Drink Up, America
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
I was shocked recently when a wine industry professional asked me if I actually drank wine every day. When I replied that I did, she expressed surprise. I asked her if she brushed her teeth every day.
"Yes, but that's different," she said, displaying a set of pearly whites. Perhaps it is. But my point was that both brushing teeth and drinking wine should be part of any healthy adult's daily regimen. Judging from my own informal observations, Americans have outdone the rest of the world in their quest for fewer cavities. But they have allowed the French (notorious for their lax dental care) to take the lead in wine drinking.
France has the highest annual per capita wine consumption of any nation. Each of its citizens drinks nearly 16 gallons of wine every year -- about a glass per person daily. (Close behind the French are the Italians and the Portuguese, who consume almost as much.)
Many Americans, on the other hand, still haven't figured out how to live the "good life," as Robert Mondavi likes to call the civilized pursuit of daily fine dining. The United States is 30th in line among wine-drinking nations, with less than 2 gallons consumed per person per year. That's not even one glass of wine every Saturday night.
I don't need to preach to the converted about the merits of wine at the table. Most of you reading this already know about the health benefits of moderate wine consumption, not to mention the taste benefits of wine with dinner.
But how can we enlighten those poor souls out there who still don't get it? They rush through their meals drinking the likes of coffee or soft drinks (vicious killers of flavor), with little concern for the pleasures of leisurely yet focused dining. Too many Americans fail to understand that most great conversations, political negotiations and memorable taste sensations occur at mealtime.
And that means lunch, too. Recently I enjoyed a midday repast at my local diner with yet another wine industry professional. We ordered fried oysters. I asked for a beer (only because the wine list was atrocious), while my colleague ordered a Coke. When I expressed surprise at his choice of beverage, he vaguely mumbled something about having to work after lunch. Since when does a beer or a glass of wine with a full meal send a 160-pound man over the edge?
Now what would you prefer: rich, plump and juicy fried oysters with a bright, crisp beer or Sauvignon Blanc, for example, or an insipidly sweet soft drink? My lunch partner was really quite knowledgeable about wine, and an avid consumer of it as well. Yet he bowed to commonly held myths about drinking at lunchtime and ignored common sense.
My local diner serves up some pretty good chow. In addition to burgers and fries, you can order fresh grilled trout for lunch, a seafood stew with cockles and mussels, or any number of other interesting dishes. The folks in my neighborhood appreciate good food and flock to eat here. But the wine list is terrible because few people really care about what they drink in a casual, daily setting. They eat off the A-list while drinking from the equivalent of McDonald's top 10 beverage selections. It's too bad, for they do a disservice to fine cooking and themselves.
Haute cuisine is not the only food worthy of a glass of good wine. Sixty million Frenchmen can't be wrong when the drink a glass (or more) a day. You can be sure they're not all eating at three-star restaurants.
There is hope, however, that Americans, as a nation, will some day drink better on a regular basis. Annual table wine consumption in the United States has risen in the last decade from 346 million gallons to 436 million gallons. The numbers suggest that, happily, some of us do appear to be living the good life.
So what can you, as a private individual, do to raise the standard of living (and dining) in America? To start with, you can eat and drink well both at home and in public. Your friends, once they taste the difference, will follow your example. It's almost your patriotic duty -- and not an unpleasant one for that matter.
Besides, it hurts my national pride to see the French trounce us at anything, even wine drinking. (I wonder if Frenchmen's livers look as bad as their teeth?)
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.