Envisioning Wine’s Future

On Super Bowl Sunday, some 1.25 billion chicken wings were consumed alongside 11 million pounds of potato chips, 4 million pounds of pretzels, and 2.5 million pounds of nuts. Massive quantities of beer helped wash all that down — nearly 50 million cases worth were sold on Sunday alone. It’s no wonder why Anheuser-Busch purchased four and a half minutes of ad space during the big game.

Americans also drank wine. While 42 percent of Super Bowl viewers told Nielsen they planned on consuming beer during the game, 33 percent told pollsters they planned to drink wine.

This number caught me by surprise. Sure, the United States surpassed France as the world’s largest wine-consuming nation in 2010. But wine still intimidates many consumers.

Fortunately, as the Super Bowl statistics help demonstrate, this is quickly changing. Across the country, Americans are embracing wine.

For evidence, look no further than your closest grocery store.

Thirty years ago, the local market sold little more than jug wine like Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy — if wine was even stocked. Today, the average upscale supermarket carries 1,500 wine selections or more. The number of breakfast cereals pales in comparison.

As the number of choices has increased, so has bewilderment. As Mike Veseth, an economics professor in Washington, once explained, “Wine buyers have never had it better in terms of the number of choices available from around the world. And we’ve never had it worse regarding the possibility of confusion and the pressure to find our perfect wine. It’s the Age of Anxiety for wine.”

But consumers are eager to learn. And the market is responding.

Consider the rise of specialty wine shops. Across the country, boutique retailers are filling their shelves with interesting, small-production wines — and helping consumers learn about wine by paying attention to their preferences, offering food-and-wine pairing advice, and answering questions without judgment.

Or look at wine bars. They’re sprouting up across the country, providing opportunities for people to explore wines.

High-end restaurants are also approaching wine differently. Whereas sommeliers were once glorified sales agents who intimidated guests by pushing expensive, predictable wines, today’s sommeliers are wine educators, eager to share their passion and palates. Most are keen to help patrons find the perfect wine, regardless of budget.

This list could go on. Bookstores are now packed with easy-to-navigate wine guides. Wine classes are more popular than ever before. The world of wine is clearly changing.

Chain restaurants aren’t just profiting on America’s growing interest in wine — they’re leading the charge.

Consider Olive Garden. With 730 locations, it’s no surprise that the chain serves more than 600 million breadsticks and 165 million bowls of salad annually. But the restaurant also serves more wine than any other chain in the United States. In 2006, Olive Garden sold more than 500,000 cases of wine.

In part, Olive Garden sells so much wine because it takes education seriously. As Mike Veseth has written, “many restaurants expect that their wait staff will pick up wine knowledge — Olive Garden really works at it, by providing literally hundreds of thousands of hours of training.” The restaurant also gives away free samples, where legal. In 2006, it gave away 30,000 cases of wine, which equates to 4.5 million pours.

These efforts help demystify wine.

Several years ago, I stumbled into a conversation with David Kent, who at the time was president and CEO of The Wine Group. The company, which makes brands such as Cupcake Vineyards, FishEye, and flipflop, is the third-largest wine producer in the world. As we chatted, he described his vision for American wine.

He began by asking me to picture a group of 20-somethings at a beach house. He then asked me to visualize the cooler they’d pack before heading to the beach. As you might guess, my mental sketch included sandwiches, chips, and a few dozen light beers. One day, Kent hopes that group will instead bring a few bottles of wine.

That’s an optimistic future, to be sure. And we’re still a long way off; America’s beer market is nine times larger than the wine market. But it’s a future worth rooting for.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.