Wine marketers adapt to a more hip, youthful spirit

Pretense and mystery are giving way to cool and inclusive as wine marketers look to woo the young adults who are now major players in the sector.

Pretense and mystery are giving way to cool and inclusive as wine marketers look to woo the young adults who are now major players in the sector.

It wasn't your typical wine event. Earlier this month, when brazen billionaire Richard Branson unveiled his new line of wines, Virgin Vines, he did it in his usual cheeky style.

Surrounded by models clad in mini-skirts and stomping enthusiastically in barrels of grapes, Branson told reporters, "Wine, like life, is meant to be enjoyed ... All the pomp and
ceremony currently associated with wine just gets in the way of enjoying it."

Virgin Vines, a joint effort with Brown-Forman, maker of spirits brands such as Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort, is certainly not about pomp and ceremony. With the memorable slogan "Unscrew it, let's do it" (a nod to its screw-top bottles), Virgin Vines hopes to become the defining voice of a new generation of wine drinkers, much the way Orson Welles made Paul Masson's "We will sell no wine before its time" a guiding force to past generations of consumers who were taught to view wine as mysterious and highbrow.

Peeling away the stuffy perception of an oenophile ensconced in an overstuffed chair has become a key mission for today's wine marketers. Across the board, from domestic vineyards to international importers, winemakers are striving to give their products and their industry a new image, one that is friendly, familiar, and easy to understand.

"There has been a trend in wine-industry marketing toward wine, packaging, and brand positioning that is more casual, more easy-to-know, and more everyday in its use," says John Gillespie, president of the St. Helena, CA-based Wine Market Council. "There's more of an effort to make it seem compatible with common, everyday life."

The importance of the US market

Gillespie and other experts say part of that trend is driven by a worldwide oversupply of grapes. While the problem is not as great for US vineyards, international suppliers are facing a glut of fruit, which increases competition to sell. Although average Americans drink less wine than their international counterparts, the market size makes it essential to most companies' success, and makes US consumers' tastes of paramount interest.

"The US is recognized as one of the world's powerhouse wine markets," says Paige Poulos, owner of California-based wine specialist boutique firm Paige Poulos Communications. "The sheer buying power makes us critically important."

Adding to that is the fact that young consumers are taking up wine drinking in record numbers. For the first time since it began tracking alcohol preferences in 1992, a Gallup poll this year found that more Americans (39%) say they drink wine most often, while fewer (36%) prefer beer. That's a vast change from the poll's 1992 findings, when 47% reported beer as their top choice, and wine drew only 27%. Experts say the under-30 segment of the market is booming, driving the shift, and leading to more youthful approaches to marketing.
"The children of Baby Boomers is a group that, unlike its predecessor, Generation X, seems to be adopting wine at an earlier stage of adulthood, and many of these products are appealing to this group," says Jon Fredrikson of California-based wine industry consultants Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates. He defines "echo boomers" as consumers between 21-30. Gillespie adds that his firm's research has found the same trend, though it dubs the group "millennials" and describes them as between 21-28.

What those youthful drinkers want is a product without pretense. The industry has reacted, cutting out "things that tend to be turn-offs in terms of marketing because people don't understand them," says Fredrikson.

That ease-of-use mentality has even spawned an entire category of new labels, from Olympic Cellars' Working Girl White, Go Girl Red, and Rose the Riveter to Foster's Wine Estates new White Lie Early Season Chardonnay brand from its Beringer Blass subsidiary. There is even a new label from Motley Crue rocker Vince Neil.

"These are not traditional wine names," notes Fredrikson. "That's a very clever approach."

Along with simpler names, marketers are trying to make wines that require less education and knowledge to appreciate. Gone are complex explanations of varietals and vintages - facts that many young wine drinkers simply are not interested in or don't understand.

A recent study of 429 wine drinkers commissioned by the California Association of Winegrape Growers and performed by Wine Opinions, found that while 71% of wine drinkers felt that the vintage dating of wine was important, only 33% correctly knew what such a date meant - referring to the year the grapes were harvested. So why have it on the bottle? For that matter, why have a bottle?

Adjusting to consumer demands

Faced with consumers who are just as likely to want wine on a snowboarding outing as at a fancy dinner, winemakers are re-evaluating everything from packaging to price to the information they provide to consumers about their products.

Where echo-boomer parents would cringe at the thought of serving guests wine from a box, or unscrewing a cap, younger consumers see it as a plus, the kind of convenience that makes grabbing a glass of wine as easy as reaching for a beer. Even single-serving Mylar bags, once the providence of juice for kids' lunchboxes, are now being filled with quality vintages.

"What's breaking down are some old barriers," says Fredrikson. "Can you imagine if you had to open your toothpaste with a special tool? The whole move toward easy-opening packages is [part of the trend to be] much more inviting to the consumer."

Just as the wine industry has morphed its products into something more appealing to young drinkers, so have they fine-tuned PR efforts to lose any hint of snobbery. Poulos says there is a move to "really bring people in for a total lifestyle experience," while traditional tactics such as "stuffy dinners [are] falling by the wayside."

A look at wine events in New York alone seems to prove her right. While Branson's bash drew the most press attention recently, it wasn't the only wine event in town. White Lie treated a group of female consumers to some spa time with chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner, (Good in Bed and In Her Shoes). Poulos helped with a club-centered event for client Palandri Wines, and Click Wine Group, an Italian importer, took advantage of Fashion Week to launch its new collection of "sexy and hip" wines under the Bootleg label.

With the help of San Francisco-based Clarke Communications, Click staged a "Runway of Wine" fashion show to tie in with its product's packaging - a bottle that looks as if it is encased in leather, with a zipper up the side. The event was held at a club in the trendy Meatpacking District, in conjunction with up-and-coming fashion designer Holly Kristen.

"The company that created [Bootleg] is known for making brands that are high-quality but accessible to the consumer," says Charles Communications president Kimberly Charles of her client's outlook. "The idea is really for people to say, 'Here's a wine that's cleverly packaged."

So much for what's in the bottle. While old-school connoisseurs might lament the loss of educated appreciation, marketers say the changes are not just a passing phase, but the new face of the industry.

"The trend toward younger wine drinkers has been coming for a while," says Poulos. "I'd say it's fully mature now. That's one big market force."

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