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08.14.2006

THIS is the Average American Wine Consumer

It's easy for everyone, especially wine lovers on either coast to lose sight of what wine consumption in America is really like. Especially in the cocoon that is the San Francisco Bay Area, it's extremely hard to imagine what most Americans are drinking when we have such a bounty of fine wine available to us nearly everywhere and all the time.

Thankfully, there's someone out there keeping track. Since 1988 Restaurant Wine Magazine has been carefully surveying distributors, consumers, and the restaurant industry to determine, with some accuracy, what are the top wines ordered in American restaurants by consumers. The results (which I've published before) are always sobering, especially to my readers.

So without further ado, here's the list of the top 10 wines ordered in American restaurants in 2005:

1. Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay
2. Beringer Vineyards White Zinfandel
3. Cavit Pinot Grigio
4. Sutter Home White Zinfandel
5. Inglenook Chablis
6. Woodbridge Chardonnay
7. Franzia Winetaps Vintner Select White Zinfandel
8. Yellow Tail Chardonnay
9. Yellow Tail Shiraz
10. Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio

Sobering, isn't it? This is the world of wine that millions of Americans live in, a world that is very far away from Vinography's universe and likely yours as well. So what are we talking in terms of volume here? According to the study these top 10 wines, along with next fifty in popularity make up 30% of all the wine sales in the US, at a whopping $3.5 billion in total spending.

Interestingly a full 34% of these top sixty wines were Chardonnays, and white wines outsold reds by a factor of over two-to-one.

You can read about these stats and more in the full report (107k PDF file). I suggest having a glass of something in hand as you read, and if you want to feel good about yourself, you might make sure that it comes from a bottle that costs more than eight bucks.

Comments (26)

GregP wrote:
08.14.06 at 7:52 PM

Alder,

Good points! Although I see that you missed the "Chard funeral" on eBob last week or so. Someone asked if "Chard will ever recover" and I burst out laughing while reading the thread and all the expert opinions to follow.

IMO, if restaurants start charging RETAIL prices for their wines on the list instead of double and triple retail (and sometimes more) the same Americans now drinking Ecco Domani and KJ wines would be very happy to order and drink more serious wines (at that same $30+ price). Restaurants would have a much better turnover in terms of sales and re-ordering without the need to have huge cellar rooms to hold the (slowly moving) wine. I rarely find a restaurant these days where I WANT to order something off the list, either the list is poorly assembled to begin with or prices make it crazy to order wine. Thus, I gladly pay corkage.

One wine list that really impressed me recently was Campton Place, some little known gems on the list at really decent prices (IMO).

The Corkdork wrote:
08.14.06 at 8:35 PM

What I would like to see is the top 10 winelists from some of the Vinography-friendly restaurants in the Bay Area. What are the top 10s from Delfina, Chez P., Foreign Cinema, Pizzaolo, Zuppa, etc. ?

CD

sam wrote:
08.14.06 at 10:26 PM

I guess all those yellowtail commercials I see on billboards everywhere actually work then.

very sad.

Alder wrote:
08.14.06 at 10:55 PM

Indeed they do. The sad thing is that those two Yellow Tail wines are some of the best on the list. A few of them are downright nasty.

We are all very lucky to be drinking what we are.

Gene wrote:
08.14.06 at 11:24 PM

Alder,

GregP is right. Most consumers of wine are very price conscious and price sensitive. Even though you and I may prefer wines that cost $30 and up, most consumers choose wines that sell for $15 or less retail. In restaurants, consumers want to pay less than $30 and with 3X pricing this limits them to wines that wholesale for $10 and retail for $15 or less. Also, many restauranteurs(we're not talking Gary Danko, here) are lazy or ignorant in their wine choices and just want a large distributor to give them wines with "good" pricepoints.

Finally, alas, white and pink are the preference of many casual wine drinkers. Surely there must be hope! Surely, these neophytes can be converted! At my blog I sometimes try to write about about "supermarket" wines that a cut above the "top ten." One young woman thanked me for publishing a "cheat" sheet for her. Most consumers are confused by the stuff we think is fun like three different vineyard designated wines from the same winery, and are embarrassed by their inability to pronounce French or Italian wine names. At least mopst of them can pronounce mer-LOT!

Fiorenzo wrote:
08.14.06 at 11:38 PM

OMG Pinot Grigio from Cavit... My comment can only be LOL.

