Americans Drink a Lot of Wine, Mostly Shite

Symposium reveals country awash in and lapping up terrible wine

When was the last time you purchased a bottle of wine for less than $7? College, maybe? Well, you are a snob. At the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, we learned what most Americans — not Americans who live in stuck-up places like New York and San Francisco — are drinking. Take a seat though because this gets ugly.

Three-fifths of California table wine is in the “everyday” or, “popular premium” $3-$7 category (yes, there is an under $3 category, but we know who dominates that: A certain Mr. Shaw that just raised its price to an unpoetic $2.49 this year). And Americans are drinking it. A whopping 61 percent of California table wine bought last year was sold for less than $7. At supermarkets across America, people are buying a lot of moscato (up 28 percent in 2012) and a surprising new category that retails between $7 and $10 (“mid-premium”) known as “red blends,” which experienced explosive growth in 2012 (up 29 percent). In fact, retailers are dedicating whole sections of their stores to the red blends category, according to Jon Fredrikson, President of the wine consulting firm Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates. (This explains why sommeliers in wine country have visitors saying they “like blends.” And we thought they meant Bordeaux…. Ha!) And what was all that about Americans being obsessed with varietal wines? Not so important, it seems. But don’t get too excited. This doesn’t mean anyone wants to spend $125 on Shafer’s Relentless: Most of those “red blends” are sweet shill (Cupcake’s Red Velvet and Apothic are the two fastest growing).

Consumers have indicated that they are willing to splurge on a bottle of chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon, however. In the “super-premium” category ($10-$14) those varieties experienced 11 percent and 15 percent gains by volume, respectively, according to Nielsen. (Most of the chardonnay was made by Gallo and Kendall-Jackson and most of the cab was from Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle). Super market elitists were evidently looking for pinot noir, which led the “ultra-premium” category ($14 to $20).

How is box wine fairing in this great nation? Not well, it seems. The three-liter box accounted for a mere four percent of sales in supermarkets. Evidently, wine consumers know just enough to think that glass=good.

What of our dear friend white zinfandel? How is the wine that introduced so many Americans to wine in the first place doing these days? Apparently, the only white zinfandel that is doing well is the perhaps ironic one. The pink drink was down 12 percent in 2012, making moscato officially the new white zinfandel. Which makes you wonder, what is happening to all those “white” zinfandel vines? Well, over the past two years, about 10,000 acres of white zinfandel-producing acres in Lodi have been converted to red zinfandel production. How exactly that conversion works, we’re not sure. Maybe food coloring in the drip irrigation.

And most of the moscato we’re drinking we aren’t growing at all. Rather, it is coming to the US as bulk wine — like in giant tankers from Argentina. (The US imported the equivalent of 40 million cases of total bulk wine in 2012 — not all of that moscato, but you get the idea.) To meet the growing demand domestically, growers (primarily in San Joaquin Valley) are being encouraged by companies like Gallo to plant a lot of moscato. Allied Grape Growers estimates that between now and 2016 California will plant nearly 10,000 acres of muscat alexander. Hopefully, Americans won’t change their minds next year and decide to start drinking god knows what. … which they probably will.

The other super great thing about living in the middle of America and shopping at supermarkets and eating at chain restaurants is the great selection. There are so many brands to choose from! Too bad most of them are made by the same seven companies. In restaurants, according to Charles Gill of Wine Metrics, 10 percent of brands account for 70 percent of wines by the bottle on chain restaurant lists (like Ruth’s Chris and Olive Garden). The top five brands are Chateau Ste. Michelle, Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, Cultivate and Eco Domani. In other words, most wine lists in this country look exactly the same. It’s depressing.

But don’t worry, because that’s all changing, right? Americans are drinking more wine and care more about authenticity, right? Wrong, again. No one gives a shit about authenticity. Or maybe they do, but they don’t have any choice because of our stupid liquor laws and messed-up distribution system and just the general attitude about wine, which is to think of it as a mass-produced beverage that should always taste the same. The 25 fastest growing brands in the US are owned by eight companies Gallo (which owns the top eight brands, led by Barefoot, Constellation (six), The Wine Group (three) and so on). Go ahead and read that sentence again. Then go pour yourself a shot of tequila and have a good cry.

It may seem like Americans drink a lot of wine, but let’s get real. We may drink more as a nation than France and Italy, but per capita consumption was a mere 2.7 gallons in 2012. (Less than three gallons in one year per person? I drink that in a week.) Significantly less than France’s 13 gallons per person (down, granted, from 30 gallons in 1970).

We drink about eight times as much beer as wine in the US and craft beer is experiencing healthy growth. As are things like whipped marshmallow and salty caramel popcorn flavored vodka. Which is maybe a good thing. Is a seven-dollar bottle of wine made from bulk crap imported from Chile really what the world needs? Is that really going to turn anyone into a lover of wine? Have you ever tasted it?