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11.11.2008

The Truth About American Wine Drinking

Looks like a piece of news slipped by me a couple of months ago. Every year I look forward to a report, which more than any other single piece of news, speaks the truth about the state of wine in America. Restaurant Wine magazine commissions and publishes a report every year on the top 100 wines and top 100 wine brands sold in restaurants around the country, from family diners to fine dining restaurants.

Based on the simple measure of how many cases of each wine were sold at these restaurants, we get a picture of the most important person in America when it comes to wine: the average American wine consumer.

And why is this person so important? Because they are the bread and butter of the wine industry. They are the fuel for the wine engine. They are the bottom 95%, so to speak, whose spending habits make (or break) the market and who make up the pool of wine drinkers from which true wine lovers slowly graduate to more expensive wines and esoteric habits like...reading wine blogs.

I like knowing what the rest of America drinks when it comes to wine. Here at Vinography, here in San Francisco, here in my group of friends, I live in a bubble of unreality when it comes to wine. In this bubble, $40 bottles of really good wine are a steal and most everyone I hang out with knows how to pronounce Viognier ("vee-own-yay"). But that doesn't represent wine drinking America any more than San Francisco represents the political tenor of the rest of the country.

This is what wine drinkers in America drink:

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

Those are the top 10 wines consumed by Americans (by volume) in 2007.

And here are the top 10 wine brands sold in American restaurants in 2007:

1 Beringer Vineyards, Foster's Wine Estates Americas
2 Kendall-Jackson, USA, Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates
3 Franzia Winetaps, USA, The Wine Group
4 Yellow Tail, Australia, W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Ltd.
5 Sutter Home, USA, Trinchero Family Estates
6 Inglenook, USA, The Wine Group
7 Copperidge, USA, E. & J. Gallo Winery
8 Cavit, Italy, Palm Bay Imports
9 Woodbridge, USA, VineOne (Constellation)
10 Foxhorn Vineyards, USA, The Wine Group

For me and for the wine lovers that I hang out with (and no doubt the folks that read this blog) these are somewhat sobering lists, if only because for most of us, these are wines we generally don't, and wouldn't, consume given the choice. The average retail price of these wines is well below $8 per bottle, and the last time I asked you readers what you spend on average per bottle it was somewhere around $20.

And some of you probably didn't think that you were all that sophisticated when it came to wine, did you? Notice how the top 10 wines only includes a single red wine? If you're a Cabernet drinker you're a member of the wine elite. And I'm only partially kidding.

Here are some additional interesting facts about this year's list:

- White Zinfandel sales are down 15%
- Chardonnay was more popular than Pinot Grigio for the first time
- Pinot Noir sales were up (again) by 89%
- Merlot sales were down (again) by 9%
- Sauvignon Blanc and Sangiovese wines appeared for the first time on the top 100 list (bravo!)

So what to make of all this? I take a number of things away from this list every year. The first is appreciation for how lucky I am to be able to drink the quality of wine that I do regularly. The second is humility -- a reminder that while I may not choose to drink them, these wines, the companies that make them, and the people that drink them are what really make the wine world go 'round. And finally, I always finish my perusal of these numbers with hope. The amount of wine America drinks continues to go up, and slowly, but surely, the diversity of that wine continues to expand.

And that means that we're making progress.


Read more details on the annual Restaurant Wine report.

Comments (33)

Ken Hoggins wrote:
11.12.08 at 4:44 AM

Alder - I wonder if the result would hold true at the retail level. Because the markups are lower in stores, do people buy better wine to take home? It would be interesting to know. My guess is yes, but the average price per bottle probably only goes up by a few dollars.

11.12.08 at 5:50 AM

I've never been able to ascertain if this report covered all wine sold to restaurants or wine that was resold through restaurants... curious because some of those individual wines are notorious kitchen essentials, yes Inglenook Chablis, I'm looking at you.

