Stories about the decline in wine consumption in the U.S. have become common. This one’s especially noteworthy for its dumb headline “Millennials are Ruining the American Wine Industry.”
Wine consumption in the US is expected to drop this year after more than two consecutive decades of growth.
With baby boomers aging — and more and more millennials choosing to pass on the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio — the Silicon Valley Bank predicts the industry will see a decline across the board for the first time since 1993.
The story quotes Rob McMillan a wine country banker who publishes a comprehensive survey of the wine business each year:
“We’re training Millennials to drink foreign wine,” explained McMillan. “But how do we brand American wines? We have to be able to say something more than price. American-produced wines have to mean something. We have to get our hands around this for the long-term growth of the domestic industry.”
McMillan has a good point. The headline was dumb because the problem isn’t millennials—it’s the clueless wine industry that is shooting themselves in the foot. I wrote briefly about this on Monday but it’s worth repeating. Millennials are turning to foreign wines (or beer, cider, and cocktails) because American wines have become boring, all seeking the same flavor profile because that massive middle-of-the-road is where the profit is.
This is really not that hard to figure out. As I argue in American Foodie, the taste revolution in the U.S. is driven by a desire for authenticity, face-to-face connection, and anger at the corporate mentality that produces oceans and mountains of homogeneous, mass-produced, pabulum designed to do one thing—line somebody’s pocket.
This desire for real food and beverage extends far beyond millennials. I’m no millennial so I’ll just speak for people I know. We want real people serving real food or wine that has some originality or particularity about it, that speaks of its origin, whether of a place or a creative mind behind it. We want a story, but not one manufactured by a marketing department. We want a story ordinary people doing something extraordinary might tell. We want to buy from a shop that has something a little different from the shop next door. And we want the person making our food or beverage to be concerned about quality, not just trying to make a fast buck.
In other words, we want something that looks like a product from a genuine community rather than a boardroom full of plutocrats.
Miles and miles of the same stuff with a different name and a cute slogan will not do. A product that was created by armies of accountants trying to maximize shareholder value won’t fool anyone for long.
Monotonous homogeneity is the price of industry consolidation with large firms buying up every vineyard and winery in site and employing efficiency experts to squeeze out profits while distributors lock out small producers to hand over shelf space to the big boys. Of course, there are still thousands of family and artisan wineries making good wine. But it’s increasingly hard to find in the supermarkets and big box stores.
And so people who care about taste are looking elsewhere for new experiences and the wine industry will have to adapt. It will be a difficult needle to thread. The economics of wine drives prices down and rewards consolidation.The aesthetics of wine punishes the loss of quality and authenticity making the profit/loss ledgers more difficult to balance.
They may figure it out but I wouldn’t hold my breath.