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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.

Comments (29)

Adam LaPierre wrote:
09.19.09 at 12:36 PM


Actually I believe that more wine is consumed off premise (at home) in terms of volume, whereas on-premise consumption generates more dollars.

Alder wrote:
09.19.09 at 1:37 PM


Thanks for the clarification. I've been looking for specific numbers -- can you point me to any definitive reports on this?

09.19.09 at 2:24 PM

Yes, I thought I would see more Riesling here too. Recently was visiting my cousin in FL (woman over 50) who asked me if I could recommend some Rieslings for her. I went on the web to check out her local wine store - one of those big warehouse types in S. Florida - and suggested that she check out the aisle for German or Austrian wines as a great place to start (this particular store had a good selection). She didn't know that these countries were the 'home' of that varietal - she's been drinking ones from New Zealand.

I'm hoping that as interest grows from the American consumer - overall wine consumption figures are up - that education and experimentation will grow too.

Thanks as always for the great insight.

Richard wrote:
09.19.09 at 4:12 PM

Adam .. thanks for the post... it got me thinking: Lately I have seen several blogs regarding the effect of wine scores on wine consumers. This cannot be true. Who in their right mind would ever rate any of these wines over 65 (and in some cases I am being generous :-). Sorry ..its Saturday evening.. and I am in a humorous mood (and drinking a very simple but solid quality Syrah from Qupe). Cheers!

Susan B. wrote:
09.19.09 at 5:51 PM

I am a professional ( I guess equivalent to Jane the ACCT.) living in the Bronx and I don't know anyone who fits the description of that average wine consumer. I know that I drink most of my wine at home, have never tried any of those brands, but do like riesling. I wonder who they poll in these type of things. Not us outer borough types, I guess.

adam LaPierre wrote:
09.19.09 at 6:59 PM

I did not purchase the full report, but the briefing on the US market available on www.wineintelligence.com provides some insight into the relative importance of each channel. Some interesting insight into the "average consumer" too!

Alder wrote:
09.19.09 at 9:04 PM


Just to be clear, it's not a poll. Its the actual sales numbers from thousands of restaurants around the country. This is not opinion, these are the facts, at least as they are reported to Restaurant Wine Magazine, which I believe tends to connect with mostly large chain restaurants across the country.

The very fact that you're reading Vinography would clearly indicate that you do not fit into the demographic that is buying most of these wines. The folks who are responsible for these wine sales numbers are the folks who regularly dine out at TGI Fridays and like drinking wine with their potato skins.

Alder wrote:
09.19.09 at 9:09 PM


It's also important to note that this doesn't prove what most Americans want to drink, or would drink if given an unlimited choice, only what actually they do drink from what is available to them when they go out to eat.

Adam LaPierre wrote:
09.19.09 at 9:26 PM

Here's the list of top ten brands off-premise (retail) according to the latest AC Nielsen 52 week report:

By dollar volume:
Kendall-Jackson Vintners Chardonnay
Woodbridge Chardonnay
Cavit Pinot Grigio
Clos du bois Chardonnay
Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio
Korbel Sparkling
Sutter Home White Zin
Beringer White Zin
Yellow Tail Chardonnay
Beringer White Zin

If you sort by volume, eight of the top ten spots are held by Franzia and Carlo Rossi

Alder wrote:
09.19.09 at 9:45 PM

Wow. Remarkable overlap. And still not a red in sight. Thanks, Adam.

Blake wrote:
09.20.09 at 8:59 AM

Alder: ACNielsen reported that 50.2 percent of wines sold through Scantrack stores were red wines in 2008.

The above list is interesting, but we're not a white-wine drinking country. Instead, there are clearly lots of very brand-loyal white wine consumers.

09.20.09 at 10:19 AM

Of course, one would have to know which restaurants are in the mix and what it is these restaurants offer as alternatives to really make sense of the numbers.

That's what I was going to say until I read the off-premise list that Adam posted, which seem awfully much like the restaurant list.

So, I am left without a retort and without near as much optimism as Alder. Why? Because I've been reading such lists ever since I entered the wine business--nearly 26 years ago!

