Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Kids These Days: The Age Paradox in Wine

Last weekend, a group of friends and I attended two different wine-related events in the Willamette Valley:  an Italian tasting at Natalia & Cristoforo's in downtown Corvallis and an afternoon jazz event at Willamette Valley Vineyards.  We had a fabulous time at both events, but I had a bit of an epiphany in the parking lot of Willamette Valley Vineyards as my friend Megan made the observation, "We'll probably be the youngest people here by a longshot."  When we got inside, I looked around...and thought to our experience at the tasting the previous day...and she was right.  Not only were we the youngest, we were the youngest by 20 years!  This is not an uncommon experience for us, and from it spawns Josh's idiot savant theorem of the age paradox in  wine.

Before I get too far in my far from scientific analysis, it's only fair that I share a little context as to where we are coming from with The Oregon Wine Blog.  We started the blog as a way to quantify and share our enjoyment of the experience and culture surrounding wine in the Pacific Northwest.  Our tagline self proclaims that we are "not-really-snooty up-and-coming wino's...", and while the snootiness is debatable depending on who you ask, young and up-and-coming is not.  See, of the entire wine blog staff, only 1 writer currently breaks the 30 age barrier, with the rest of us hanging around in our mid-20's.  Therefore, not only are we young in our wine experience, we're also young in our respective careers (translation - don't make a lot of money).  All but one of us spend our 50 hours per week of paid work at various colleges and universities in the region.  You didn't think the blog could pay the bills, did you?  All of this to say, we are a key market to the wine industry -- young, gainfully employed, some disposable income, and lot's of drinking years ahead of us -- and one that needs some attention and nurturing.

So, here goes with my innermost thoughts on this paradox:

  1. There are plenty of young people involved in the Northwest wine industry, so what gives?  It's true.  With Washington and Oregon wine being the new kids on the block when compared to California, or France and Italy, we've consistently found a healthy, youthful energy among winemakers and staff throughout the region.  Winemakers looking to get their start can do so much easier than in more established (and expensive) areas.  We're seeing winemakers who planted a vine and a dream 10 years ago right out of college putting out some amazing stuff.  Why, then, is the clientele markedly older?  See #2 and #3.
  2. Wine is expensive, yo!  Well yes, it can be, although not always.  No matter how you cut it, your average college-age drinker can get a whole case of PBR for the price of a decent bottle of wine, with a marked increase in the drunkenness factor.  The younger crowd usually makes less money, may be starting a family, paying off student loans, and hopefully starting a retirement fund.  Your older folks are better established in careers and may have more disposable income to throw around.  If you read our article on value labels, though, you know it doesn't have to be that way.  I'm currently in a hotel happily sipping a glass of 2007 Columbia Crest H3 Cab Sauv -- the bottle cost maybe $12. I'll save the $20+ bottles for time with friends.
  3. But I don't know how to swirl, sniff, sip, and all that stuff!  Let's be honest, wine can be intimidating stuff.  The culture surrounding the industry is steeped in tradition, and for your average Joe it can seem all snooty and stuff.  Now, you and I know that isn't the case, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, but this is perhaps the crux of the paradox.  If someone like me attends and event and there is nobody in my age range at the event, I may not want to go back because I don't see people like me around.  It gives the impression that one must be experienced and refined to enjoy our beloved alcoholic grape juice.
  4. Who cares?  You should.  Say you are a winery who has a client base that is 80% aged 50 or older.  Not knocking our older friends, but there is a limited duration in which that client will continue to purchase wine.  Maybe 20 or 30 more years?  Now, take your 25 year old "up-and-coming wino."  Establish a solid relationship with that customer and you have 50 years of wine purchases and word of mouth marketing to look forward to.  Both are important markets.
  5. What to do? OK, so in 4 not so brief points, I've hopefully imparted on you the fact that there is a bit of a paradox around age in the wine world.  Both young and old are important markets, but they seem to be contradictory in some ways.  Market to one, alienate the other...and vice versa...usually at the expense of the younger crowd.  How to crack that egg and effectively encapsulate the 20's crowd while maintaining market share during the golden years is key.  One thing that I've found quite effective is use of social media. Yes, I'm talking about blogs, Facebook, good websites, and Twitter.  That's a real easy way to connect with a young crowd and develop a following.  A welcoming tasting room and staff can go a long ways, as can a portfolio of wine that includes both value bottles and the more expensive variety.  Consider some events that are more educational in nature, or would attract a younger crowd.  Maybe even a young professional event at your winery to engage a different market?
Well, I probably should let our older readers get back to their Metamucil and bed, and our younger crowd to Red Bull and Rock Band.  I kid...I respect all of our audience of all ages.  And, don't get me wrong, there are absolutely wineries out there that are doing things right.  Those are the ones that we patronize and write about quite a bit.  It's a tough issue and a fine balance.  What have you seen that is effective in engaging a younger crowd?


  1. You're much more likely to see the youth being served in Seattle, I'm sure the same holds true for Portland. And the Washington Wine Commission put on a huge event in November called 20Something the New Vintage. Unfortunately I missed out on it. I think your point still stands that wine as seen as something you grow into, and it doesn't have to be that way. Oh, and by the way, thanks for making me feel so old.

  2. One more tip I would throw out there is that a winery with a $70 bottle of wine will have a lot more difficulty trying to sell it if they don't also have a good $12 bottle. That $12 bottle is going to pull a relatively new wine purchaser into that winery and if they like what they taste enough, they'll eventually go for that more expensive bottle. Compound that over 50 years of wine making as Josh mentioned and that's a lot of wine.

  3. Us youngsters (32) are just finding out that drinking wine is more than a buzz and a hangover. My friends and I just started getting into it, but its a little uncomfortable to go to a tasting with snobby fifty-somethings that give dirty looks.

  4. Joe - Thanks for the comment! Let us know as you find "youth friendly" tasting rooms. We've found some great ones in Washington and Oregon.