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Will Reality TV Help Kendall-Jackson With Millennials?

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

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[Photo: Kendall-Jackson]

Mass-market chardonnay giant Kendall-Jackson's latest attempt to brand itself with millennials will air on January 29th on CBS. The company's president, Rick Tigner, will appear on Undercover Boss posing as a hick from Plano looking to break into the wine business. To disguise him from employees, the SF Chronicle reports that Tiger’s hair was shaved and died black, his eyes changed from blue to brown with contacts, and he was given a handlebar mustache, sideburns, and braces.

This comes as a clear extension of the late Jess Jackson's tireless efforts to present his billion-dollar wine empire—which includes brands like La Crema, Murphy-Goode, and Yangarra—as a down-to-earth, family-owned business.

There's no doubt that Jackson was a brilliant marketer and businessman. He popularized chardonnay in California and went on to introduce many Americans to the idea of drinking wine on a daily basis. With all due respect, though, Kendall Jackson Family Estates is working with a generation at odds with the last and an American wine culture that has changed drastically over the last 20 years.

Some of company's financial troubles are surely reflective of the economic downturn, but they're also reflective of these changing tastes. Chardonnay—or, more specifically, sweet, oaky chardonnay—is a dying breed. Kendall Jackson's calling card sweet chard ‘Vintner's Reserve' may still be the source of nearly half of the company's output—and, thus, nearly half of its profits—but it's a tough sell for the new generation.

For millennials, Kendall-Jackson (or, more affectionately, "KJ") is synonymous with the misguided tastes of the 80s. It's the perm and shoulder pads of the modern wine world—a brand that belongs on the rocks in any glass but theirs. Smartly, KJ has to tried hedge on their other brands, like Murphy-Goode, to try and break in with millennials. But not without a few bumps in the road.

In 2009, they launched a campaign called "A Really Goode Job" wherein they encouraged the public to choose, via Twitter and YouTube, a hip wine correspondent to spearhead their social media marketing.

It backfired when the public favorites were cut from the running.

The job ended up going to Hardy Wallace, the author of a blog called Dirty South Wine. After his contracted six months with the winery were up, Wallace went on to join The NPA (Natural Process Alliance), a small label run by winemaker Kevin Kelley that's focused on quirky, natural wines bottled in Klean Kanteens. He's since moved on to focus on his own label, Dirty and Rowdy Wine, which consists of small batches (we're talking 12 barrels and one concrete egg small) of semillon and mourvèdre from organically farmed vineyards.

Wallace's trajectory is a prime example of just how much American wine has changed and the sorts of projects that young people are captivated by.

But Kendall-Jackson may have bigger issues than just its wine image.

No matter how much KJ has done to further American wine consumption, it's still the wine world's 1%. Among millennials, there's nothing romantic about a 5.5-million case-per-year production with profits of more than $40 million coming from supermarket chardonnay. In my opinion, millennials with a strong (enough) interest in wine are looking for something with greater authenticity and cultural significance. And with the saturation of marketing all over the internet, they're also better at detecting motive. To them, NOT marketing is the new marketing.

That said, Kendall-Jackson is going to need a lot more than a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and an executive willing to dress like a cattle rancher to convince millennials that the company that built its empire on supermarket chardonnay, is relevant to them.

There are just too many choices now. Not only is American wine having to distinguish itself with consumers who have a greater knowledge of European wine than they did even 10 years ago, but big American wine brands are having to compete against smaller brands that have managed to crack the model and make impressions on important markets.

The word terroir is more widely understood and valued than it ever was before in America. The image of the vigneron, the movement—and it is a movement—toward more natural winemaking, and the interest in wine as a reflection of person, place, and time, rather than a commercial product, is appealing to this generation.

My guess is that millennials are savvy enough to find their way to smaller brands that have a counter-cultural bent. But perhaps I am wrong. There are shows like the Jersey Shore that make me wonder whether the Jägerbomb will be this generation's legacy. So, maybe putting Tigner on TV with a handlebar mustache is exactly the sort of breakthrough KJ has been waiting for. My gut still tells me no, but we'll have to wait and see.

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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