The recently released Gray Report outlining what millennials want from wine is not in any way like the 19th century treatises, written by men, mandating what women want from marriage. It is a thoughtfully composed analysis – admittedly for the United States market – of how the underlying worldview of millennials trumps the power of convention.
They prioritise health, excitement, personal experience. They want to know what is in the wine (a list of product ingredients), they find many branded wines boring, and they seek a more personal engagement with the product and the producer.
While this dichotomy is most marked in the generational divide, it is also evident in way the market for luxuries has changed in the last couple of decades. What used to be recognised as tokens of wealth – perceived rarity and heavily advertised deluxe brands – has a rival in what Frances Percival has called “narrative” and I prefer to call “curated” luxury.
To understand the difference imagine checking into a luxury multinational hotel chain – one which has its own “unique” fragrance pumped through the air-conditioners. You arrive in your beautifully appointed suite where the guest amenities are supplied by Bulgari or L’Occitane. The bed is the size of a tennis court. There’s a printed card on the bedside table with a pillow menu (feather/anti-allergen/Tempur). This is old style luxury.
Alternatively you arrive at a wilderness lodge where each chalet is different, and invisible to the others. The guest amenities are hand-made soaps, with a hand-made card detailing the natural ingredients which went into their production. Communication is always on hand-written notes on hand-made paper.
Here the two messages are distinctly different. For the pre-millennial generation they represent two mutually exclusive definitions of luxury. What has emerged from the Gray Report and readers’ comments is that for millennials much of what comprises curated luxury has become a way of life. They don’t want mass-produced, they prefer artisanal, but they don’t expect that it should cost a fortune. As one reader of the report noted “the.. element most commentators miss… is that we’re all broke.”
Here’s a quote from the Report: “Richard Jennings punished his palate by tasting 230 grocery-store Chardonnays. I would want combat pay…. I encourage you to jump to the tasting notes and tell me, if you were 30 years old and looking for something interesting to drink, how many of these would you buy a second bottle of? Meanwhile, if you look at the wines millennials are excited about — they are NOT heavily manipulated Cabs and Chards. Millennials like uniqueness.”
Millennial taste is playing an increasingly important role in South Africa’s burgeoning craft wine, beer and gin sectors. Its defining features are the use of heritage varieties, with fruit sourced from old or older vineyards, and the absence of evident oaking. These are wines deemed geeky by the (mainly) older generation drinkers. However, they are promoted (perhaps over-promoted) by commentators and publications seeking novelty. (It’s hard to write the same stuff over and over again). The noise around them is disproportionate to the volumes sold – but not to the number of different labels in the market
Few if any are cheap: most sell for between R100 and R200 per bottle – which seems acceptable given the limited availability and the narrative which motivates the sale. Those produced by the rockstars are wildly over-priced – but then so are the ultra-premium examples made in the classical style. For every one of the several hundred geeky wines in the trade, there are as many traditionally styled reds selling for over R400 per bottle.
There’s no good input cost reason for this: it’s the marketing department conveying a sense of “value” by upping the price. Decades of this has produced an extraordinary escalation in the cost of vineyards – peaking at over R900m per hectare in Burgundy. This is just one of the consequences of our generation’s excesses that millennials will inherit.