Can Lebanese Wine Win Over the Youth?
Over the years, the U.S. wine industry has repeatedly failed to attract Millennials and Gen Z. What can Lebanese winemakers do about that?
Before Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, Rob McMillan was producing an annual report on the state of the U.S. wine industry based on data collected through the bank’s wine division. I flipped through the 102-page 2023 report and this is the main headwind I’ll be addressing as everyone else has but as a Lebanese-American wine person:
“Consumers younger than 50 drink wine but more often drink across categories. But a sizable number of alcohol consumers under 50 fall into the category of consumers who imbibe but have chosen not to drink wine.” - Rob McMillan
Failing to attract younger consumers has been its own multi-year pandemic in the wine industry. Recently, it’s been covered here, here, here, and here, and talked about on the Vinepair podcast across two episodes.
To sum it all up, the younger generations are more selective because they grew up in the informational age surrounded by artisanal beverage options beyond wine but it’s been paired with their lack of funds. Collecting wine is a hobby that requires wine cellars or homes. Ultimately, it requires cash, permanence, and stability. Consumers have a better understanding of wine costs thanks to a few years locked indoors but money’s not the main problem because they are spending it on other luxury items. The main issue is that no one is speaking their language when it comes to wine.
Looking at this from the perspective of Lebanon, that issue is exacerbated because most winery efforts are put into the act of exporting alone. The wines are shipped off and forgotten. It’s their problem now.
Wines imported into the U.S. market still need to make it into the hands of consumers to ensure a restocking order comes in. While this may be seen as the responsibility of the importers and distributors - rightly so, to an extent - the second half of the journey is what will determine continued survival and success in the U.S. market. I hate to say “you have to spend money to make money” right after a winery receives a wire of coveted U.S. currency but it’s true.
So what can Lebanese producers do to win over the youth in the world’s biggest wine market?
The Ancient World of Value
There have been mentions across the interwebs about Lebanese wines having potential as a new addition to retail because they’re affordable and they can check all the sexy buzzword boxes (climate change-resistant grapes, indigenous varieties, stories of Middle Eastern resilience that fit into a Western worldview). While it’s true that market fluctuations and the rising costs of wines from Europe/Napa have created a gap that Ancient World wines can fill, I don’t like to paint it that way.
I don’t want to make them into Napa knock-offs or Bordeaux wannabes in order for them to garner interest that will be short-lived. When discussing the pricing of Lebanese wines (and wines of the Ancient World) in comparison to high-ticketed places like Burgundy, we must tread delicately so as to not position the region as the home of cheaper, less-worthy alternatives that are just unrated versions of vinifera.
Speaking of ratings…
Forget about scores
This may seem counterintuitive since many retailers depend on listing scores, use tasting notes from published reviews, and restock according to what’s getting press. Many consumers also look to these ratings as a reference to what is considered “good” by the “experts.” Importers and distributors need coverage and publicity for an otherwise unheard-of bottle and I’ve witnessed these reviews and top-100 lists drive instant same-day sales.
But fuck that.
It’s a blessing that most wines of the Ancient World are not reviewed because they’re not being compared to what wine is supposed to be or what a critic subjectively prefers. These blends and indigenous varieties are new to most palates, even professional ones, so I’d prefer no coverage over an 88 from someone who’s never had a bottle of Obeideh before.
Instead of forking over fresh dollars to get these wines in front of the right names, put that fresh money toward fresh voices and let the wine speak for itself.
A Fresh Garage of fun
Ballard Canyon’s Stolpman Vineyards is an excellent example of how a winery can walk the tightrope between elegant and egalitarian. SV has a swanky line of wines under its Estate brand but it also has a collection under So Fresh and Combe that are chillable drink-me-now wines, featuring handwritten labels and bright neon/tie-dye hues. The branding and the tasting experience for both are in separate, neighboring spaces with completely different vibes. SV Estate is a traditional seated tasting on the outdoor patio while So Fresh is in the “Fresh Garage” where you stand around a concrete tasting bar. There’s merch, postcards, and temporary tattoos. The pricing of the So Fresh wines is $23-$40 retail so they’re not “cheap” but they’re generally cheaper than the Estate line.
This diversification isn’t a new idea but when looking at the landscape of Lebanese wines, entry-level tends to be poorly conceptualized or not pushed far enough. They need to exist as separate entities that are experienced in different ways. For now, the separation is only on the surface - in the labels alone.
Changing things up costs money that most can’t spare right nowand anything unrefined (or not how the French would do it) is met with resistance. Producers want to be seen as contenders, especially if they’re not given many chances at showing who they are in foreign markets. If they can’t be seen as equal to the legacy Chateaus of Chambolle, they want to be likened to Don Hochar and carry the same esteem as Chateau Musar at the very least. I get it.
But there’s some snobbery to it, too. Understandably though, letting go of the French connection that gives legitimacy by association is a tall ask, particularly during a national financial meltdown.
