US Wine Industry Fights Back With New Marketing Campaigns

It might feel like it’s all gloom and doom in the wine industry right now, but two separate groups are creating positive energy around wine. Felicity Carter reports.

Reading time: 6m 30s

Two new marketing campaigns in the US (Photo: sandra/, generated with AI)
Two new marketing campaigns in the US (Photo: sandra/, generated with AI)

Vineyard areas are shrinking. The health lobby is on the attack. And younger people are apparently drinking anything but wine.

Aren’t these just passing fads? After all, Prohibitionist messaging failed spectacularly in the past — and young people have always shied away from wine, only to embrace it eventually.

According to Honore Comfort, Vice President of International Marketing at California’s Wine Institute, these issues can’t be ignored.

“For a few different reasons, that audience is at risk of not coming into wine, or staying with wine, as previous generations have,” she says.

Comfort says the Wine Institute has developed a plan to tackle the situation. And, it turns out, it’s not the only one.

The scale of the problem

Comfort says that it became clear at the end of last year that the global wine industry was facing headwinds, resulting in a significant sales slowdown. By January 2024, the Wine Institute had swung into action.

These efforts, which Comfort is spearheading, are focused on the group she calls ‘zillennials’ — younger Millennials and those Gen Zs of US legal drinking age. She says this group is fundamentally different from previous generations, partly because they’re under significant financial pressure, but also because of their unique relationship with technology.

It turns out ‘zillennials’ are theoretically very open to wine, but that they’re too busy with the challenges of everyday life.

The Wine Institute has poured significant resources into tackling the issue, including bringing in brand strategist Mark Barden, founder of the agency eatbigfish, who has specific expertise “within this zone of challenger brands”.

Another leg of the strategy has been qualitative consumer research. For this, the Institute worked with Paul Peterson of CoinJar Insights & Strategy, who understands how younger consumers engage with each other and with digital technology.

They interviewed a group of 42 younger consumers, who were then divided into people who already drink wine, and those who drink beverage alcohol but not wine, or who have turned away from wine.

“Somewhat surprisingly, what we were hearing was exactly what we would want to hear,” says Comfort. “They recognise that wine brings a certain sophistication, that it’s about enjoyment and relaxing, and that it’s aspirational.”

What they didn’t hear, unfortunately, was the clear “ah-ha!” answer the researchers were hoping for. It turns out this group is theoretically very open to wine, but that they’re simply too preoccupied with the challenges of everyday life.

While choice is important in general to ‘zillennials’, it can be overwhelming when it comes to wine.

Some key insights did come out of the interviews, however. One is that this cohort has a very strong value system: being open, inclusive, and connecting with other people is extremely important to them. So is performing at the highest level. “There’s this sense that you have got to really bring it every day,” says Comfort. In other words, they want to be at peak performance when they show up to work — which means avoiding beverage alcohol.

Comfort also says the cohort expressed a “remarkable sense of optimism” about their lives, believing they have many choices. But while choice is important in general to them, it can be overwhelming when it comes to wine.

“It’s like there are so many choices — what if I make the wrong choice?” she says. “How do I know which wine is for me? I want to get into the category, but the stakes are high.”

Yet participants said they think it’s impressive “when you go out with someone and they ask for the wine list and they know which wine to choose. That’s a total boss move.”

Solving the ‘it’s complicated’ problem

The complaint that wine is complicated has haunted the wine trade since the days when WineX magazine set out to bring GenX to wine. While Comfort thinks wine’s complexity is something to be celebrated, she also thinks there might finally be a way to solve the problem — gamification.

Comfort says research participants told them over and over that while the world is “complicated and daunting — the conversation went dark very quickly with many — there was this incredible wave of optimism that came back. ‘We want to have fun. We know we can succeed, but we want life to be fun’.”

So “playing games and engaging with their friends through games, either in person or virtually is really an important piece of this,” as is wit and humour.

There is already a precedent for this in fine wine. Many who work in fine wine have been reporting anecdotally that there is a wave of 28-to-40 year olds entering the fine wine (and whiskey) space thanks to trading apps that have made everything more transparent and fun.

The “alcohol is poison” problem

In March 2024, an article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about sommelier and social media influencer, Warner Boin Dowlearn, who’d asked her TikTok followers why they weren’t drinking wine. More than a million views and 35,000 comments later, she had her answer: a growing number of younger people believe that alcohol is literally poison.

Comfort says that while the subject came up in the Institute’s research, younger people also recognise that when it comes to alcohol, wine is the moderate choice.

They also heard that making memories — as per the hashtag #makingmemories — is extremely important to this group. “What that means is because we don’t have a lot of time when we’re together, we’ve got to make it count,” says Comfort. “And the way that we do that is by connecting in a genuine way, but we also want to remember it.” In other words, when younger people get together, they don’t want to get drunk.

When younger people get together, they don’t want to get drunk.

All these insights have been fleshed out with contributions from the Institute’s member wineries, many of whom have developed cutting-edge consumer research and analysis of their own. The next step for the Institute is quantitative research, which will also inform the campaign being developed. Its goal is to get millennials to “reappraise and reconsider wine and see that it does align with the way they want to live their life”.

The campaign will be presented internally in early July, and then the creative work will be tested, including on GenX and baby boomers — any messaging must also resonate with the people who remain wine’s core audience.

“We will be working with John Gillespie of Wine Opinions and putting it in front of wine consumers,” says Comfort.

And although the campaign comes from California, Comfort hopes that wine bodies and groups elsewhere will build on it, because “we all recognise that we need to do this differently. We’re approaching this from this perspective of wine as a category overall.”

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The second initiative

In January 2024, noted American wine writer Karen MacNeil posted a video on Instagram called Why I Hate Dry January, in which she called the annual ritual “self-righteous and Puritanical” and a “baby step towards another Prohibition”, though she was clear that she believes people should do whatever is right for them.

The post touched a nerve, garnering more than 17,000 likes, shares and other reactions.

“Soon after that, I learned that a large percentage of GenZ and Millennials intended to participate in Sober October,” says MacNeil. “The opposite of sober is, of course, drunk. This struck me as very divisive. The implication that all wine drinkers get drunk when they drink wine was flat out wrong.”

Karen MacNeil, wine writer and author of the The Wine Bible
Karen MacNeil, wine writer and author of the The Wine Bible

The three of them subsequently founded a company called COME TOGETHER—A Community For Wine LLC, which is “committed to creating and sharing positive, inclusive consumer information about wine and its historic role as a communal beverage”.

The website is currently under construction, but once it’s live, it will list events and promotions, along with downloadable messages and design assets that can be used by any member of the trade, anywhere in the world.

“Come Over October is being planned as an annual event. Why? Because we need it,” says MacNeil. “Because wine is a catalyst for the human relationships that sustain us all.”

Or, as the Wine Institute’s research subjects might put it, wine is perfect for #makingmemories.


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