brows and fevered talk of how we all need to better harness TikTok. Taking the prize for the most ludicrous over-reaction was Falstaff, with its headline “Does the US wine industry have a future?” Even the normally measured Alder Yarrow of Vinography felt the industry could draw “only one logical conclusion: your product isn’t relevant to younger generations. Which means you have a marketing problem.” Really?

Let’s stop for a moment to consider the factors behind these trends. Wine Intelligence says the “main reason” is simply that “a lot of other things have come along”. Twenty years ago, craft beers, pet nats, seltzers, RTDs and low & no drinks didn’t exist. All these options are accessible, trendy and cheap – so of course they’re popular with 20-somethings, but what about when those 20-somethings are in their 40s?

Divided loyalty

Millennials are a fickle bunch – “less brand-loyal and less category-loyal”, as the IWSR says. Even Stephen Cronk, owner of hip, lifestyle-focused Provence rosé Mirabeau, labels millennials “more health-conscious, more adventurous and therefore more fickle”. He might also add “less well off”.

As a result, says Wine Intelligence, younger consumers see wine as a special-occasion drink and a source of experimentation; older drinkers see it as a more everyday occurrence and remain loyal to brands. COO Richard Halstead concludes: “Wine drinking is by and large an old person’s game. If you’re a big-volume producer, your key target is 40-plus. Reliable, drinking more regularly, shopping more regularly, still driving volume, still value-oriented, and harder to move into other categories.”

During lockdown, The Wine Society surveyed its membership, concerned at the need to diversify. “We did a fair amount of thinking around the age profile, which has stayed relatively stable for decades,” says Pierre Mansour, director of wine. “Our conclusion was that it was more relevant to continue to emphasise the things that make The Wine Society distinct, focusing these messages to an involved wine drinker.”

In other words, it looked at its middle-class, middle-aged, wine-appreciative membership, felt pressure to try and expand that, but swiftly concluded it was better off simply recruiting more from the same demographic. Its membership jumped to where it had expected to be in three years’ time – 180,000 – and most of those gained during lockdown have stayed.

Why would any sensible business risk alienating its core audience by chasing a cash-poor, time-poor, transient demographic whose drinking habits are still being formed or, in many cases, don’t exist? To get them into wine early, runs the counter-argument. I don’t buy it. I spent my 20s drinking Smirnoff Ice, Strongbow and whatever other cheap booze I could find. I wasn’t into wine. I also wasn’t into Radio 4, walking holidays and Brahms. Now look at me…

Yet the Silicon Valley Bank report claims that “winemakers and advertisers are missing out on younger consumers by failing to produce wines that fit their budgets [and] targeted marketing campaigns”. So producers should make even crappier, cheaper wine and market it via slick Instagram reels in the vague hope that 20-somethings will upgrade from Zinfandel blush to Xinomavro?

Marketing across a wide age range is tricky – and risky. Very few products straddle multiple demographics. I don’t see hip-hop artists going after the grey pound, or Radio 2 trying to reach Gen Z. At some point, we have to accept that 20-somethings are not the core market for wine. Personally, I’m fine with that.