Among the many challenges facing the wine industry today is the fact that millennials seem to be purchasing less wine than their parents did. It’s important for the wine industry to figure out why and develop new strategies for reaching them. Various explanations are typically offered: financial challenges, competition from beer, spirits and cocktails, an interest in healthy lifestyles that include less alcohol, or an out of touch industry that hasn’t updated their image for new generations.
I have no idea whether any of these explanations are correct. But it occurs to me that what might be going on is that wine is losing its power as a symbol system for younger generations.
Wine has enjoyed steady growth since the 1950’s but it really starts to take off in the early 1970’s as baby boomers were becoming stablished in their careers. The emergence of a fine wine culture in the U.S. cannot be disentangled from the simultaneous emergence of a food culture in the U.S. Soldiers returning from WW II and its aftermath in Europe had acquired a taste for European wine and cuisine, and as air travel improved, prosperous Americans were traveling to France and Italy and being exposed to refined tastes and a focus on flavor. Meanwhile the wine trade created an imaginative discourse around wine in which it come to symbolize a life of refinement, ease, aesthetic appreciation and sophistication. Wine became an aspirational beverage that promised luxury, heritage, romance and “la dolce vita”, the sweet life.
I suspect that millennials don’t look at their life prospects in the same way. Many were late launching their careers because of the great recession and many millennials spent lots of money on education but are now underemployed. With climate change threatening to limit everyone’s prospects and the robots coming to take their jobs, they perhaps don’t see their lives on a trajectory culminating in “la dolce vita”. They are intensely interested in taste and aesthetics but wine doesn’t have the symbolic charge that it had for my generation.
Symbols matter and I think wine is loosing its ability to symbolize aspirations.
As to the question of how wine might regain its symbolic importance, I will leave that to younger, more agile minds.