Gen-Z’s Wine Problem

Those who continue to drive wine sales growth for the industry (according to the latest State of the U.S. Wine Industry Report from the now-shuttered Silicon Valley Bank) are the same folks who watched Mr. Wells sling magnums of Masson and thought, this is the wine for me. 

Millennials and Gen Zs are opting for cocktails over cabernet, beer over Burgundy, or are flat-out embracing the sober lifestyle like grown-ups maybe should. According to the SVB report, $122 million was spent on wine advertising last year compared to $533 million on spirits, and $886 million spent on beer. Does wine need another Orson Wells to cultivate another generation of drinkers?  

“In my experience as a winemaker and a millennial consumer, we are more likely to pay for an experience than an expensive 
bottle,” said Caitlyn Horton at Horton Vineyards—who is the state’s first third-generation winemaker. “At Horton Vineyards, 
we plan the type of events that my friends and I would want to attend.”

Horton organized an event at the winery called “The Wizarding Winery” that included quidditch lessons (à la Harry Potter) and a 
station to make wands from Rkatsiteli vines, the oldest grape cultivated in Europe. She says consumers in her age demographic are more open to trying wines made from lesser-known grape varieties. 

She created a line of experimental wines called Gears and Lace featuring steampunk-themed labels, which have been popular with younger consumers. The wines are made with lesser-known grapes like pinotage and in edgier styles like a sparkling red.Lacey Huber, vice president at Loudoun-based Stone Tower Winery (and also a millennial), says members of her generation are more conscientious about what they’re buying and consuming. 

“Younger consumers need to have some sort of connection to the product before buying,” she says. “Stone Tower and other local wineries offer more than just a beverage. Wine from us comes with an experience, a connection to the land where it was grown, and a sense of supporting local agriculture.”

Stone Tower offers Harvest Hikes, a 1.5 mile guided walk through vineyards during the harvest season that includes a wine tasting along the way and picnic lunch. “While guests of all ages enjoy the hikes, the core demographic has been those in their mid-20s to 30-somethings looking for an active outdoor experience,” says Huber. 

Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison released a line of whimsical-yet-serious wines made from lesser-known grapes that have appealed to a younger audience. “We specifically developed our Young Wine Portfolio with a tongue-in-cheek reference to being what the ‘young kids’ like to drink,” says Aileen Sevier, vice president of marketing at Early Mountain.

To get in front of this important demographic, Sevier focused Early Mountain’s distribution strategy on key markets and select retail locations. “Shelf presence can make a big difference in appealing to younger consumers,” she says, “so we’re intentional about placing these wines in cool restaurants and smart, funky wine shops in key markets like Richmond, Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, N.Y.” The approach has paid off for Early Mountain—millennial females are their largest consumer group, which is “unique within Virginia as well as the broader U.S. wine world,” Sevier says.

“Wine has a perception problem,” says Lance Lemon, a millennial and co-owner of Penny’s, a wine bar and bottle shop in Richmond with an eclectic selection of wines curated to appeal to younger consumers. “My age demographic [millennials] isn’t into the stuffiness sometimes associated with wine. That’s why 
we focus on offering a wine-safe space for everyone, a place with an eccentric vibe and no pretense in order to attract younger consumers.” In the city’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, Penny’s also offers small plates and dinner. 

Jay Youmans, one of about 50 Masters of Wine in the U.S. and owner of the Capital Wine School in the D.C. area, says, “the big difference between baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Z is that younger millennials and older Gen Zers have so many more drink options available.” From craft beers to small-production spirits, hard seltzer, hard kombucha, mocktails, and even cannabis-infused drinks, consumers have an overwhelming number of alternatives to wine.

“Older consumers are likely to have picked a lane and stuck with it as they age,” Youmans notes. “I think younger consumers are just trying out a range of options. As they age, I believe they will gravitate toward beverages that fit their lifestyles.”

Though Virginia tracks closely with national data—Gen Z and millennials consume roughly 28 percent of Virginia wine, while the national average is 24 percent—there is room for improvement, according to Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office.

“There’s good room for growth,” she says. “It’s a balancing act, baby boomers and older Gen Xers buy more expensive bottles and have higher discretionary income, but it’s an important balance to pull in younger consumers as well.” 

The good news for the Virginia wine industry is wineries have direct relationships with their customers. Eighty-two percent of Virginia wine is sold “direct to consumer” via winery tasting rooms, wine clubs, or online compared to 68 percent in other regions across the U.S. 

Youmans offers the following sage advice to engage with the next generation of consumers. “They need to create better awareness among young consumers that wine is an agricultural product. There needs to be more transparency regarding the additives and processes used in making wine. The industry needs to do a better job of creating innovative wines that appeal to younger millennials and older Gen Zers. They need to stop using heavy glass bottles.”  

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Paige Poprocky, a 30-something wine marketing professional based in Richmond, adds, “Younger audiences consume video media like Reels and TikTok and want elevated tasting experiences with luxury picnics and unique wine and food pairings.”

With so much direct interaction with customers, Virginia 
wineries are perfectly positioned to create memorable experiences that make their wines the choice of the next generation. 

Come for the authentic experiences, stay for the wine. 

Frank Morgan is a wine columnist for the Virginian-Pilot and devoted student of wine. He explores his passion for the grape 
at DrinkWhatYouLike.com.

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