09.20.09 at 8:20 PM

Hi--- I'm curious if you got any information on what percentage of restaurant wine sales these top 10 wines make up (and similarly for top 10 wines in off-premise sales). It makes a big difference to how much we can say these 10 represent the mass of wine being drunk, and the bread and butter of the industry. I suspect you're right and its substantial...but Blake's post above illustrates why it's important to ask this.

I tend to find cheap Pinot Grigio more palatable than cheap chardonnay; I know I've tried all three of these PG's in restaurants when there was no point in spending more, but don't have any specific recollections tied to the individual names. Except that I've had both some surprisingly good, crisp, refreshing cheap PG's (possibly including some of these), and some surprisingly (given how much decent cheap PG comes out of the vast stony plains of Grave del Friuli) bad (flabby and watery) ones. Every once in a while I find a very tasty mass-market El Cheapo wine (Barefoot Bynum Sauvignon Blanc was quite palatable for a while, for both drinking and cooking). The relatively recent phenomenon of mass-market Viognier occasionally gives quite good results, too...

Inglenook Chablis really takes me back. Didn't realize they still make that stuff...

Adam LaPierre wrote:
09.20.09 at 8:37 PM


I just reviewed the most current AC Nielsen total US data, and found different results. During the 52 weeks ending 8/22, 52% of all sales are White and Rose.

Howard-- The problem with On-Premise reports is that there is no source of hard data for the on-trade. Restaurant wine magazine gathers their information from a number of sources including, wine companies, distributors, and accounts, but its not actually registering sales as Nielsen does.

It should also be noted that the Nielsen data is primarily grocery and drug store driven, so it is probably not entirely representative of the US market.

Grant wrote:
09.21.09 at 2:56 AM

The other thing that this drives home is that for all the talk about how 'yesterday' Chardonnay is, it still dominates people's drinking preferences.

Bob Gustafson wrote:
09.21.09 at 6:32 AM

I know I'm stating the obvious, but doesn't this list reflect the american preference for "cold drinks". I wonder what it would look like if red wines were traditionally served chilled?

Mark wrote:
09.21.09 at 8:36 AM

I have to say that I was somewhat surprised to see that Inglenook and Franzia made these lists. They're definitely heavy-hitters for retailers, but I can't remember the last time that I saw one of these popular brands on a restaurant menu and that's taking into account the chain guys. It's also interesting that the Top 10 is made up of all white wines. I would have guessed that either Yellowtail Shiraz or possibly Blackstone Merlot would have been in the top 10. BTW- I'm completely baffled that Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is not on either of these lists.

Alder wrote:
09.21.09 at 8:45 AM


Santa Margherita was in the Top 10 last year, and comes in at the #17 spot this year. Yellowtail Shiraz is #11.

carlos Serafim wrote:
09.21.09 at 10:58 AM

wouldn't white zinfandel fall under the red wine category? It isn't white and it isn't red, but it was made from red grapes.

greg wrote:
09.21.09 at 1:32 PM

Inglenook Chablis at # 5. I do not believe this data. I have not seen this wine on a wine list for 5 years.

Pam wrote:
09.21.09 at 2:12 PM

My sentiment is about the same as for last year's list, BLEAH! But what's almost even more painful is what some of the restaurants actually charge for these wines & that so many people actually keep handing over the $$$ for them(they must be ignorant of the retail prices surely...?). However, you do have to keep in mind different restaurant chains do have varying wine lists with varying prices. TGI Fridays/Benigans/Chilis/Red Lobster etc. are more the lower end of the 'chain' places whereas Bonefish Grill/Carrabbas/Macaroni Grill/Maggiano's etc. higher up & Ruth's Chris/Morton's/Capital Grille et al around the top - all these chains tend to have wine lists that reflect (for the most part) the nature & clientele of the establishment, though there are always a few exceptions. Re white versus red I feel that most people who aren't 'wine enthusiasts' usually assume that whites are a safer bet to go with (erroneously so in my opinion). I personally am a 90% red drinker but many of my acquaintances opt for whites about 90%.
Guess it all boils down to "whatever floats your boat".........

billy wrote:
09.21.09 at 3:07 PM

Fascinating, really! I'm surprised nobody has mentioned that these are all high-volume products, and therefore low-cost, and therefore high-profit. The restaurant industry will be drawn to offer them for the profit that can be made vs. smaller volume products --as long as they're drinkable to the majority of customers. (which explains the lack of reds, since cheap white is certainly more tolerable...)