Katie wrote:
11.12.08 at 7:29 AM

Ken, isn't that what the first Top 10 lists? Alder said "Those are the top 10 wines consumed by Americans (by volume) in 2007." Nonetheless, Alder, you are so right. These lists are both sobering and humbling. Particularly the facts that 1. there is only 1 red in the first list and it's a shiraz; and 2. There are 3 white zins there as well.

Tish wrote:
11.12.08 at 7:41 AM

I would not read too much into this. The annual Wine & SPirits poll is also informative, but in both cases, the results are a better indication of wine distribution than wine consumption. In other words, these "most popular" wines are the most frequently chosen wines because they are also the most frequently available. It might be interesting to compare this overal list with that of a small chain, or even Olive Garden. I also think the above results would appear differently if the poll looked separately at restaurants on both coasts.

Price is also a huge factor. Lower-priced wines will always be ordered more often in restaurants, period. Not sure if this is true of you and others, but if I find myself in a restaurant where the list is not 'high grade' I just save my money for the times I want to invest it in the proverbial good stuff. THe example that comes to mind is when I was at Outback not long ago. Guess how much a glass of Kim Crawford Sauv Blanc will set you back there (or at least in WHite Plains, NY)... Try $11.50. No wonder Cavit and Yellow Tail, et al are being ordered more often.

Alder wrote:
11.12.08 at 7:45 AM

Both lists are wines purchased in restaurants. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

Alder wrote:
11.12.08 at 7:52 AM

But Tish,

Of course the list would look differently if you only looked at the West coast or the East coast or a small restaurant. That's the point. This is the aggregate view, and the most encompassing survey of wine consumption (note that the numbers are based on sales, which means that they actually DO reflect what people are drinking) that I know of. There's a reason that these wines are also the most widely distributed -- they wouldn't be if people didn't want to buy them (and by people I mean both restaurant wine buyers and the clientele they serve).

Alder wrote:
11.12.08 at 7:58 AM

Tannat,

I'm under the impression that this list is wines that were resold, rather than wine used for cooking. But I could be wrong about that.

Arthur wrote:
11.12.08 at 8:05 AM

It seems that some here are drawing a distinction between sales and consumption. When ascertaining a patients drinking habits, a physician will not ask: "how much beer, wine and liquor do you drink in a week?", they will ask: "how much beer, wine and liquor do you BUY in a week?". That is apparently based on research or observations that self-reported purchasing is more accurate than self-reported consumption.

But that makes sense. Just as in restaurants, if you don't need any more, you won't buy anymore.

11.12.08 at 10:31 AM

Alder - how does our traditional wine distribution system (where a small handful of distributors essentially establishes wine menus broadly) impact these kinds of lists and customer choices?

Richard

11.12.08 at 11:32 AM

Richard –

Distributors follow the money, the sales people generally follow the incentives, and the big boys have both to throw around. Add to that the practice of distributors paying for and supplying leather bound custom printed wine lists for “free” and you find that the lazier restaurateurs will gladly hand over the reins of a secondary, if not tertiary wine program to his salesman/men. All too often the refrain of a restaurant owner or manager when it comes to wine is: “I want to rely on only one or two suppliers (i.e. less phone calls and keeping track of invoices and payments), I want wines that will remain in stock (i.e. mass production), and wines that everyone else is making money off of (i.e. what is the Chili’s pouring these days?)

Unfortunately it is a path of least resistance methodology, where the seller is given (or in some instances sold) the all but exclusive control of a wine list. This is the case in the vast majority of restaurants out there, not what we read about, track, and dine at ourselves.

Add to all of that the lucrative and highly fought over BTG (by the glass) market, the lifeblood of all on-premise distributor salesmen, whereby a distributor will lock in a certain price for Cavit, KJ, Santa Margarita, etc… in exchange for a few cases of goodies, some deep discounts on other products (especially if they sell liquor – of course, this practice is illegal in most states, but hey, that’s what lobbyists are for) and conversely they will offer good BTG pricing to a restaurant that agrees to take on a few lame duck wines that might be losing ground in the marketplace, or that has the supplier footing a weekend stay in Napa, etc…

And don’t even get started on national accounts like Tish mentioned. Bloodletting.

