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.