Where All That Wine is Going

I swear I’ve seen something like thirty news headlines in the last two weeks announcing “Americans Now Drink More Wine than Anyone Else.” This is clearly not true. But what is true, apparently, is that for the first time ever, more wine was shipped into this country (and/or shipped within our borders) last year than any other country in the world.

What this actually means, well that’s a complex answer. Anyone looking to simplify that complexity (and who wouldn’t when you’re trying to make generalizations at the scale of the global economy) could reasonably say that America consumed more wine last year than any other country.

I gave my own little cheer when I read the news stories, but then I started to wonder at the real story behind the numbers. Certainly, shipping volume can’t be denied as an indicator of commercial activity, and a derivative of commercial demand. But where are all those boxes of wine going? And are they really being consumed when they get there?

What has happened to wine inventories in the past year in all those big warehouses around the country where the boxes end up when they cross our shores? According to some folks I know who spend time in those warehouses, they’re not exactly emptying out at the rates they were several years ago.

And then there’s the little problem of per-capita consumption in this country, which is still dismally low compared to almost all other countries in the world. We Americans drink only 9.6 liters of wine a year per-capita. That’s less than Macedonia, and only a bit more than the United Arab Emirates, where alcohol is pretty much illegal.

The good news is that our consumption, no matter how you measure it, is on the rise. Our per capita consumption in 2008 was up 14% (thank you recession), and I expect it to keep on rising, though it will take us a long time at even a 14% annual increase to approach the per-capita consumption of France, at 53 liters of wine a year.

This of course means that some of us (we know who we are) seem to be responsible for vastly more than our fair share of wine consumption in this country. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but that’s a gap not unlike the income inequality gap in this country. Sobering. Or just the opposite, as the case may be.

So forgive me if I don’t get too excited about this recent milestone in our country’s history of global wine commerce. It’s an achievement to be sure, but there’s much more to be done to get wine on more tables in this country, more often. And of course, there’s much more wine to be drunk.

See the official press release.