Diversity is a complex and multifaceted subject. Though there remains work to be done, the wine industry should proceed optimistically. The most recent diversity survey, albeit not rigorously controlled, places the share of white employees in the UK wine trade at around 86%, slightly below the population total as of the 2011 consensus. However, the remaining 14% is not split according to representation in the wider population, suggesting further examination could be of value. While both existing and historic racial prejudice account for a percentage of observable disparities between racial groups, less insidious variables can help us understand a considerable portion of these disparities. One of these variables is age. An individuals age correlates strongly with their level of education, work experience, seniority, income, and more. The way people connect with the world also varies depending on age, not simply because younger folk differ in their interests and expressions compared to their seniors, but also because preferences evolve throughout generations. The average age of black brits is 30, Asian brits 29 and white brits 41. 65.6% of the black British community is under 39 compared to just 47.5% of the white british community. Hate it or love it, wine events are generally stuffy affairs suited more to older wine drinkers than existing or prospective younger enthusiasts. A fresh take on events post-COVID may well prove key to achieving long-term diversity goals and improving the wine industry’s outreach to under-serviced ethnic groups.
I was born in Stoke-on-Trent to aspirational working-class parents. Neither wine nor any of the associated trappings were present in their childhoods, nor for much of my own. I was, however, fortunate. I benefitted from their hard work, aspiration and belief in the importance of education. This meant that during my childhood I saw a little more of the world than they had during theirs and was privy to literature, culture, and history. My father died somewhat abruptly before I was a teen and life again became rather difficult for my mother and I. How I found myself enthralled by wine, let alone publishing my thoughts to a global audience, at a relatively young age I’m not entirely sure. What I can tell you though, is that it was nothing but an overwhelming desire to learn which kept me attending wine events. Though I seldom felt out of place, despite bearing no affinity with event attendees and myself standing out like a sore thumb, I was distinctly bored. I found wine events stuffy, dull and unattractive. Far from accusing folk of organising dull and stuffy events for all, I am instead highlighting a clear lack of appeal to a great deal of younger folk and those not particularly comfortable with upper-middle and upper class environments. Audiences like myself and others like me.
Elementary though often overlooked
Though drawing conclusions from crude univariate analysis has become popular amongst polarising politicians, social commentators and those imbibed by hyperbole and poetic truth it is to some extent reprehensible and is consider foolish amongst serious academics. Where average differences are identified between groups, multivariate analysis helps us understand why those differences might exist and which variables may be responsible for the majority of the observable variance. Both age and socioeconomic status often account for a significant percentage of variation between groups. Earnings, level of education, accumulated wealth, level of seniority, attitude to education, and more, all correlate strongly with both socioeconomic status and/or age. People of different ages and socioeconomic status also often vary in both their interests and preferences.
People’s preferences change with age not only because the pastimes of younger folk vary greatly, in part due to changing personality traits, but also because younger folk are members of different generations. Much work has been done showing that the preferences, attitudes and wants of Millennials differ greatly to previous generations.
Amongst other points of interest, the 2020 SVB ‘State of the Wine Industry Report’ rather worryingly observes that Millennials are ‘not adopting and consuming wine at the rate of previous generations’. In his blog post ‘The Lost Consumer of 2019‘ Rob McMillan, the founder of SVB’s Wine Division, notes that wine is indeed, boring. ‘To this young consumer with a short-attention span, activity, health … and fun are important both conceptually and as values. The wine industry is just not hitting any of those elements to attract their attention’. The 2020 SVB report also notes that ‘Millennials represent the wine industry’s largest opportunity’. Amongst other things, namely an obsession with numinous concepts and a fixation on the idea that consumers are simply one WSET course away from changing their mind on wine, in-person events fail to effectively appeal to and retain younger and more socioeconomically diverse consumers.
Though often overlooked, minorities in the UK are disproportionately represented in younger age groups and some, though certainly not all, in lower socioeconomic statuses. In the UK, government data shows that Asians are on average 29 years old, blacks 30, people of mixed ethnicity 18, whites 41, and those categorised as ‘other’ 30. Pew Research shows similar trends in the US, where for white Americans, the most common age was 58, compared to 11 for Hispanics, 27 for blacks and 29 for Asians. Additionally, whites were the only racial or ethnic group in which Baby Boomers made up a larger share than Millennials. By comparison, nearly six-in-ten minority Americans were Millennials or Generation Z and younger.
This overrepresentation of minorities amongst younger age groups and generations may well compound the problem associated with wine events generally failing to attract younger consumers. The more wine events fail to attract younger consumers the more they fail to attract ethnic minorities. While through one lens concerning, through another this overrepresentation presents the industry with enormous opportunity. In his benchmark text ‘Affirmative Action Around The World’, renowned economist, Thomas Sowell, has shown that while affirmative action almost always fails to benefit those to whom it pertains to help, so much so that it makes for ineffective policy. Sowell suggests that ‘catch-all’ policies which while not focusing explicitly on race are often more effective in balancing disparities.
