"I was an English major as an undergrad," says Courtney Cochran, a young woman on a quest to brand herself as wine's ambassador to the Millennials (those who have turned 21 since the turn of the Millennium). "I liked to express myself in words, and I was frustrated that there was this thing I loved that was so multidimensional -- wine -- and I didn't necessarily know how to talk about it. I really wanted a vocabulary, a tool kit for explaining what was in the glass. And I knew there were people called sommeliers who could do that. So after I was out of college, I started taking wine classes as a hobby with the International Sommeliers' Guild."
The love she mentions took root at home in Visalia, growing up in a house where Dad was a fan of California Pinot Noir. It grew during a school-days' summer in the south of France: "You can drink wine there when you are younger, which is convenient," she notes. "And I enjoyed the way food and wine are such an integral part of the culture." And it bloomed over the course of a collegiate semester at the Sorbonne. "I was a French minor, and I wanted to live in Paris like probably every 20-year-old woman does. On the weekends, a lot of my friends would to go Oktoberfest, or to Amsterdam -- more of the sort of party trips. I was going to Champagne, the Loire Valley, and Burgundy."
After college (UCLA), Cochran landed a job as a marketing manager for Universal Music Group. But, she says, "I knew I hadn't found my passion yet." Further, "I didn't see a logical career path for myself. There were meetings I wasn't invited to -- I didn't have the skills that my boss had; I had come away from school with very few core business fundamentals. I'd never seen a balance sheet before, never learned business strategy." Her boss had an MBA and encouraged her to get one, too. So Cochran headed back to the academy: UCLA's Anderson School of Management.
It was there that wine and business began to mix: "There was a club fair at orientation -- Women in Business, the consulting club, the marketing club. I walked straight up to the wine club, which was huge. There's a strong belief that wine and business go hand in hand -- when you're entertaining, when you're ordering from a wine list, and so forth. We would bring in winemakers. Jack Cakebread has an executive MBA from Stanford, and he loves going to business schools and talking about the business of wine. I wound up being president of the club, leading a lot of tastings and events. That was more interesting to me than accounting and economics." As she entered her second year, she decided to pursue certification as a sommelier.
She found she had a knack for the work. "People gave me wonderful feedback. They already saw me as a peer, because I was a classmate, so I was accessible and nonthreatening. And they said, 'I love that you know a lot about wine, but you can talk about it in a way that we'll remember it.' And these were smart, sophisticated people, people with spending power who were buying wine. They didn't want to be dumbed down, but they also wanted to have fun."
They were, in a word, Millennials. "I think they take themselves less seriously, perhaps, than earlier generations when it comes to wine. There's nothing wrong with the earlier generations; it's just that there was no precedent. The Boomers' parents weren't drinking wine, so it had all these connotations -- 'this hifalutin' thing.'" But the Boomers are these kids' parents: "The Boomers drank wine; so we grew up drinking wine. I'm just thrilled that I know what goes into it now and that I can talk a little bit more about it." Nobody had to put on airs, because wine was just part of life.
(Gen X, it may be recalled, was not so sanguine about the Boomers. Gen X produced the backlash against the dreaded "wine snob" and complained that it was overlooked as a market; that the industry, with its precious wine scores and gilded auctions and varietal-specific stemware, just didn't get it. "That whole Generation X is very countercultural," observes Cochran. "This generation just doesn't have that idiosyncrasy, I guess." What's more, "This generation is buying more wine, at a higher price point, than any generation before them at their age. Our parents raised us on the higher-end stuff, so when we go out to buy wine, we're ready to step it up a little bit.")
Through her grad-school wine events, Cochran knew that "there was this segment of the wine market that was very exciting -- and that it did not have a voice. There really wasn't a person -- a wine critic or book author" -- who was speaking to these people peer-to-peer. Business school had taught Cochran that she loved marketing, "but I didn't necessarily want to market anyone else's products. I realized that I wanted to do marketing and branding, but I wanted to do it for myself. I thought, 'Maybe I could fill that niche, become the voice of that generation.'"
Curiously enough, for someone willing to tackle an MBA program and a sommelier certification course at the same time, Cochran's first step toward filling that niche came out of a stalling tactic. "The sommelier exam was practically at the same time as my midterms, and I needed to buy myself some time. So I decided to do an independent study. I said, 'Hey, why don't I create a website where I market myself as a wine personality?'" The sort of person who can help with (quoting here from her website) "tasting and speaking engagements, cellar development and management, and wine list consulting." The title, "Your Personal Sommelier," came to her in the night. The husband of one of her sommelier course classmates turned out to be a Web designer, and Cochran was off and running. She got her certification just as she was getting her MBA, and in 2005, she headed to San Francisco. CourtneyCochran.com was already up and running; by early 2006, she was ready to launch Hip Tastes, her events company.
"I've always wanted to live in San Francisco," she says. "The wine business there is incredible -- it really is the nucleus of activity. And I knew that the twentysomething demographic was not being served with wine events that really made them feel comfortable. I thought, 'What if I could bring the wine into an environment where they go anyway?' I found hot spots around town that were already popular with the demographic and held events on Friday nights -- which is a pretty atypical night. But it actually worked out swimmingly -- I went to nightclubs where there was no line out the door until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. anyways and held my events from 7:00--10:00 p.m. The owners were thrilled to have bodies inside, and it became a way for people to kick off their night."
Timing isn't everything, of course -- the event itself has to do the heavy lifting. "I did a lot of themes that weren't being done anywhere else; I tried really hard to appeal to this group for reasons besides just the wine. I did a tasting called Old School, where I paired wine with mac 'n' cheese, tater tots, PB&J, and gooey chocolate cake. I did it in a venue called Butter, in the south end of the Market District. It's outfitted to look a little bit like a trailer park. They have half an Airstream trailer sticking out of the back, and that's their kitchen. The food I chose was the sort of food they serve anyway, and the bar has a lot of cachet. I was able to benefit from the fact that people already knew about the venue and were already excited about it."