New ideas for new people

Tuesday, 16 March, 2004
Tessa de Kock for Two Oceans
Why is Generation X still being ignored?
Way back in 1997, Darryl Roberts, a former TV producer and bold and ballsy founder of WineX, warned wine marketers they were ignoring young adult consumers at their peril. His bone-sharp, in-your-face wine website was calculated to cock a snook at the ponderous winespeak of the establishment wine aficionados and challenge the idea that nobody under 35 could afford wine or cared about it.

WineX struck an immediate chord with 20 to 30 year-olds, as well as older readers who relished the cheeky and unpretentious licence he took. But even now, seven years since it started, Roberts laments that wine marketers continue to market to themselves or to established audiences, still turning their backs on 20- and 30-something consumers.

He does have a point if you consider how the US market is perceived. According to the US Wine Market: Impact Databank Review and Forecast (2003), children of baby boomers who began reaching the legal drinking age in the 1990s, have added 60 million potential new wine consumers to the population of his country. It has been noted that by the end of this decade they will be entering their 30s, making them prime targets for wine marketers.

But why the wait? Why aren’t they considered prime targets right now? That’s where Roberts’s unshakeable myths come in. Myth number one is that young adults have no money. Myth number two is that the palates of young adults are not sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate wine, while myth number three is the corollary of number two, really. It runs like this: Young adults will simply grow into wine. In other words, a miraculous transformation occurs out of the blue, where one day you wake up, feel like an adult and, just like that, wine becomes your beverage of choice.

If you look at the preliminary findings of the US Wine Market Council’s biennial poll of 1 000 consumers, it shows a marked increase in the number of the country’s consumers who drink wine at least once a week. Called ‘core wine drinkers’, they now constitute 10% of the nation’s wine drinkers and consume almost 90% of wine. The increase is attributed to the significant number of young adults who rapidly move from being occasional to core drinkers. Hello!

And in the UK? Drinks Business Review claims British women between 18 and 24 are the largest consumers of alcoholic drinks in Europe and that wine is a hot (or is that chilled?) favourite because it’s sophisticated and low in calories.

So what’s the problem? Why is Generation X still ignored, or is this an unfair claim to make?

Carrie Adams, partner in liquor retailer Norman Goodfellows of Johannesburg, says it’s not quite like that any more. ‘South African wine producers are getting closer to their markets and realise people in their 20s and early 30s are drinking wine, so there’s a stronger move to marketing and merchandising in a way that will appeal to young adults.

‘I get invited at least 30 times a year to talk to wine clubs whose members are in their 20s and 30s. They are dying to know more but they get put off by all the pomposity of wine literature that so often highlights obscure little wines that no-one has ever heard of.

‘There’s a need to make wine more relevant, more accessible and more exciting. One of the big problems is that the tasting panels rating wines in magazines and competitions lack younger blood.’

Adams says wines most popular among Generation X are red blends (because varietal wines tend to be too expensive) and during summer, dry Rosés, Chenins and Sauvignon Blancs.

‘In our experience, there is a ceiling of about R50 a bottle that young adults will pay for wines in a store, except when it comes to yuppies. They’ll obviously spend far more and they make a point of seeking out rare wines and big-ticket items. And, yes, the number of yuppies is swelling as transformation has opened up greater career opportunities for South Africans but it’s important that wines don’t become too pricey for the majority of young adults.’

Adams says high restaurant prices are putting the brakes on young adults’ consumption of wine. ‘If you are on a budget and you find the wines marked up way beyond their retail selling prices, there’s no way you’ll buy wine. It’s easier to order a beer or alcopop instead.’

Ray Edwards, GM of the Tops at Spar national grocers’ chain says part of the problem lies in the whole presentation of wine that is too staid for Generation X. His own group is currently working with wine producers to find ways of targeting Generation X more efficiently. ‘We do have a good sprinkling of these consumers but by far the majority of our customers are boomers.’

James Muir, one of the sommeliers at the hot new Belthazar wine bar at Cape Town’s tourist lodestar, the V&A Waterfront, is 23 and says he is aware of more and more people his age and stage who are drinking wine and genuinely interested in extending their palates. ‘We have a lot of young customers who are locals or domestic and foreign tourists. They like the idea of making wine the centrepiece of their entertainment or dining experience. And judging by the return visits, it’s not just a once-off thing.’

Caroline Rillema of Cape-based specialists, Caroline Fine Wines recalls her first wine experience at 20, which hooked her for life. But most of her consumers aren’t that young. ‘They start mostly from about 26 or so but I’m beginning to see a slightly younger group in our shops – high achievers, people who travel a lot and like the challenge of learning new things.’

Peter Hafner, Distell’s global wine marketing manager and a Generation X'er himself, says: ‘The only way we can grow the wine market is to make wines more interesting to more people. And it is happening. Just look at the UK market. Thirty years ago the average annual per capita wine consumption was 2 litres. Now it’s around 25 litres.’

Estimated wine consumption in the US reached a total of almost 2,4 billion litres last year, according to Frank Prial, writing for the New York Times, who says the US Wine Institute projects that by 2010, consumption will increase to 2,8 billion litres a year.

‘Growth in South Africa has been much slower,’ says Hafner. ‘Average consumption has hovered around the 9-litre to 10-litre mark for nearly 20 years but there has been a definite change in drinking patterns. People drink less fortified wine than they used to as table wine becomes more fashionable and visible through branding, distribution and pricing.

‘Marketers have a role to play in making people more comfortable with wine, seeing it as a natural extension of a meal, and also as a café, sundowner or party beverage. This is true for young adults but also for many other South Africans as well.’