Alder wrote:
08.15.06 at 9:01 AM

Gene,

Don't know why you're bemoaning the general public's taste for white or pink wines. There's nothing wrong with that in the slightest. Some of the world's greatest wines, and certainly the best wines I've ever had are white. Some of them are even (gasp) Chardonnay !

Dabbler wrote:
08.15.06 at 9:22 AM

I've been moonlighting in a wine shop and somebody came in the other day and asked if we had any 'red wine' -- I kid you not. I said yes, we had many different red wines, and he asked which was the most popular. In any case, I discerned he was looking for a wine with a recognizable brand in a certain price range to give as a gift. He wound up with a Sinskey. He had no idea what it was. Wine is confusing to a lot of people and they find it intimidating. At least this guy came in to a wine store and didn't pick up a bottle of Yellowtail at Trader Joe's...

Alder wrote:
08.15.06 at 9:24 AM

Corkdork,

Do you mean wines or wine lists? Sounds like you're already on the way to the list of wine lists...

Mithrandir wrote:
08.15.06 at 10:31 AM

Here's reality: consumers are price-conscious.

What is sad here is not that the average consumer buys $8 bottles, but that the $8 bottles really suck far too often.

That's three white zins and a cali "chablis".

I don't know if the KJ or Ecco Domini are any good. I know the Yellowtail stuff is usually an excellent value, given its ready availability.

Frankly, I'm surprised you have to go as far down the list as 60 to get to 30% of consumption. That's actually quite impressive, if you think about other beverage industries. Beer: 56% belongs to Anheuser-Busch; soft drinks: 34.1% is Coke Classic and Pepsi Cola.

We have a remarkably diverse market. Unfortunately, the bottom end is occupied by truly crappy wine. It doesn't have to be that way and it isn't in some other countries.

John Harris wrote:
08.15.06 at 3:13 PM

Speaking of popular cheap wines, checkout this article from the BBC about British wine buying habits. Apparently 3.99 is the avaerage price people will pay for a bottle.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4791429.stm

Gene wrote:
08.15.06 at 3:37 PM

Excuse me, Alder! Who is bemoaning whites and pinks? I thought you were the one who found this list of pinks and whites sobering!Perhaps Mithrander is right. Why aren't there better wines available in this price range? Gene

lynn wrote:
08.15.06 at 4:15 PM

Before you sneer at the wines on this list, let's examine first the types of restaurants most frequented by John Q Public across America. for real. Like Carrabas, Copelands, Olive Garden, Longhorn, etc. Most of these chains are the mainstay of middle America and most of them don't have "wine lists". They do offer Kendall Jackson, Cavit, etc. So what's yer beef?

winewoman wrote:
08.15.06 at 4:28 PM

I agree with Gene about needing better wines in the $15. and less price range. That's why I make my own. So far every batch, except one, has been better than any wine I've every purchased anywhere. Friends have offered me $30. a bottle after just a taste.

GregP wrote:
08.15.06 at 5:27 PM

Gene,

All I can say is that wine managers at restaurants don't really have much interest to be creative, IMO. IN GENERAL. I can rattle off a nice list of wines in the $8-15 range, retail, that would handily beat anything listed in the Top100 list above. You just need to have interest, that's all.

That said, consumers don't realize just how much of a pull distributors have with most places, high end restaurants included. If you want wine A onyourlist, then you have to buy wines B, C and D in specific quantities. Illegal? Yes, but everyone knows the score. Same thing for retail shops.

All I attempted to say was that any restaurant can be creative and affordable with its wine list, just go to Passionfish in Monterey area and a few others in Bay Area, incredible lists with retail pricing. Win-win for all concerned, consumers have great choices at affordable prices and restaurants, for their part, don't need to heavily invest in stock that is barely moving (faster sell through and cash flow).

Did you know that White Zin is about 40% of Beringer's revenue? I am not here to tell people what not to drink, simply to remind them that there ARE options out there and they may want to seek them out.

Alder wrote:
08.15.06 at 5:57 PM

Gene (and perhaps others),

Let me be clear -- saying that this list of top wines is sobering makes absolutely no value judgement about the wines on the list or the people who drink them. My point in all of this is how most of the "wine world" (e.g. the people that talk about and think about wine on a daily basis -- or even, God forbid, write about it) is so far removed from the average American wine drinker's universe it's scary.

This list is (every year) a reminder to all of us who are passionate about wine to properly contextualize our thoughts when we're say, having arguments about the value of the point system in wine reviewing, or whether oak chips are "cheating," or how the wine staff in restaurants should deal with a corked bottle.

