Millennials want to know: What’s in the wine glass?

Hospitality trends show that millennials’ distinctive wine consumption tends to rise as they grow older

More than ever before, brands are leveraging generational differences to target their marketing efforts more effectively – even when it comes to wine.

In my research examining what information sources millennials use to learn about wine and make restaurant purchasing decisions, it became clear the market is ripe with opportunity for restaurants and service providers to understand what millennials want and tailor wine offerings accordingly.

Hospitality trends show millennials’ wine consumption rises as they age. According to USA Today, this generation drank 159.6 million cases of wine in 2015 alone. While the amount of wine intake in itself is not unique, millennials exhibit distinctive consumption characteristics and preferences that restaurants may want to consider to better serve them and keep them as returning customers.

Appetite for authentic experiences

First and foremost, millennials desire fun and engaging wine-drinking experiences where they can learn something new. Many have traveled abroad with their boomer parents, gaining exposure to the culturally diverse world of food and drink at a young age; even more have grown up with the development of the television Food Network, allowing them to watch and learn from home. As a result, millennials are more adventurous in their dining, and they crave authenticity.

Table-side service still counts

As much as they love technology, millennials also appreciate traditional table-side service and having a real conversation with their server or sommelier. It may come as a surprise that the internet is not always the first source millennials consult to make wine purchasing decisions. In fact, friends and peers are the top sources of information, while experts, such as sommeliers, follow as a close second.

Served with a story on the side

Research also shows millennials are attracted to eye-catching labels with interesting back stories. An example of a local Washington wine with an authentic story is Hamilton Cellars’ Lowell Lee Tribute Red. The blend is 85 percent Malbec, 13 percent Merlot and 2 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, representing the best of Columbia Valley and serving as a tribute to the “very best of America.” According to the winemakers, John Lowell Hamilton was a U.S. Marine who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and Robert Lee Fisher served with the U.S. Army during the Korean War. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this wine is donated to a charity that supports “veterans who have worn a United States uniform protecting our freedom.”

Given that millennials are increasingly motivated to shop with purpose-driven and socially-conscious brands, this narrative would add value to their wine-drinking experience and likely lead to more return business. Restaurants that take a few extra minutes to teach what’s in the glass and what food items on the menu pair well will not only enhance service for millennial customers, but may also increase the average check and thus bottom-line profits.

Emphasis on value

Millennials enjoy dining out more frequently than other generations, and they want to be able to afford to do so. Although they are the highest educated generation and have great potential for income, many of them feel they’re poor – due in part because they entered the workforce during the great recession, which has left many with low-wage jobs, earning far less than their parents. With this in mind, it’s essential for restaurants to demonstrate why it’s worth purchasing a glass or a bottle of high-quality wine at a higher cost while dining out versus buying cheap, low-quality wine at a grocery store.

A great wine menu should offer a few affordable yet quality options so millennials can dine out as often as they want without breaking the bank. Allowing them to taste a wine before committing to it – even just a sip – will also influence their purchasing behavior. Having a wine-by-the-glass program or an appropriately priced manager’s pick of the week may entice them even more.

Millennials bring a lot to the table. They will continue to overtake Generation X and Baby Boomers in terms of market share and purchasing power, presenting a significant opportunity for restaurant service providers to engage and share the narrative behind the label millennials are drinking while educating them more about the varietal and wine culture as a whole. Doing so will reinforce both the authenticity of the wine and the service being provided, as well as make millennial customers feel like they learned something new. And if the experience is positive, they’re very likely to share and recommend it to their friends.

Rhonda Hammond is an assistant professor at the School of Hospitality Business Management, Washington State University Carson College of Business.