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Drinking Out Loud

So What Do Americans Really Want From Wine?

It depends on whether you're talking macro-America or micro-America
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer doesn't put much stock in the broad-stroke results of wine consumer surveys.

Matt Kramer
Posted: November 17, 2015

Like you, I've seen wine consumer surveys for years. Another recently was performed, this one conducted by Sonoma State University and the Wine Business Institute.

It's too easy to make fun of such surveys, if only because anyone who knows anything about Americans and wine already knows the broad-stroke answers that these surveys quantify with such seeming authority and definitiveness.

This time, as so many times before, those surveyed were asked to choose their favorite grape varieties. The answers came back just as you'd expect: Chardonnay (included by 50 percent of respondents) and Merlot (49 percent). As no less a philosopher than Gomer Pyle might say, "Sur-prise, sur-prise, sur-prise!"

We're also told yet again that we Americans like sweeter wines. ("Only 26 percent of respondents favored dry styles.") and that we overwhelmingly choose our wines based on price, the lower the better. ("Seventy-two percent said cost was the most important factor when selecting a wine.")

None of this is news. And none of it should surprise anyone. And not least, very little of it actually gives us much idea about what's really happening in America when it comes to wine.

What's wrong with surveys such as this latest one? Nothing, except that they rarely, if ever, offer much in the way of insight. Precisely because these sorts of surveys are designed to capture the surface features of the aggregate, you're going to get just that—a portrayal of what might be called "macro-America."

Therein lies the problem. We're all macro-Americans. And in a nation of 300 million people, that's a very broad brushstroke indeed. So broad, in fact, as to be very nearly useless to anyone seeking to understand the freewheeling culture of 21st-century "wine America."

Want proof? Imagine a historian two centuries from now looking back to our time today and trying to grasp what we were thinking. Would our future historian be correct in reporting with self-assurance to his or her colleagues that, "Wine in America in 2015 was pretty much all about Chardonnay and Merlot, sweetness, smoothness and low price." Nailed it, right?

To really grasp today's "wine America" it's essential—vital, even—to look at what might be called the "micro-American." It's the micro-Americans that tell us where we're really going, as well as how much we keep changing.

You see, macro-Americans have always wanted sweet, smooth, low-priced wines. We wanted that 40 years ago when we slurped down the likes of Riunite and Blue Nun and bought Gallo Hearty Burgundy by the giddily inexpensive half-gallon.

Macro-Americans like their wines sweet, smooth and cheap, but they are not the future. Rather, they're just the perennial past, as we keep growing. (America's population has increased by 50 percent since the mid-1960s.) With our continuous population growth, there will always be a sizable supply of macro-Americans reporting a preference for sweet, smooth and cheap, as that’s where all wine newbies begin their journey.

But right below the macro-American surface lies an array of impressively large cohorts of various micro-Americans: the Italian wine–loving micro-American; the local wine–booster micro-American; the near-galactic size cohort of Pinot Noir–loving micro-Americans (where were they 20 years ago?), and so forth.

None of these population pools individually rivals the macro-American cohort. Consequently, the same tired old survey results get trotted out telling the world that we Americans like it sweet, cheap and smooth.

The real wine America is something altogether different. And in a nation the size of ours with a bogglingly rich, border-free domestic economy, a strong currency and a freedom of information like that of no other country, it adds up to both a wine culture and a wine market like no other.

From this observer's vantage, micro-Americans increasingly like—and actively want—their wines to be interesting. Different. Singular. No nation anywhere has so enthusiastically embraced seemingly every goofy grape variety that Mother Europe has nurtured over the past 2,000 years. Mencía? Bring it on, baby! The real Lambrusco thing? You bet. Love it. Ever more obscure small growers from Burgundy? New producers from Oregon and California? We can't get enough of them.

The list is incredible. And it's not just the wines. Look at the enthusiasm and accomplishment of today's micro-America restaurants, chefs, servers and sommeliers. Are they dishing up the old "sweet, smooth and cheap" in terms of either food or wine? Hardly. Thirty or 40 years ago, no one could have legitimately predicted—not even fantasized about, really—the exceptional quality and diversity of micro-America's restaurant service and culinary technique.

It's the micro-Americans in the aggregate that show the real portrait of our modernity, to say nothing of soothsaying our future.

Sure, the old "sweet, smooth and cheap" outline of macro-America is also there. Sales figures prove it. But sales figures also prove that 21st-century wine America is so very much more. We keep slip-slidin' away, morphing into something so much more adventurous and open-minded than "sweet, smooth and cheap."

Juan Mejia
Huntington new york —  November 18, 2015 7:31pm ET
Well"done very true...
Ned Osborn
Phillydelpia —  November 21, 2015 8:53pm ET
What I look for lately is a lower alcohol level. It's just not enjoyable to have a wine that's above 13% unless it's an intentionally fortified wine like port that you have occasionally. Some of these "regular" wines aren't really that far off from the alcohol level of a sherry. It especially amazes me when a see white that's at high level. If I see a high level, I just don't buy it, period.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  December 8, 2015 10:33pm ET
"...there will always be a sizable supply of macro-Americans reporting a preference for sweet, smooth and cheap, as that’s where all wine newbies begin their journey." AGREED (except for maybe the word "all" which might better be expressed as "most"). And this is no small observation since this ONE STYLE of wine seems to be the gateway for so many people.

But where I have an issue with your paradigm is defining the micro side of the equation. That side is not homogenous, like the macro-newbie side generally seems. In fact, here the taste preferences seem so utterly heterogeneous as to make me reject your conclusion that "It's the micro-Americans in the aggregate that show the real portrait of our modernity, to say nothing of soothsaying our future" and "...where we're really going...", unless your only point is that there will always be a minority market for diversity. Sorry, but I just can't wrap my head around your claim when the micro group is as diverse, heterogenous, splintered, and even downright at odds with each other with regards to any direction for the future (other than exploration and diversity as the market allows). I don't think that such a minority subset tells us anything other than "a minority of people reject the majority taste, but for a large, uncharacterizable variety of differing reasons".
Paul & Joyce Gallagher
Berkeley Heights, NJ —  December 17, 2015 4:07pm ET
I'm surprised 49% of macro-America chooses Merlot as their favorite red grape variety. I would have bet on Cabernet Sauvignon.
Speaking of Merlot, remember when it blew up in the 90's and to the detriment of the grape, it was over-planted as everyone tried to cash in on the trend? The market was flooded with low quality, overpriced versions and the good stuff suffered and skyrocketed in price. I don't see that happening with the Pinot Noir love affair, and we're several years into it. Did the wine industry learn a lesson?

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