Craft beer and street food
On a warm summers day in September 2019 I stepped off the train in Tottenham Hale. Lockwood Industrial Park is a 5 minute walk from the station, here you’ll find Beavertown Brewery’s taproom. Weather permitting, the taproom opens every weekend in Summer. The companies eclectic range of beers, all boasting colourful, cartoon-style labels, are available by the tap, including many of their more experimental, funky beverages, including beer brewed in used Burgundy and Bordeaux barrels. With outdoor seating, a live band, a handful of independent food stands serving global cuisine, and enthusiastic Beavertown staff floating around providing background on the products and showing customers around the brewery. Things couldn’t have been more different than your average wine event, unless of course Nelson Pari and Federico Moccia are hosting.
Though I had expected it to some degree, looking around the bustling Tottenham courtyard I was overwhelmed by just how diverse the crowd was. People of all ages, ethnicities, genders, aesthetic expression, image and more. Though enjoying one another’s company, the bulk of their enjoyment was in the event as a whole. The open, relaxed environment, the exploration of rich, diverse culture. At the heart of this experience, tying everything neatly together, was beer. The product was without any pressure, the glue. It was coordinating the audience, binding everything together, just as wine would do in this same environment.
What events like this seem to do particularly well is transcend boundaries outside of their perceived scope, in that they attract an older, more unassuming audience, as well as appealing across class boundaries. They appear to do this much better than more traditional, serious, formal dress code events transcend boundaries outside of their own scope. There is much to learn in this and I have discussed in previous articles how the craft beer industry’s has demonstrated success in attracting a more diverse audience.
Similar events can be found across the country, at least once a month post-COVID I would find myself consuming far too many calories at Digbeth Dining Club, a multi award-winning street food event. In their own words, the event aims to ‘strip back the frills and fanciness of fine-dining and offer an authentic, unique experience where we let the food do the talking’. The crowd here is equally diverse, so much so it is not uncommon to see an entire family, grandparents included, enjoying Caribbean Jerk chicken with craft beer from small, local breweries. Here, the food is the focus, patrons socialise around this focus while other featured products tease their emotions and spark their interest.
These events aren’t about teaching visitors, they’re not about educating, they’re about enjoyment. They’re relaxed, open environments appealing to a broad, diverse audience. They test boundaries and encourage exploration, they tie together multi-faceted experiences with the consumption of a single product. They spark people’s interest, they keep them coming back for more. They’re exactly the recipe wine could benefit from. Perhaps by design, these events primarily attract a younger audience, in doing so they by default attract a more ethnically diverse audience, they offer an exciting outlet for products and a means to bolster outreach to new, under-serviced audiences.
In her piece on whether the wine industry is boring Millennials to death, Amber at SpitBucket, points out that Millennials crave authenticity, that they want to see ‘the people behind the wine’. Research demonstrates that Millennials enjoy the vibrancy of live events, they favour experiences over things, are generally more ‘worldly’ than older consumers and are keen to spend more on travel. Millennials value their time and favour experiences which boast a multidimensional value proposition. Street food vendors, craft beer producers, and vibrant, multicultural havens like Soho have wholeheartedly embraced the interests and leanings of Millennials, in doing so they have seen business explode, their audience grow increasingly more diverse, and looking to the future, their opportunities for growth improve exponentially.
Marketing solely to Millennials is of course, for the most part, not the most intelligent of strategy. That being said, wine events are markedly lacking (exceptions include London Wine Fair and Wine Car Boot) any appeal whatsoever to the vast majority of Millennials, particularly those with little existing interest. Further to attracting Millennials, craft beer and street food events cut through ‘class lines’, effectively appealing a diverse audience in regards age, race and socioeconomic class. No dress codes, no stuffy formats, relaxed and informal settings, fun and engaging. Most importantly they do not double down on what failed to previously work, they recognise the need to expand their offering, they make the table bigger.
A fresh take on events
The Coronavirus pandemic has forced change in the wine industry, companies previously reluctant to engage online have ‘cracked’ social media, reaching new audiences and providing existing consumers with a refreshed experience of both their product and their story. While disastrous on many fronts, the wine industry has an opportunity post-COVID. Though outlining areas which demand further research, analysis of a recent report titled ‘Ethnic Minorities in Hospitality’ brings into serious question the extent to which racism is responsible for observable disparate outcomes in the wine and hospitality industry. This cause for optimism combined with both a need, and desire, to reinvigorate the industry and capture new audiences eager to spend, see friends and leave their homes, presents an opportunity like no other to boost diversity while helping the industry recover financially.
I’m by no means suggesting we ditch events as they are now, nor attacking them for what they aim to achieve, quite the contrary. Instead, what I am suggesting is that we increase our efforts to expand the overall offering. I can think of no reason why traditional events, which of course do appeal to a specific demographic, and more youthful, millennial-centric, craft-beer style events which adopt a new approach to enticing, engaging and retaining drinkers cannot exist in tandem.
This approach, in essence, kills several birds with one stone. A refreshed and expanded offering of wine events may help see in a ‘roaring 20s’ style return to spending post-COVID, capitalising on the opportunity to offer value to a wide range of young spenders desperate to get out. Simultaneously, by learning from industries who have successfully attracted younger demographics, the wine industry can strengthen its outreach and potentially supercharge its diversity achievements. This outreach should be grounded in collaboration, working with street food vendors, live music venues, young industry contributors, and organisations like Be Inclusive Hospitality. The industry must break out of its comfort zone and seize new ground like never before.