Millennial Wine Drinkers at Restaurants

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 02-24-2015

Millennials. Drinking Wine. At a Restaurant.

Millennials. Drinking Wine. At a Restaurant.

Millennials are a popular, nay hyped, topic among those in the wine industry. Wine marketers excitedly chase this demographic with the latest packaging, social media campaign, or on-trend red blend.

As a millennial myself, I tend to roll my eyes when I see wine news interspersed with phrases like, “targeted at millennial consumers,” “aimed at millennial males,” or “courting a new generation of wine drinkers.” Note: all of those are pulled from the last week of industry newsletters. Usually what follows, to my millennial sensibilities, seems insincere and manipulative. I want something that is authentic and truly appeals to me vs. a product and campaign that’s attempting to get more share of my wallet.

Plenty of research studies, both within and outside of the wine industry, are directionally useful to understanding younger wine drinkers. Gallo’s latest Consumer Wine Trends Survey featured a number of findings about millennials. The Wine Market Council has put out a succession of media alerts highlighting its recent annual research, including millennial consumption trends. Or for a more general understanding, the idea and content engine, psfk, publishes frequent opinion pieces covering millennial marketing and case studies. Given the hotness of this topic, the list of sources goes on.

However, in my opinion, the most insightful way to learn and to gain credibility with millennials is to go right to the source. Fill in the holes of millennial truisms with your own conversations & experiences, and with the experiences of others who are on the frontline of working with millennials.

To this end, I had the chance at this month’s Vino2015 to listen to a panel discussion all about Echo Boomers Growing Impact in the wine world. This panel included Jack Mason, wine director at Marta, a Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant modeled on the “rustic tradition of Roman pizzerie.” Jack, himself a 27-year old millennial, provided extremely useful and resonant primary observations on what millennial wine drinkers seek in their dining experiences.

He began, “Millennials are lazy and rebellious. They want to be in the know and they want a unique experience.”

Jack elaborated on his “lazy and rebellious” characterization: “Millennials want help making a decision, but no one wants to be told what to do.” So, how does this translate to a restaurant experience and what can restaurants do about it?

First, invest in staff training to get the team tasting and excited about the fun by-the-glass offerings. Jack emphasized that the technical details of the wine list are just a baseline; it’s critical to paint a larger picture so that staff can describe & create unique experiences for guests. “I have found that the most effective way to stimulate and train our staff is to communicate the story of food and wine.”

He also views his somm team as language translators. “Most millennials don’t know exactly what brand they want, but the team can help them define the style of what they like and give them several options they might enjoy.” The price point of these options also has to be millennial friendly. For the New York City market, “people want something in the sub-$60 range.” The Marta menu has over 60 bottles that are priced at $60 and below.

In addition to talking to the staff and somm teams, millennials will make decisions about wine using articles they pull up from their phones from the NYTimes or Eater and will specifically order what was mentioned in the article. As the restaurant matures, Jack hypothesizes that Yelp will be used more frequently too – although given the noise on the site, I’m guessing traditional dining reviews will remain more popular. He also observed that, perhaps contrary to common assumptions, millennials aren’t usually pulling up wine apps; this tends to be a more mature crowd. Jack admits that he personally doesn’t use any wine apps, but sees their value as a tool to keep track of bottles consumed.

Millennials also want to be in the know. They want to be where it’s cool, it’s popular, and where their friends are going. They see something and think, ‘I want to experience that.’”

Jack wants to build Marta’s reputation as a “wine-drinking place.” To achieve this aspiration, he acknowledges that he needs to create a list that is exciting not just for casual consumers, but for wine directors and industry leaders. Indeed, speaking from my own experience, I closely follow fellow wine lovers and geeks on Instagram to see where they’re eating and what they’re drinking. And it’s not uncommon for the same wine drinking places and label images to spread among this list in frequent succession over a few weeks.

I asked Jack whom he considers the influencers in this industry community. He answered, “Although NYC is where I currently live and follow most closely, I still love seeing what is going on with my community from Houston through Steven McDonald & David Keck. People I love to follow locally are Pascaline Lepeltier (Rouge Tomate), all of the sommeliers from USHG (Michael Scaffidi, Juliette Pope, Michael Engelmann, Jeff Kellogg, Mia Van De Water, etc.), Mike Madrigale (Dinex) and Hristo Zisovski (AMG).”

Finally, millennials want a unique experience. It’s the restaurant and staff’s responsibility to create an experience that people will talk about, that will make others jealous. Jack rattles off a few ways that Marta encourages that experience:

o   Offering new combinations of food and wine. For example, Champagne and rustic pizzas or aged Barolo with a truffle pizza. Things that are different than you would usually pair or see. Things that make you want to brag to your friends.

o   Introducing unique grape varietals. Something esoteric or in a different style. He wants people to say, “Hey, these Southern Italian wines sound fun. They’re sexy.” [Note: I read this line to my 28 year old sister, who likes wine, but isn't a total fanatic. She said she could never picture herself saying this. But I get his point.]

o   Telling stories. Yes, I know that stories and authenticity have been emphasized, but once again, millennials want the story behind the wine, how it was brought into the restaurant, how it’s grown, who made it, etc.

Finally, I asked Jack about what other wine programs are doing an admirable job of engaging with millennials and he, perhaps unpredictably given I was nodding my head in agreement throughout this entire discussion, listed the following NYC destinations, “Pearl & Ash, Corkbuzz, Terroir, and Charlie Bird.” All places that I, as a cliche millennial I now suppose, too love to drink wine.

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