Alder wrote:
09.21.09 at 3:43 PM


Thanks for the comments. Agree with most of your thoughts. Just one data point for what it's worth: when I'm staring down a really low-end wine choice, say, at an out of the way art gallery opening, where there are two kinds of wine on offer: red or white (and that's about all that the server knows about them), I almost always choose white, because in my experience, that will be the more palatable of the two.

09.22.09 at 4:24 AM

I am, I said, to no one there, not even the chair...
Good wine is as good to sniff as it is to sip. If you can't sniff it, don't drink it, I said.

Bob Wilson wrote:
09.22.09 at 7:48 AM

As was mentioned above profiability is all. There is greater margin in these wines at $5 a glass than higher quality at $10. That is important when less money is being spent on wine in restaurants. It drives the decisions of buyers, who would like to keep their job, and salespeople who would rather have the volume and repeat orders of Beringer White Zin then 10 precious obscure wine listings by the bottle. Ditto KJ. There are also the deals and programs made at a national level by large wine companies, so the big get bigger. Re: Inglenook, I remember emptying 5L BIB into 5 gallon soda tanks so that a high volume national chain restaurant could speedily deliver the wine to its serves from a dispensing gun. I also remember an independent seafood restaurant that went through five 18L boxes of Inglenook chablis a week that they used for cooking. They did a taste off for the lowest cost per ounce they could find that was acceptable for their needs. The unifying element of the list is that the products are consistent. This being said I am encourged by Deloach's 10L BIB back bar piece and yes we are making progress. B.

Tom Johnson wrote:
09.22.09 at 12:22 PM

A lot of the casual dining chains don't offer anything but inexpensive branded wine, and there are a lot of people who only drink wine when they're eating out and want to make the evening special. I think that explains a lot of the white wine bias in this sample -- relative to the overall red-white consumption numbers. White wine is the wine of choice for people who don't drink wine.

White wine is also a safer bet when you're in a restaurant that doesn't sell a lot of wine. Which would you rather have: a red that's been open for a week or a white that's been open for a week. When you're at O'Charley's with the gang from the office, that's the choice you have to make.

Eileen wrote:
09.30.09 at 1:36 PM

Because these are sales volume numbers, all this tells me is that wine is expensive and folks who dine out are cost conscious and choosing more affordable options. In your average American restaurant, a glass of "esoteric" wine costs the same amout as a bottle of Kendall Jackson in the store. My favorite Chardonnay happens to be a Far Niete or Rombauer. I drink Kendall Jackson on a night out with the family. In fact, I drink it at home. It's affordable. I save my favorites for special occassions. Wine is an expensive habit. The average wine drinker's tastes are not the issue, it's the wine industry's ridiculous practice of jacking up the prices in restaurants. Oh, and snobs like you who "wouldn't be caught dead" drinking this stuff intimidating everyone else.

Alder wrote:
09.30.09 at 2:05 PM


Thanks for the comments. Yes, of course these numbers don't reflect the strict preferences of people in terms of what they think is the best. No one is saying that. They simply reflect what people actually buy. As others pointed out, these purchases aren't made in a situation where there is unlimited choice, either, which means this is what people drink most often when they have a limited amount of choices in places that are probably heavily dominated by wines of this kind.

Still, this data is interesting as a measure of people's taste. The folks buying these wines could have easily had a beer, or a rum and coke if they didn't care for the wine. But they didn't. So yes, these are just sales numbers, but they do reflect real decisions by millions of real consumers, in non-special occasion situations, as you so rightly point out. So how is that not a reflection of people's tastes?

You'll get no argument from me that wine is overpriced in general, and especially so in restaurants, where it is priced so that restaurants actually make a profit (as opposed to the food where they often don't make much money at the end of the day).

I think if you stick around and read more of what I have to say, you will find that snobbish is quite the opposite of what I do here.

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