My Top 1 Takeaway from This Year’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium… Because There Only is 1 and it’s BIG

Another Unified Wine & Grape Symposium under the belt. The conference — which attracts 14,000 attendees each year making it among the largest trade shows in North America — had a different feel to it this year. It wasn’t that the programming varied much. The sessions on winemaking and business and marketing were all there, as were the giant expo and the keynote addresses. But, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an ominous element of — dare I say it? — foreboding that served as a backdrop for what normally feels like an upbeat gathering? 

Around this time, I usually try to do a round-up of key trends and interesting insights that cropped up throughout the three-day event. In fact, this article actually started out as a Top 5 Takeaway piece. But this year, so much of it felt like noise distracting me from the one point that rang through like a gunshot in a crowded space.

Adapt or die.

That’s it, folks. And here’s why:

1) Millennials Matter But They Don’t Need Us.

Probably way cooler than a glass of wine. Photo by Axel Breuer from Pexels

Millennials aren’t as enamored with wine as every other generation is and was. Their interest cannot be treated as a foregone conclusion. During the event’s State of the Industry address, wine economist Mike Veseth referred to the latest research showing that millennials are having less sex than ever, sagely noting that it should come as no surprise that their interest in things like wine is also lackluster. So why do so many brands keep doing the same damn thing? Glenn Proctor of the Ciatti Company suggested that capturing the hearts and minds of this important audience likely isn’t going to happen by slapping another pretty label on a 750 ml with a cork closure. Stories about vineyard exposure and soil types and oak treatment aren’t either.

In fairness, cutesy stories or deliberate obfuscation when it comes to what goes into wines are also not going to be the moves that seduce this demographic (if it can even be seduced… see above re: sex) away from other beverage options or their smart phones. As a marketer, I’m all for marketing tactics. But there are times when I take a look at a wine label and think to myself, “This is cool and all, but WTF am I actually drinking?” Which brings me to my next point…

2) Stop Fighting the Transparency Thing Already.

In an age of consumers demanding authenticity and transparency, why is the wine industry so slow to get on board?

Bud FREAKING Light took a leadership stance on this very issue recently, taking out an entire full-page ad in the LA Times announcing their move for ingredients labeling on their packaging. Their Super Bowl ads were also focused on this messaging. Smart marketing play or not, they’re taking a stand and understanding that at some point consumers are going to start asking the tough questions, and they want to be on the right side of that battle.

Bud Light takes a stand on ingredients labeling. Photo via Twitter @BudLight

In the session on The Changing Regulatory Landscape, one attendee asked about whether or not there were any changes in labeling requirements with regard to ingredients or nutritional information on the horizon. Panelist John Trinidad of DPF Law responded that he knew of no such regulations pending, leaving plenty of room for the industry to be proactive on the matter.

Smart marketing play or not, they’re taking a stand and understanding that at some point consumers are going to start asking the tough questions, and they want to be on the right side of that battle.

Sparkling wine brand Thomson & Scott lists nutritional content on back labels. Photo via

As a wine lover, do I personally care whether or not wineries are forced to list Bentonite as an ingredient? Not really…and that’s mostly because I have a relatively strong understanding of why certain ingredients might be used in the wine production process, which actually puts me in a pretty small minority as far as wine consumers go. But I do see this as the direction things are headed for all substances we put in our bodies, and it would be nice to see the industry not stick its head in the sand on this one. Brands like Ridge Vineyards, Atlas Wine Company and Thomson and Scott (in the spirit of transparency, this is also a brand I have the pleasure of working with) are all emerging as leaders in this movement. They will be the ones to watch, because this debate isn’t going away any time soon.

3. Speaking of Leadership…

While I’m at it, it’s time we start to get the backs of those brave souls in this business who are actively and vocally challenging the status quo when it comes to the broken and laughably anti-consumer three-tier system. I’m looking at the likes of Madeline Puckette, whose brilliant missive on this very situation and The Wine Curmudgeon’s defense of her potentially incendiary piece, may actually have enough influence to someday make a difference. I’m also looking at brands like LibDib who are literally trying to find a better way of doing business. But it’s like trying to build a beach one grain of sand at a time. What is it going to take to truly overhaul the system?

My brain actually throbs when I try to unpack all that needs to change on this front, and how one might go about doing it, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. If anyone out there has a brilliant business concept for bringing smaller-production, awesome, independent wine brands to consumers in a fair and easy way, I will turn over my entire life savings to you to fund it. It won’t be much, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be alone in this commitment.

4. If the Mountain Will Not Come To Muhammad…

As usual, there was a panel focused on the Direct to Consumer channel. However, it was only moderately attended, and there was radio silence when the panel opened it up to questions. This session should have been standing room only because if this industry doesn’t stop dragging its feet on e-commerce and other DTC platforms, we are in for trouble. A quick call to panelists Sandra Hess of DTC Wine Workshops and Gary Finnan of Juice Box Direct will give you a pretty solid idea of why your DTC strategy needs to be at the top of your priority list.

It’s time this industry stopped being so happy only talking to each other about each other.

Ok so, I suppose this ended up being a Top 4 list of sorts. But all 4 point to the same lesson: It’s time this industry stopped being so happy only talking to each other about each other. Kudos to those media outlets and businesses who understand that wine makes up part of a broader lifestyle that includes food and fitness and shopping and travel and technology and beyond, and are working hard to integrate within those pillars, pursuing the same degree of change and innovation we might find in these parallel industries. I just find myself wondering why this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Remember what happened to Toys “R” Us? While everyone around them was innovating and meeting the customers where they were, they doubled down on a tired, old retail model. Let’s not be the Toys “R” Us of the beverage world.

5 thoughts on “My Top 1 Takeaway from This Year’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium… Because There Only is 1 and it’s BIG

  1. Paul Mabray says:

    Amen Devin. Adapt or die is the best summary for the wine industry in 2019 and going forward. The only constant is change and we need to build change into our culture to future proof our industry.

    1. Devin Parr says:

      Thanks, Paul. I have long been surprised by how resistant the wine business is to change. I’m hoping we are rounding a corner on this front. Appreciate the feedback.

    1. Devin Parr says:

      Thanks, Paul! I wasn’t familiar with your winery prior to your comment, so I’m delighted to learn more. Great to see your leadership on this front.

  2. Kj says:

    Are millennials going to “demand” that juice companies list fining agents and additives like “contains sorbates” as well, and they comply? How about the french fry, shellfish and nut and dried fruit industries, all of which regularly use 100x the sulfites of wine. Then, and only then, will the fermenters of juice list them ubiquitously…. Hey, we’re just all separators and clarifiers, of one sort or another…. ahhh, consumers, truly educate thy selves.

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