So We Think We Know Our Wines – Let’s Look At the Numbers Also

Here is another theory about wine snobs: As more people begin enjoying wine they do not bring preordained perceptions of wine culture along with them. Further, it is a younger demographic who traditionally drink less expensive wines. Lastly, the current economy puts pressure on people keeping them from buying expensive wines, which limits bragging rights.

Let me start with two tangential stories to illustrate my point about the fleeting nature of wine snobbery. Then we will look at changes in wine consumption demographics; historic and evolving. The hypothesis is: the young are less oriented to snobbery.

Recently I read 2 articles that pointed out how even the best of wine journalist could not distinguish between varietal wines. This fact came to prominence when a winery owner in California poured identical wines, a fact unbeknown to the journalist, and the journalist could not tell the ruse had been played on them. None of the participants picked-up on this and did not successfully distinguish that the wines were identical. Talk about embarrassment. The author, Katie Kelly Bell was there and reported the findings in a way that did not seem to indicate any surprise.

The second article involved 600 mature participants who were professed oenophiles. The test was to determine if these wine buffs could distinguish between expensive wines and cheap wines. The results were equally profound. Jonah Lehrer noted, “The results should upset wine snobs everywhere: The 600 plus participants could only pick the more expensive wine 53 percent of the time, which is basically random chance. They actually performed below ‘chance’ when it came to picking red wines. Bordeaux fared the worst, with a significant majority – 61 percent – picking the cheap plonk (sic) as the more expensive selection.”

From time to time we all have done these kind of blind tastings amongst friends in an attempt to distinguish varietals and cheap versus expensive wines. Even the Paris Tasting of 1976 proved that the real pro’s in the wine world can ‘come a cropper’. There are reasons, I believe, that this happens: Our olfactory, visual, and taste receptors are only part of the mechanisms that let us define the wines we like and enjoy. Our experiences throughout our wine consumption years dictates a great deal about how we respond to various wine tastes’, and least we forget: temperatures of the wine, the setting (party, casual consumption, etc.), what we read in reviews/points, our memories and pairings.

In a study I participated in many years ago, there were over 100 external factors that were identified as impacting a wine drinker’s preferences of wine. There were probably only 10-15 that were considered consequential. Others factors discussed were: education, income, demographics, exposure to ads, rural versus urban and race. Also, it was noted that likes and dislikes changed with age. Probably change is what keeps wine so interesting and fun to drink and share with others. It becomes a common bond.

Just so we don’t lose sight of the importance of this discussion let’s put the U.S. wine industry in perspective.

Let’s start by talking about the relative populations that drives the increasing sales of wine.

We can start by country population (2010 est.) of the top countries consuming wine:

Total Populations (2010)

France 63.1 million

Italy 60.6 million

Spain 47.2 million

USA 311.0 million

Germany 82.0 million

Per Capita Wine Consumption (2010)

France 12.1 gallons

Italy 10.2 gallons

Spain 6.9 gallons

USA 2.5 gallons

Germany 6.5 gallons (not a big producer)

Note: Per capita is very misleading as relative size has a profound impact. The U.S. is the only country of the big four that has seen a rise in wine consumption-about 8% over the last 2 years.

Here is where interpreting the numbers gets interesting.

Of the major wine consuming countries, the U.S. is by far the largest population. But to get a real perspective one must understand the impact of the total population relative to viewing just the population of legal drinking age. This is further complicated when it is understood that European countries look upon drinking age differently. For example, in France there is no age limit to drink wine; however you must be 16 years old to buy wine. For discussion purposes let’s assume the playing field is level for all.

What do the numbers look like relative to consumed wine in the U.S. versus the top four countries? First, the U.S. has replaced Spain as the 3rd largest consumer of wine in 2010. Now, the impact of a large population is realized. Conversely, it is apparent that Italy and France, 1/5th the gross population size of the U.S., does consume a great deal of wine. France consumed 938 million gallons; Italy consumed 824 million gallons; and the U.S. came in at 553 million gallons. Wine Fountains

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