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Who is the Average Wine Consumer?

Perhaps the American wine market needs its own persona incarnate like Joe the Plumber. We'll call her Jane the Accountant. We may not know much about her politics, but we do know what Jane drinks.

Every year I look forward to a report by Restaurant Wine magazine that clearly shows what Jane and all the other basic wine consumers like her drink on a regular basis.

The numbers vary, but estimates suggest that somewhere around 30% of the wine in America is consumed in restaurants, making up more than 50% of all the money that we spend on wine. The annual numbers tabulated in Restaurant Wine of the top selling wine brands in America represents a substantial view into what most Americans are drinking when they go out to eat.

The report lists the top 100 individual wines, and the top 100 wine brands sold in restaurants in the previous calendar year. For 2008, the top 10 wines (by volume) sold in American restaurants were:

1. Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, Vintner's Reserve, CA
2. Cavit Pinot Grigio, Italy
3. Beringer Vineyards White Zinfande, CA
4. Sutter Home White Zinfandel, CA
5. Inglenook Chablis, CA
6. Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, Italy
7. Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio, Italy
8. Copper Ridge Vineyards, Chardonnay, CA
9. Yellow Tail Chardonnay, Australia
10. Franzia Winetaps, White Zinfandel, Vintner Select, CA

And the top 10 brands by volume were:

1. Kendall Jackson
2. Sutter Home
3. Beringer Vineyards
4. Franzia Winetaps
5. Inglenook
6. Yellow Tail
7. Copper Ridget
8. Cavit
9. Woodbridge
10. Salmon Creek

Why are these numbers so important and so interesting? Because they are the bread and butter of the wine industry. They are the fuel for the wine engine. They are the measure of the population whose spending habits make (or break) the market and who make up the pool of wine drinkers from which serious wine lovers slowly graduate to more expensive wines and esoteric habits like...reading wine blogs.

For most serious wine lovers, these numbers and names are a little sobering -- as many wouldn't be caught dead drinking any of these wines. But I suppose this reaction is a little bit like the reaction of a foodie to statistics about the most common meal consumed in America, which I'm sure is some variation on a fast food hamburger with fries and a large coke.

But they are quite fascinating, nonetheless, for a number of reasons. Note that there are no red wines in the list of top 10 (Yellow Tail Shiraz happens to be #11 on the list) -- we are clearly a white wine drinking country. We continue in our love affair with White Zinfandel and pink wines in general. Interestingly, Americans seem to be developing a love affair with Pinot Grigio, which continues to climb in popularity. Last year two of the top 10 wines were Pinot Grigio. This year three of them are.

While not evident in these top 10 lists, Riesling sales increased 16.7% in the last year, and despite the lack of red wines in the top 10, red wines actually gained ground as a percentage of the top wines consumed, while white wines and White Zinfandel lost some ground.

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 American wine industry 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.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud