June 13, 2008 / 12:23 AM / 9 years ago

Youthful exuberance lifts U.S. wine industry

ST. HELENA, California (Reuters Life!) - The great news for the U.S. wine industry is that young Americans are drinking copious amounts of wine. The no-so-great news is that they are a fickle lot.

Vintners -- even those in the most established wine regions like California’s Napa Valley -- say they have to work hard to get their attention and bring about brand loyalty. Making great wine does not suffice.

“They choose their wines based on newer projects, the hip ”in“ names, the things that are different, a unique story,” said Wesley Steffens, 31, who manages his family’s new Vineyard 7 & 8 winery on the hills over Napa Valley.

Wine consumption in the United States has risen each year for the past 14 years and the fastest growing segment of drinkers today is the “Millennial Generation” -- those who started reaching adulthood around the year 2000.

Vintner Kathleen Heitz Myers, president of long-time Napa Valley winery Heitz Cellars, said this tech-savvy generation “doesn’t want to be told what to drink.”

“They like to do the research themselves on the Internet,” she said as she chaired Napa’s famous wine auction weekend earlier this month.

AFTER ‘TWO BUCK CHUCK’

The United States is expected to overtake France as the No. 1 world wine consumer in the short term. And although France has much higher per capita consumption, young people there are drinking less wine and more spirits.

“The Millennials started with these extreme value wines, like ‘Two Buck Chuck’ ($2 Charles Shaw wine), that were supposed to kill the business, but hasn’t killed it at all,” said Garen Staglin, who owns the high-end winery Staglin Family Vineyard.

“Instead of starting out drinking beer in college, people are starting out drinking wine in college.”

Even with his winery’s established clout, Staglin tries to appeal to the new generation of drinkers by offering them “the experience” -- like tours at his hillside estate where the movie “The Parent Trap,” starring Linsday Lohan, was filmed.

Judd Finkelstein’s family has been making Napa wine for a few decades and gave him the label “Judd’s Hill” to run. He jokes that his parents put his name on the wine just to keep him engaged in the family business.

“The marketplace and industry have changed so much,” said Finkelstein, 36. “We don’t quite have the brand loyalty among consumers. I find myself being out and about a lot more.”

Finkelstein organizes events at the winery with live music and has a national barbecue champ on his staff cook up meals.

“There is a new energy,” he said. “Usually I am in Hawaiian shirts and I’ve got my ukulele and we try to have a lot of fun around the winery.”

But there is also a serious side to the youthful wine imbibing.

“There are a lot of young wine drinkers nowadays who are starting to be the next generation of collectors,” said Vineyard 7 & 8’s Steffens.

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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