Americans’ Growing Taste for Wine Turns Out To Be More Than a Fad

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The New York Sun

Americans are drinking more wine than ever before, a new study by the Wine Market Council shows. At the same time, America is still far behind some nations in per capita consumption.

Growth has been dramatic, to 249 million cases of table wine consumed last year from 205 million in 2000 and 177 million in 1996. Add in sparkling wines, sherries, and ports, and the figure hits 300 million, with a retail value of $25 billion.

According to the report, based on data collected by Adams Beverage Media and a 2005 study by Merrill Research of San Mateo, Calif., recent gains have been due to: “1.News stories about how moderate wine consumption can be a positive in terms of health; 2. Change in consumer attitudes regarding occasion appropriateness; 3. A strong U.S. economy; 4. Rising disposable incomes; and 5. Branded advertising.”

America consumed 233 million cases in 2003, more than Argentina (134 million), Britain (119 million), and Spain (112 million),and just behind Germany (240 million). But it has a lot of drinking to do to catch up with Italy (295 million) and France (323 million), even though those countries’ total consumption has dropped for years.

“This growth is not a fad or cycle,” the president of the council, John Gillespie, said in a telephone interview. “We’ve tracked 12 straight years of continuous growth in the U.S. wine market. It’s true growth. And among all U.S. wine drinkers, 14% have simultaneously decreased their consumption of beer and spirits. That’s a significant trade-off.”

Yet per capita, Americans are still guzzling 20 gallons of beer to only 2.5 gallons (about 12 bottles) of wine. Compared with some countries, we’re practically teetotalers. Annual per capita consumption in France is 12.8 gallons, in Italy 12.5 gallons, in Australia 5.4 gallons, and in Britain 5.3 gallons.

More than 42% of American adults don’t drink, and the study’s “core” group (who drink wine daily or weekly) is only about 14% of the total adult population. The rest includes “marginal” wine drinkers (19%), and beer and liquor consumers (25%).

Several other trends emerge. Among the core group, more people in the suburbs (51%) drink wine than city dwellers (31%), and more college grads (40%) than post-grads (24%).The average income of core drinkers is $78,900, compared with $69,300 for marginal drinkers. The biggest imbibers are in the 50-59 age group.

Eighty-seven percent of core drinkers keep wine on hand in their homes, while 13% buy only as needed; 36% say they’d drink more if wine cost less in restaurants.

One of the most surprising trends is how much ordering wine has risen in “casual chain restaurants” – to 58% of core drinkers in 2005 from 44% in 2003. That should send gleeful shock waves through franchisees of the Cheesecake Factory, Macaroni Grill, and P.F. Chang’s.

When core drinkers buy wine, 82% say they choose by varietal; 70% consider price; 53% look for their favorite brand, and 38% seek a particular appellation. About 47% prefer red wine, 34% white, and a remarkable 19% are still in love with blush wines.

Americans are also drinking American, by a ratio of 69% domestic to 31% imported for core drinkers. Ninety percent have purchased wines from California in the past three months, while 24% bought New York State bottlings, 21% purchased Washington state wines, and 19% bought Oregon products.

When they do pop the cork on an import, almost half of American core drinkers go with Italian or Australian (48% each), followed by wines from France (41%), South America (31%), Spain (27%), and New Zealand (22%) – which should make New Zealand’s young industry upbeat indeed.

There is also reason for optimism among wineries that sell on-premises, by mail order, or through a Web site. Sixty-three percent of core drinkers have bought at a winery, 17% through the mail, and 11% on a Web site. The portion of core drinkers who order online tripled from 2000 to 2005.

Finally, the report breaks down consumption by demographics, with 39% of the “millennial generation” (ages 12-29) and 30% of Generation X (ages 30-41) saying they are drinking more wine. For some reason, many more Gen X females (62%) than males (38%) are indulging.

“The millennial group is now showing the same interest the baby boomers did when they first started getting into wine,” Mr. Gillespie said. “The difference is that the boomers preferred white wine, the millennials red.”

While sales of premium wines (more than $10 a bottle) continue to rise, only 28% of core drinkers “frequently or occasionally” buy wines that sell for at least $20. Eighty percent buy in the $10-$15 range, and 54% at $15-$20.

Based on this report, if I owned a winery, I’d immediately start pumping out more red California wine in the $10-$15 range and plead with restaurateurs to sell my wine at reasonable prices. I’d also try to get my wines into more family restaurants and suburban wine shops. And I’d hire someone to create a very sexy, user-friendly Web site for the Internet buyer. Then I’d buy Gen X-style ads on “Desperate Housewives.”

John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.

The New York Sun

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