With millennials representing a sizable chunk of high-value shoppers with incomes that are only predicted to rise over time, it’s no surprise that predicting their consumption patterns has become something of a sport across industries. But with recent findings that millennials aren’t drinking enough wine these days, winemakers and sellers find themselves wondering how to re-engage with the generation before it’s too late. It’s surely not a problem with a one-and-done kind of solution, and some experts are pointing toward an extremely unlikely hero to bridge the gap: fortified wines.
There are several cues that signal fortified wine’s potential for reviving an interest in the broader category for millennials. For starters, it’s fodder for the inquisitive drinker. “The story behind the bottle is important to millennials,” says Victoria James, beverage director at New York City-based Korean steakhouse COTE. “They want to know about a business’s practices — if it’s women- or BIPOC-owned, where the grape comes from, and its sustainability. The story and ethics are what gets them behind a product these days.” It’s why younger drinkers are gravitating toward producers like New York’s Wild Arc Farm, which focuses on regenerative viticulture and has been experimenting with fortified offerings like white vermouth, as well the rosé vermouth from women-owned Flora, a joint project between distiller Morgan McLachlan and Amy Atwood.
Meanwhile, César Saldaña, president of the Regulatory Council of Sherry Wines, notes that some wineries are reporting sales growth in traditional markets, like sherry, that they’ve not seen in decades. “Many attribute this growth to the rediscovery of sherry’s intrinsic qualities by a cohort that was willing to experiment while being locked at home under Covid restrictions,” he says. Sherry is also an example of a fortified wine that crosses both styles of dry and sweet, lending it more versatility depending on the consumer’s personal preferences.
Trends like low-ABV drinks, aperitivo culture, as well as the craft (both cocktail and beer) movement might further explain the rise in thirst for fortified wines. “As a society, we are leaning more toward natural flavors, healthier choices, and conscious consumption,” says Victoria Canty, Lo-Fi Aperitifs brand ambassador and bartender. “That mindset has given way to a rebirth of [fortified wines] both in the resurrection of Old World brands and inspiration for New World styles.” Over at Los Angeles bar Thunderbolt, owner and operator Mike Capoferri, who is responsible for the bar’s vast Madeira program, is very conscious of the shift. “I’d say in the past five years or so there has been an exponential increase in the use of fortified wines as cocktail modifiers, making those ingredients much more visible to the consumer,” he notes. “Also, thanks to bars like Dante, aperitivo culture has become more mainstream in the U.S., leading to people drinking more vermouth and other wine-based aperitifs.”
The maxim that everything old is new again rings especially true here. The millennial demographic often leans on nostalgia for inspiration, and the art of ‘rediscovering’ something, whether it’s vintage film cameras or a bottle of port is special. “It feels as if — thanks to the internet — nothing is new or hidden anymore. When a category like this comes around again, there is a new thing to explore and take in,” Canty explains. “And there is an excitement that comes with new shiny things for this generation.” Briefly looking to the past, the current fortified wine resurgence echoes the first part of the 20th century, when International Wine Center president Mary Ewing-Mulligan says sweet fortified wines were the best-selling wines in the U.S. “I seem to recall that it wasn’t until 1963 that table wines in America outsold fortified wines,” she says. And it’s no coincidence that a pour of port reminds you of grandpa or an episode of “Mad Men.” “The middle of the 20th century had a moment for sure. People had their decanters of sherry on their bars and drank it before Sunday brunch,” Canty says. “Martinis and Manhattans were definitely a thing, which both call for vermouth.” Fast forward to present, and the Martini “hype train” is back in high gear with renewed interest of the classic cocktail’s reliance on vermouth. In essence, fortified wines are just as much a part of the trend cycle as any other beverage, ripe for a revival and reimagination.
“The amount of diversity in products available and consumed by our guests has grown so much, …with fortified wines being one of those categories,” says Strategic Hospitality’s beverage director, Matt Tocco. He leads the program at The Patterson House cocktail bar in Nashville and has witnessed a new wave of interest and knowledge about a wider range of fortified wines, from traditional fortified styles like sherry and port to lesser-known products like Pommeau and Pineau des Charentes. “For years, bartenders have paired these lesser-known ingredients with more well-known spirits like vodka, bourbon, and tequila, helping to grow the exposure of them to the point that they are now sought out for their own intrinsic value.”
Canty, Capoferri, and James all point to educating the millennial consumer as a way to bolster this growth. “When bartenders use these types of ingredients next to higher-proof craft spirits, people ask questions, then they want to try it on its own, which leads to individual research for the consumer,” Canty says. “It becomes a thing of mystery and that’s sometimes all it takes.” At COTE, James sees this pattern occurring in real time. “We use Madeira in our omakase pairing, and though it’s not something people would normally order on their own, once they taste it, it’s usually their favorite wine in the whole lineup.” And Capoferri — whose bar landed in spot 66 on the World’s Best Bars list and garnered the “One to Watch” award — agrees with this sentiment. “I think that craft cocktail culture is the obvious introduction to fortified wine for most cocktail drinkers. After seeing amontillado on a menu so many times, consumers are likely to branch out and try the product on its own,” he says. “With the help of the right bartender, that consumer can be converted to a fortified-wine drinker for life.”