In short, I would guess, on a severely conservative track, that at least 50% of all wine sold in restaurants in the US are on the list solely due to the efforts of the distributor to get them there, by any means necessary. KJ fights for that no. 1 spot, in every market where they saturate the towns with more overkill that Terlato reps. And you can bet all the big boys are the same. Except Beringer White Zin, they really don’t have any competition it seems.

Good times.

Garrett wrote:
11.12.08 at 11:54 AM

On my budget I rarely spend more than $8. I only just bought a bottle for $15 yesterday (a first for me). Personally I love Pinot Grigio, so yay. But I also like a variety of red, rose, and even found a White Zin or two I enjoy.

Mainly, though, I think my budget keeps me grounded. As a social worker, I can't afford a lot of specialty wines. Still, I make do and am happy with what I get. In fact, I feel that those hunts for amazing $8 bottles is half the fun for me, and if it happens to be an amazing wine most wine people would frown upon, then sucks to be them. ;)

St.Vini wrote:
11.12.08 at 1:18 PM

Tannat: Good points, but you need to clarify the distinction between what the wholesaler does (essentially take the order and deliver the product) and what KJ or Terlato does via a sales rep who is actually in the restaurant pouring wines for the staff, promoting the brand, samples, etc. It is much more common for the company's sales rep to do the actual placement and then maintain it. Distributors have 1,000s of wines and can't do much with individual wines at this level. Thus, the strength of KJ or Terlato comes from having their own people on the floor more so than the strength of their distributor (though some could argue you can't have one without the other).

On the red/white consumption balance, you have to wonder about these figures, since nationally, through all channels, there is slightly more red wine than white sold. It seems odd that off-premise consumption would then be so red-focused to make up the the on-premise skew towards white.

V

Morton Leslie wrote:
11.12.08 at 2:24 PM

The list resembles what large wineries present to national accounts. The wine has to be available in every market, wide brand recognition, and aggressive pricing. Even though the names change a little each year, they are basically the same wines sold to the same chains. I think this is more an indication of marketing strength than consumer preference. When the customer picks a glass of white wine or white zin they take whatever is available. I wonder if any chain sales person has a pitch that includes appellation or the concept of terroir?

Alder wrote:
11.12.08 at 2:41 PM

Morton,

I don't disagree with what you say in the slightest, but you can't discount the consumer's role in the sales of these wines -- if people stopped buying these wines (which they would if they didn't like them) then you can bet these restaurants would be finding other wines to serve them. People may choose what is available once, but not twice if they aren't at least satisfied with what they get. Why does McDonalds sell so many BigMacs. Not because they are the pinnacle of haute cuisine. They're priced right and people like how they taste.

And no, of course chain sales people don't pitch terroir or appellation -- though I assume your question was more tongue-in-cheek, Morton, because I'm sure you know the answer.

Most of those salespeople are go-getter folks right out of college that sometimes start with little or no knowledge of wine whatsoever. Their pitch to these restaurants is about the cost of the wine, how well they can expect to sell, and probably some "sweeteners" like, buy 10 more cases of this new wine, and we'll give you free wineglasses, or something like that.

Even if the salesperson had the knowledge to pitch terroir or appellation, they would also know that doing so would be a complete lie. As I'm sure you're aware, most of these wines are made in such incredibly high volumes that they take fruit from all over the state of California to make (probably dozens of appellation) and one of their selling points is the complete consistency from year to year, which essentially means the erasure of any sense of vintage variation.

Hank wrote:
11.12.08 at 5:17 PM

Frankly I am astonished at the lack of reds. Do you think this is because there are so many that one does not end up dominating the list?

