By Jim Ruxin
When I read the comments of three people in the trade (including one Symington) on what is being done to market port to younger consumers I was surprised by their attitude that not much can be done. I see great bottles of port of all ages languish at $75-150 and I ask what is wrong with buyers?
The three port marketers seemed to overlook some inherent marketable assets that make port appealing to younger consumers. 20- or 30-somethings tend to react to the old man and grandmother image of port instead of what it can do for them as people who like to party.
Here are some ideas on how to market port to people with newly disposable income or limited income that might take an interest in port as an alternative to other drinks:
1. Study how Cristal was embraced by rappers and unknowingly helped to catapult it ahead of Dom Perignon in awareness. That market has plenty of wealthy young people or ”aspirational buyers” who want to play in the same league as port...they just don't sport three piece suits and pocket watches with fobs and chains hanging from their bellies. They do have chains and other piercings on their bellies, even if those bellies are extremely flat.
That success is about image building by association with success and sex, being shown in provocative and appealing settings that are sexually charged. When 20-somethings spend $400 for a bottle of vodka at a club, the thought of a $75 dollar vintage port in a store is not that daunting. They don't do it every night, but the port industry does not need them to either.
2. Next, I would look at developing cocktails that use port. The martini is still the craze in many fruited flavors for those graduating from sweetened sodas and wine coolers. Pomegranate and cranberry are popular, as are dark berry flavors, which help mask the alcohol, and are common among "mixologists". Port shares some flavor characteristics with these fruit juices.
The shape of the glass is important as an accessory to an outfit, so don't let that throw the port marketers. They are competing for market share, not awards. The need for adulation as an adult and completely unique (and unadaptable) beverage is a handicap for port. Look what kir does for champagne. What can port do? I imagine the potential for a hangover with port might be greater, but this part of the market doesn't care as much about the morning after.
3. Then there is the issue of cost and the self-handicapping of the business. The tone of the responses from the Symington’s et al was that of a victim, not of marketers excited by possibilities. An opened bottle or even half-bottle of port lasts surprisingly long, even without gassing it. So in a way, the industry should not compare port to standard wine, but to spirits that survive on the shelf. Because of this, a young consumer can afford to buy a bottle of port simply because it is not meant to be consumed in one night by two people, although I admit that would be a lot of fun.
If port is an adjunct to other beverages, there is an economy there that has been overlooked. Yes, I recommend avoiding the comparison to "dessert" which to many is its most satisfying function, but that too is an asset. After wine or cocktails which can be dry to off dry, there is something soothing about a good port that the taste buds welcome. Yes, the kids don't want to slow down from a night on the dance floor and listen to conversation or feel what port says to them. But there is a marketing play here. Perhaps when you take her home after dancing all night?
Another issue is that young females drive alcohol consumption, just as they determine what movie they will see on a date. (When guys see a movie together it is usually an action movie and they drink beer afterwards.) And when girls get together they indulge in dessert. Some even love chocolate as much as sex. And we know the port-chocolate combination appeals to some, but only because they haven't discovered cheese and nuts. Girls love dessert and while it would be a shame to cook with a fine vintage port, there is much that port sauces can do for fruits, cheesecake, nuts and semi-savory desserts. It's all undeveloped territory for the port marketers, and it is staring them in the face.
The port industry should be aware that high-end restaurants, and these are indeed frequented by 20- to 30-somethings in more prosperous trend-conscious cities, routinely have chocolate or caramel based desserts that are dosed with rock salt, red and black pepper or other unexpectedly savory inflections to a sweet dessert. I think this edge which can add excitement to desserts to some palates (mostly younger, I suspect), actually invites the company of port with its unabashedly sweet fruitiness. Perhaps it may be overkill to add port to such a dessert, but the industry needs to research the most appropriate pairings.
4. The other issue is the range of ports and the range of costs. Port is not narrow. And when the price of a premium mixed cocktail can easily be $14, a glass of port can look like a bargain at $8-16. And it will sit on the bar shelf quite nicely for some time.
5. I think the most important concept for port marketers to grasp is that to get younger consumers interested at all, they must allow them to make the beverage their own in some way. Just as the rap infatuation with Cristal as a symbol of financial and sexual prowess did not drive traditional consumers away from champagne or Cristal, allowing port to find a few new niches is where the growth is.
Port is nothing if not sensual, and young people understand sensation, especially when the colors and textures of port can be compared to beautiful parts of the anatomy, and that the beverage is meant to be appreciated with the eye, the nose, the lips and the mouth. The notion that drinkers must come to port on its terms is archaic. It is not easy to create a new niche for port, that's why they call it work. What's important to remember is that port producers don't have to change how they make it, just how they sell it to a new audience.
Jim Ruxin: Brentwood Village Wine -- Representing Fine Cellars -- 310-471-7372 office
Roy’s Note: The author, Jim Ruxin is an entrepreneurial wine retailer in Southern California and his opinions may seem a bit controversial or risqué for some, but they’re certainly quite candid at the same time. I was glad that Melanie brought this topic back to the fore last month and that Jim has shared his take here too. Please feel free to further the dialogue by emailing me [email protected] if you would either like to respond or if you have insightful ideas on this topic that you’d like to share.