The millennial bug
In any list of the challenges facing the wine world today – once you get past Brexit – you will find mention of millennials.
For a while, this shiny term didn’t mean much to me, until someone pointed out that I was one. If, like me, you still don’t know, millennials are generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1996. Invented in 1987, the term has taken off. Much like @DMReporter’s satirical list of things the Daily Mail says give you cancer (aromatherapy, AM radio, loganberries), there seems to be almost nothing of which the demise can’t be laid at the feet of millennials. Napkins, handshakes, golf, cursive handwriting and mayonnaise are all for the chop – and it won’t end there.
Even erudite and level-headed writers can’t resist some of the more ludicrous generalisations. The Silicon Valley Bank Wine Report for 2019 is much fairer than many and attempts to take a level look at generational change and how it impacts the US wine industry, but it still contains lines such as, “millennials travel in packs of four”. Millenials are not hyenas.
Being a millennial is not a movement. Millennials – aka Generation Y – aren’t a political party and don’t have a manifesto. Many might not even realise that they are millennials, in which case I apologise for bearing bad news. I was shocked to find how awful we were and hardly recognised the hellish future I was helping to create. I looked at my printed books, bar soap and natural fibres and wondered if I hadn’t got the memo?
The boring truth is that we’re not really that different to Generation X or even Baby Boomers. Having come of age in the middle of a deep and protracted recession, we’re not earning as much as our parents. Meanwhile, property prices are unhinged from flatlining salaries and we can barely scrape together the money to buy an avocado or turn vegan. Most of my fellow millennials are not planning to smash capitalism – they are saving to buy a house and planning to have children while pursuing conventional careers. If we are building a dystopian future, at least it will be a bourgeois one.
With wine, there is an increasing fear that millennials aren’t willing to spend as profligately as the two preceding generations. Putting together the scientific report that claimed no amount of alcohol is safe with a dreary economic outlook, high levels of student debt and little prospect of general growth in salaries, it can’t be surprising that the endless premiumisation message is hitting the wrong chord for an entire generation, who seem to prefer Argentinian Malbec over Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.
If the rejection of icon wines and ampules is coming to an end, I’m relieved. As an industry, we need to be honest about the role we play in endlessly premiumising wine by making it expensive and exclusive, engendering a new kind of snobbery based on money and acquisition instead of class privilege. Perhaps this, more than anything else, is starting to look like a mistake, as affordable craft beers and good value-per-drink spirits take market share from wine.
Despite the gloomy forecasts, good independents, small importers and engaged sommeliers must keep the faith that quality wine with provenance and authenticity will be something that continues to be valued despite superficial generational quirks. Besides, we have bigger problems than millennials to worry about. Take my word for it: we’re not so bad. You wouldn’t believe how dreadful Generation Z are shaping up to be.
Jason Millar is the retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and found on Twitter @jasondmillar