Winoboy wrote:
11.12.08 at 8:26 PM


The main emphasis of large distributors are their largest suppliers. Salespeople are certainly pushed the hardest on items like KJ, Cavit etc. generally by a quota system, as well as incentives.

When it comes to National Accounts, these are controlled by the few distributors with National reach and the largest suppliers who often subsidize placements with these accounts.

Tish wrote:
11.13.08 at 5:18 AM

Great points Hank, Tannat, Vini and Morton.

Best-selling lists like these are more about price and availability than anything else. If Copperidge were not on the list, something else just like it would be (Little Penguin? Turner Road? Alice White?) and the replacement would be more about distribution clout than origin or style, let alone terroir.

Wonder what the list of Top 10 airline wines looks like.... probably not much different than top restaurant wines. It would again be a function of brands that have the pricing, supply and connections/clout to get on board the plane.

Good, makes-ya-think post, Alder!

Dylan wrote:
11.13.08 at 7:17 AM

Great point about Big Macs, Alder. To take that analogy a step further, not only is it something satisfying to the point that people will return, but it opens them up to the category of "Burgers." If one enjoys how this burger tasted, they very well may begin to order burgers at other places to explore tastes and see if there's anything better.

Getting people involved in a category is the most important step to survival. It's the reason why "Got Milk" is just about Milk and not any single producer. We all must remember that it's a positive indicator, not negative, that more people are drinking wine in America overall. That means further exploration into wine is only one step away.

Niels Lillelund wrote:
11.13.08 at 9:01 AM

Inglenook Chablis?

Is that sort of name still allowed - I thought there had been some sort of agreement with the EU??

Alder wrote:
11.13.08 at 9:20 AM

Niels,

I don't know the specifics of this case, but I do know that there are certain brands and products that are "grandfathered" into the system and still allowed to use the old names like Champagne, Chablis, Burgundy, and others.

Wineguy wrote:
11.13.08 at 10:32 AM

Of course the big producers' wines will be the most ordered. You'll never see a small boutique winery on the "Top 10" wine list because they don't make enough to get there...

Veronica wrote:
11.13.08 at 12:38 PM

That's beautiful Alder. A very REAL and thoughtful posting. I feel very spoiled and lucky at the same time. Thank you.

Morton Leslie wrote:
11.13.08 at 1:36 PM

Actually, Ronn's list looks like what Olive Garden offers on their Vallejo store's wine list. With nearly 700 stores, no wonder. Never been in one. They say 40% of their wine sales is white zin. I like their idea of a "Super Tuscan."

http://www.olivegarden.com/wines/wine_list/

tom farella wrote:
11.17.08 at 9:57 AM

Proof, once again, that there really are 2 wine industries, one is a real businessy thing, the other is where there is true passion. I think that it is much like the film or music induistry and I count ourselves in a very vibrant "Indie" scene. Vivre la difference!!
Cheers!

steve kirchner wrote:
11.17.08 at 11:25 AM

It's difficult to order 'good' wine in a retaurant - the stuff that costs $18 at the grocery store may well run $60... i often spend $40 - $80 for wine i drink at home, but when i go out i look for concho y toro or columbia crest...

Nancy wrote:
11.26.08 at 12:26 PM

Don't forget -- for what it's worth -- a lot of the people drinking Kendall Jackson chardonnay probably think they have reached the mysterious pinnacle of quality, and intend to safely remain there. How many of them were introduced to this one wine by a friend who's a "connoisseur"?

11.26.08 at 12:42 PM

Nancy,

That friend should be executed via drowning in a vat of the wine the suggested as a "pinnacle of quality" - thin the herd.

Or just educated/reformed, either way I'm okay with the outcome.

Wiljak wrote:
12.01.08 at 1:56 AM

I'm an American living in Spain. This issue of the "state of wine in the Union" is something I think about quite a bit - in defending my country's ability to make wine. Prior to my arrival, my wife's family (she's Spanish) was skeptical and critical (and largely uninformed) of wine from the US. For me, the big difference lies in the fact that in the US wine is viewed/marketed as a "luxury". In Spain and most other wine-consuming and producing countries (apart from maybe UK and Germany) wine is a very everyday, normal, quotidian thing.

