The three friends, all in their late 20s, were enjoying their annual weekend getaway. But they weren’t lounging by a pool, getting tipsy on beer or sugary cocktails.
Instead, they were out in the sun, sipping wine at Acorn Winery in Sonoma County, Calif., during a recent Barrel Tasting weekend. They were talking about wine with the people who make it, and they were sampling it, sometimes straight from the barrel, at more than 100 wineries.
“All of our friends are interested in wine,” said Andrea Montalbo, 27, a nurse from San Francisco.
“Drinking wine is social,” said Montalbo's friend, Emma Symons, 27, who works in marketing.
“You develop a palate of what you like, and you are much more aware of what you are drinking,” said Marlon Figuero, 27, a portfolio manager in San Francisco. “You appreciate the time it takes to make the wine, and how much work went into it…. When I get together with my friends, we bring our favorite discoveries. It’s fun to share wine and create memories.”
Throughout the U.S. — not just in the “Wine Country” states of California, Oregon, Washington and New York — millennials are developing a taste for wine.
“All the measures I’ve seen have millennials consuming somewhere around 25 percent of wine,” said Rob McMillan, executive vice president and founder of the Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division, which conducts an annual survey of the wine industry.
“Wine is both increasingly democratic — exploring wine is more affordable now than ever before — and sophisticated,” said wine critic Antonio Galloni, the founder of Vinous.com, which recently acquired the popular wine apps Delactable and Banquet.
“This appealing combination has accelerated interest among millennials. More and more people are tuned into buying wine. Millennials are a driving factor.”
They spend more for their wine, too. According to a survey from the wine app Vivino, millennials said they spent an average of $27 for a bottle, compared to just $19 for baby boomers. And more than half of them said they buy wine every week.
“They know what good wine is – maybe because they have been sipping from their boomer parents’ wallets and cellars early in their consuming years,” McMillan said.
Wine is part of American culture much more today than it was two decades ago, said Nancy Light, chief spokeswoman for the nonprofit Wine Institute, which represents more than 1,000 wineries and affiliated businesses in California. She said millennials grew up with wine and don’t feel intimidated when ordering or asking questions about it.
“It’s a big conversation with millennials,” said Morgan Harris, the 31-year-old sommelier at Auerole by Charlie Palmer in New York City. Millennials like himself, he says, are far more keen to purchase experiences than possessions. “Wine is part of that. We want to be the person who knows something about wine… We are drinking for the experience and adventure of discovering something new.”
Millennials are adventurous in their choices, too. They like to choose lesser-known varietals from regions that are under the radar. “They want to create their own cool,” said Marc Irving, the sommelier at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.
“They don’t care about the ratings,” Harris said. “They care about how the wine is made.”
Millennials also like to share what they drink through apps like Delectable, the “Instagram of wine” with over 1 million downloads, and Vivino. A company spokesman said millennials are Vivino’s fastest growing user segment. About 43 percent of the app’s users are between 18 and 36.
“Social media is such a part of our culture — to share pictures of what we are eating for dinner and what wine we are drinking,” said Sasha Hagenlock, the 27-year-old sommelier at the Harvest Table in Napa Valley.
And increasingly, millennials are making the wine, not just drinking it. Most California wineries are family businesses, Light said, and millennials are taking senior roles in sales, winemaking and vineyard management.
“The wine industry is a much older industry than spirits or beer, and I think a lot of professionals are just aging out,” said Michael Kaiser, vice president of WineAmerica, the national association of American wineries with more than 600 members in all 50 states.
Alexa Mietz, 31, earned a master in fine arts degree before joining her winemaker dad, Keith, at Mietz Cellars in Healdsburg, Calif. Her experience has been “learning hands on,” she said. That includes knowing what people her age want: a less formal atmosphere to try wines and bottles they can take home and drink, not put in a cellar.
“We play to our audience, which increasingly includes millennials,” said Joe Foppoli, a co-owner of the Christopher Creek winery up the road from Mietz Cellars. He was standing on a huge winery deck overlooking the vineyards, where visitors in their late 20s and 30s were sitting with their glasses of wine.
Foppoli looked around and said, “Wine is really hip right now.”