Gene wrote:
08.15.06 at 9:22 PM

Alder,

Thanks for the clarification! Let me clarify, too. I try to write for a wide range of wine drinkers including the average person who is confounded and intimidated by so many shelves of wine at the supermarket and restaurant wine lists with unpronounceable names signifying nothing to many diners. I think it's great if someone goes to, say, Olive Garden and orders a glass of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay instead of Coke or beer. GregP -you are right there are lots of good inexpensive wines out there. I recently found a good inexpensive list at a local Thai restaurant and love the list of local wines at Nick's in McMinnville, Oregon where the mark up is pretty much $8 above retail.
Passionfish, too. It seems that the big restaurant chains buy their wines from the big distributors who represent the big manufacturers of wine. These seem to be the wines on the "Top Ten" list. I understand that some of these brands, such as Gallo, are now finding some success in places such as France and England. Wow,Winewoman -When are you getting bonded?

Gene

Gene wrote:
08.15.06 at 9:24 PM

P.S. Alder, I love some whites and roses, too :)

Lisa wrote:
08.16.06 at 4:57 AM

I think this list also speaks to the fact that it is extremely difficult to choose a wine, for both restaurant sommeliers/buyers and end consumers. An easy criteria is to just make a decision based on what is familiar. This means that big brands with wide distributions and deep marketing budgets win out.

For many people wine is very intimidating. How can we make it easier for consumers to be adventurous, pick a new wine and have a reasonable "success" rate? As both a wine professional and consumer I would love to see more solutions to this problem.

John wrote:
08.16.06 at 6:42 AM

Thanks for bringing these stats to our attention. I believe it's important to focus on the enormous strides that have been made. Just 20 years ago, many affordable restaurants only offered red or white. The American public has come a long way.

I too think pink wines are wonderfule but that's another issue. For now, I enjoy my pink in private.

Dabbler wrote:
08.16.06 at 10:18 AM

Check out the article this morning in the LA Times, all about great wines in the $10 price range. http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-fo-wine16aug16,1,7452756.story?coll=la-headlines-food. Also, I have some recommendations on my blog, if you click on my handle you'll be directed to it.

Alder wrote:
08.16.06 at 10:34 AM

Thanks Dabbler. The LA Times requires registration. For those who don't want to be spammed, I recommend http://www.bugmenot.com

08.18.06 at 3:05 AM

It's a bit of a chicken and egg question. If most (many) restaurants list wines like those above (especially among their less expensive offerings), then the chances are good that the wines will be selected. Most wine consumers are uncertain what to order and don't want to spend much so they order one of the least expensive wines offered. If restaurants would get braver - offer more different wines at the lower end AND offer advice and suggestions to the consumer like "if you like Chardonnay, you might want to try ... as an interesting and similarly priced alternative", then we might begin to see some change in these lists.

An additional problem is that most restaurants don't take wine seriously. They offer it because the consumers want it but they don't spend any time constructing their lists. That means that the sales reps from the biggest distributors are the ones who set the wine lists. Those reps sell what they've been told to sell and that's the big brands.

So how do we break out of this problem? It will require multi-fold change. Consumers must get more informed or adventurous - how? Restaurants must begin to care more about what's on their wine lists and offer more interesting choices and more help for their patrons - how?

We're obsessed with wine or we wouldn't be reading and writing on these sites. How do we pass this passion on - or can we? Just as we might not be interested in NASCAR or basket weaving or stamp collecting, the vast public out there doesn't really care about wine. Maybe we are destined to be the vinous equivalent of rail spotters.

Gaelle Hivert wrote:
08.23.06 at 5:04 AM

This article is very interesting but the question is what do american prefer? red wine? white wine? or "rosée"?

It would be nice to know...
thanks

Gaelle

Alder wrote:
08.23.06 at 11:12 AM

Gaelle,

The article answers that question, but perhaps you did not catch it. The #1 most popular wine in America by volume is a Chardonnay (white). The #2 most popular wine is a White Zinfandel (rosé).

06.18.07 at 12:32 PM

As the wine training coordinator for Biltmore Estate Winery I am not a bit surprised that Whit Zin weighs in heavily......we are drinking more wine, but are only taking it in small steps. The natural progression will occur, but it takes time. Americans are still in the infant stage of wines and the wine world. We will get there!

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