When it comes to wine I'm a bargain hunter. I suppose everything's relative but what I get here in Spain for €15-20 retail is pretty damn tasty. The big difference, however, is the restaurant mark up. Only rarely and usually only at the most touristic restaurants do I see wine at double its retail price. I'd say 50% mark-up is about normal.

Given the mark-up of wine in restaurants in the US I guess I can see why the list is the way it is. I'd love to see wine take on a more everyday kind of role in the US but it's probably like another love of mine - soccer - ain't gonna happen. Only so much consumer $'s to go around and the competition is tough!

Alder wrote:
12.01.08 at 8:51 AM

Amen! It is my greatest wish that someday America will think of wine like much of Europe does: as an integral part of every meal.

clara wrote:
12.01.08 at 9:05 AM

It surprises me that so many of you are so surprised that that the mass produced, mass marketed wines are the ones that are making the top 10 in this list. As a former chef with tons of server and bartender friends in all levels of dining and drinking establishments, I can safely say that there is still a huge chunk of the population that would be confused when they ordered white zinfandel (gross) and it was pink and would pronounce "chianti" like it were "charlie". Price point is also key. Most of my non-industry friends do not indulge in wine at a restaurant or bar if it is over 40 dollars a bottle whereas my fellow restaurant folks don't care so much about price but quality and value instead, e.g. buying a lovely bottle of "relentless" shafer syrah (2004? 2005?) for 70-80 bucks in sun valley, id because it is so delicious and would be over a hundred bucks in any restaurant in san francisco, new york. how's that for value?

Spencer wrote:
12.25.09 at 6:12 PM

So I suppose I'm a bit late reading and responding. Maybe I am misreading your post, but it reads with a bit of arrogance and snobbery. I think the fact that you judge the quality of a wine by its price tag tells me a lot about your ability to judge and recommend a bottle. I lived in Tuscany for a short period and if I learned anything during my stay there it was that you can get a great bottle of wine at 100 euros or even 1 euro. While I realize that the United States isn't Italy, there are some great wines under $10. And you have to realize that most American's can't afford to blow their paychecks on a bottle of wine, but don't mistakenly assume that the fact that American's by less pricey bottles means they lack the class or appreciation of fine wines. So how about you do an article on great wines that can be purchased on a budget, and help point the average American in the right direction, instead of claiming that only the expensive brands are of any quality. I think I'll stick with my Smoking Loon, Bicyclette, Yellowtail, and other great low-price brands. Also, I prefer red over white, ranging anywhere from Chianti to Pinot Noir.

Spencer wrote:
12.25.09 at 6:17 PM

And yes, I know how to properly pronounce both of those types of wine... and I don't even live in the San Francisco area.

Alder wrote:
12.25.09 at 10:19 PM

Spencer,

I do think you're at least partially mis-reading my post here, and partially you're conflating the difference between enjoying wines and thinking they're high quality. I have nothing against $2 wines nor the people that drink them. While some wine lovers revile Fred Franzia, for instance, I think the guy has turned more people on to wine than anyone else in recent history. Having said that, from an objective point of view, compared to the rest of the wines in the world, his are quite low quality, as are most of the things that you can buy in the grocery store for $8. That's not a moral statement, it's a critical statement.

The fact that one appreciates wines under $15 of course does not mean that you can't or don't enjoy, understand, or appreciate higher-end wines. But in point of fact, the vast majority of wine consumed in this country is bought in grocery stores and corner liquor stores by people who ONLY drink those wines. Again, that's not a moral statement of how classy those folks are or a sneer at their lack of ability to appreciate fine wines. It's just a fact.

Finally, please direct yourself to an entire section of my blog entitled "wines under $20" where I regularly write about the wines that I think are exceptionally high in quality for the price.

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