Budget-friendly entry-level wines are important to introduce drinkers to an underrepresented nation but they carry a heavier burden than those from more established regions because they may turn a consumer off from a whole region because of one underwhelming encounter.
So if the under-$15 category is not done right, it could hurt the collective brand of Lebanon and be a missed opportunity for cash flow. At the moment, very few can tango in this price range after production and importation costs BUT for those who can, it’s a chance to create a brand that’s punchy, unserious, and experimental. Bottling a generic red and slapping on a Phoenician trireme, a cedar, or a map of Lebanon isn’t cutting it anymore. This approach may have worked for other products in the past but something so fresh that’s detached from the false glamour of the 1960s or the wine & war dichotomy that has a sectarian tinge? Something that spells out what a regular Tuesday night in Beirut is like? It’s time to bottle that shit up and sell it.
Depend on tastemakers, not diaspora
All these efforts are lost if they’re not presented to prospective drinkers in the right setting and I don’t mean at a table that has mezza on it.
Focusing on diaspora hotspots (be it cities or neighborhoods) means you’re banking on sentimental purchases alone. It works but Lebanese wine can sell beyond the confines of pita places and Mediterranean bistros if you depend on key tastemakers who understand the region - and have spent substantial time there - and can relay their experience of it to others. Because the production of wine touches on so many facets of a country’s socioeconomic health, explaining Lebanese wine explains Lebanon in short. Given how multilayered Lebanon’s current state is and how it is constantly warping, explaining it is not a job that just anyone can do, nor is it a script that can be memorized.
These tastemakers can also guide drinkers through a portfolio so the pressure isn’t on the one under-$15 to win over the crowd with no one there to sing its praises. The Lebanese do this well in-person back home but the crucial part is teaming up with the right people who can do it for them across the ocean. Once tastemakers are found, they can collaborate with causes, events, and safe spaces where young people are open, curious, and want to connect.
Be who you are, loudly
The practices that have always been done in Lebanon - like dry farming, handpicking, and using native yeasts - are not the norm everywhere and they impress consumers who care about craft.
“We can produce wines as we always have, but we need to reflect the values of younger consumers in our branding and messaging.” - Rob McMillan
Sustainability, social justice, climate change, labor rights, and politics aren’t what’s trendy or what only concerns Americans. They’re realities of the world millennials and Gen Z inherited, no matter where they are. As a millennial myself with sisters in their early and late 20s, we can sniff out corporate bullshit or inauthentic virtue-signaling.
Include arak in all communication. As drinkers diversify what they buy, it can be helpful to leverage the milk of lions that is so deeply associated with Lebanese F&B culture. There are many Lebanese vodkas, gins, and various other byproducts that have mushroomed in the last 5 years but arak is literally our spirit. Explore low and/or no alcohol options to be more inclusive. There is so much potential for both in the U.S. market and across the region where a sizable chunk of the population doesn’t drink alcohol and more consumers shift to healthier choices.
Get out of your own way
At my visit to Dragonette Cellars, our Irish neuroscientist-turned-wine guide, Stephen, spoke about how the wineries of Santa Barbara operate like the small town that it is. They’re not worried about competing because many source grapes from the same vineyards, work side-by-side, and each has a signature style that will stand on its own. Now, this may just be what they say to tasting room visitors but it’s believable. Santa Barbara doesn’t operate from a scarcity mindset because California wine is sought after worldwide. There are enough customers to go around.
In Napa Valley, Robert Mondavi also encouraged a Three Musketeers approach. If everyone worked to elevate the Napa brand, all wines that could put it on their labels would benefit.
For Lebanon though, it’s like getting into med school. It’s hard to feel like there will be enough space on a rack or wine list for more than one Lebanese producer, if any. The market hasn’t made room for you and your brethren so your brethren become your competition. But this is why highlighting the diversity of the entire country from a place of security, in the same way that big wine regions do, is important. Retailers and beverage directors will see that one bottle doesn’t fulfill “Lebanon” as an inventory category. After all, hospitals need specialists, not just one general practitioner. We can fill a whole rack, we just need to have the patience.
Let’s do this.
A MESSAGE TO U.S. WINE RETAILERS
I'm offering consulting services for U.S. wine retailers that want to build an Ancient World wine section but don't know how. I create packages that include content creation, staff training, and/or guided tasting events for customers.
I will not offer this to many because it requires curation that's customized to that shop's customer base and business goals. It's specialized expertise. I will not be giving that to every shop under the sun because I want partners who know the value that this section will bring them.
This is a long-term relationship that needs investment. An Ancient World wine section needs to be nurtured and it needs strategy. I want to work with retailers who believe it's worth it and who believe my input is necessary so it's done right. If you are convinced of this mission just as much as I am, it will succeed and it will make you money. If you’re interested in that, get in touch!
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As of March 14, 2023, the national currency dipped to 100,000LL = $1, which used to equal $67 in 2019
According to the SVB report, no one is just a wine drinker anymore