By Cold, Hard Football Facts sud stud Lew Bryson
When I stopped at Baumgartner's Cheese Store & Tavern in Monroe, Wisconsin, last summer, one of the many things I loved about the place was a mural of "The War Between Beer and Wine," a German's dope dream of an army of Teutonic steins of beer, waving flags and charging across an open field at Frenchy-looking bottles of wine. This is the mural right here:
In Germany, this would be just an idle daydream: the only war there between beer and wine is a drinker's decision on what to have today. Here in America, it's a grudge match between beer's perceived lack of respect and wine's pathetically smaller sales.
"Pathetically smaller sales?" Maybe that's changed, you say. After all, you might have read about the poll Gallup took last summer asking Americans about their favorite alcoholic beverage – beer, wine or spirits – and for the first time since they did this particular poll, back in 1992, wine won! This year, 39 percent said wine was their first choice, 21 percent said spirits, and only 36 percent said beer. The poll's margin of error was 4 percent, so beer covered the spread, but wine was only at 33 percent just last year. Looks like bad news for beer.
Hold on, though. Don't rush out to the packie (as the folks up in New England call the local beer store), figuring you're going to single-handedly put things back where they ought to be ... though it's an admirable sentiment on your part. We need to take a closer look at something that is, don't forget, an opinion poll ... and you know how we feel about opinions around here. So rather than drink ourselves into sour despair with a big box of Chateau d'Bollox, let's head down to the basement, unlock the Dedicated Beer Fridge, and tap up another fresh, delicious mug of Cold, Hard Beer Facts.
This poll found that 65 percent of Americans called themselves "drinkers." That would be people who drink booze – "booze" because I don't like the standard term, "alcoholic beverage." An alcoholic beverage is something an alcoholic drinks, and I do not drink Listerine, Avon cologne or Sterno (maybe that's what the missing 4 percent in the Gallup poll are drinking – I hear there's a big Listerine-drinking problem in Boston). I drink booze: beer, liquor and wine. I'm in that 65 percent, and I'm damned proud of it.
What that means, and why I bothered to bring it up, is that I am also among the people who buy the booze in this country (when I'm not on one of those free booze-a-rama trips that I'm always jabbering about, or happily sucking down the samples that keep showing up in the mail). I buy wine maybe six, seven times a year. But I buy beer every week; I buy spirits every month. I have to, you know, not because I run out, but because there's always good new stuff to try.
I would guess wine drinkers (this supposed 39 percent of drinkers who like wine "da best!!") are going out and buying wine regularly and more often, right? Because they say that wine is their "first choice." That's their opinion. Hey, I got opinions too, and wine's my dead-last choice. Whose opinion wins? Well, the Gallup people say that more people said wine was their first choice, so ...
Screw 'em. What do the numbers say about how much beer, wine, and spirits are actually being bought in America? The ear-splitting loudspeakers in the arena of the Cold, Hard Beer Facts say that beer is still the first choice of the nation's drinkers. In fact, it's not even close. The 2005 figures aren't all in yet, but in 2004:
  • Americans bought 668 million gallons of wine. Not bad, wine; that's about five gallons per American drinker.
  • Americans bought 6.7 billion gallons of beer which is ... um ... the Fisher-Price Happy Numbers Abacus is overloading. It's a hell of a lot more per adult. Sorry, wine. Thanks for playing.
By the number of positive wine stories in the media, though, you'd think that we were awash in a damned red sea of the stuff. Nearly every newspaper in America employs a wine columnist and this veritable army is constantly cranking out happy wine stories: more people are drinking wine, wine goes with this cheese or that fish, people are learning that wine is fun, wine cures cancer and heart disease, wine doesn't have to be expensive, cute puppies drink wine with supermodels, blahblahblah ... there's got to be some fire to all this smoke.
Maybe it's not volume, which clearly sides in the favor of beer and beer drinkers. Maybe dollars will show the true story. After all, wine costs more than beer. So we dug up the data. Again, using 2004 numbers, Americans spent:
  • $23 billion on wine
  • $49 billion on spirits
  • $82 billion on beer
That's three and a half times as much spent on beer as was spent on wine, and I hope I don't have to tell you that the price difference between wine and beer makes that gap even bigger.
So how come damn near every newspaper and magazine in America ran a story in the past six months about "Wine Now More Popular Than Beer"? Gallup has reportedly conducted this poll every summer for the past 14 years – but I never heard about the poll until the numbers finally came out in favor of wine. That makes it news!
Editors at every publication in America did friggin' backflips to get out the story. National magazines such as U.S. News & World Report ran big, happy stories about it. The wire services sent out stories. The Boston Globe, a Cold, Hard Football Facts fan least favorite, jumped all over the poll, declaring it a sign that the nation is filled with "A new generation of wine enthusiasts" on the front of its Nov. 30, 2005 food section.
Do they run these stories because beer's so popular that it's amazing when wine comes out on top in anything? Maybe. Or maybe it's because wine sells more print ads than beer in foodie mags and newspaper food sections, and food critics (and their editors) tend to be wine drinkers, and because press junkets to France are more popular than junkets to Bavaria (if some magazine would send me to France, I'd be happy to write about my opinion on the two). I know that when foodie magazines run articles about chefs and food writers getting together for a meal, there's never a mention of beer at all. I don't want to hear any more about liberal bias in the media until this wine bias is thoroughly investigated. Americans prefer beer. Editors and reporters prefer wine. Once again, the media "elite" are out of touch with mainstream America.
To be fair, it is a real story that after some nice years of growth, beer sales have pretty much been flat for the past three years. There are bright spots for beer: imports continue to grow, some light beers continue to grow (despite my best efforts to get people off their light-beer kick), Yuengling continues to grow despite every reason given by the beverage analysts (the pigskin "pundits" of the beer biz) why it shouldn't, and those pesky microbrews grow at a faster rate than any other segment in the entire booze market, wine included.
Overall, though, beer has pretty much stayed steady while wine grew over the past couple years. Those flat beer sales are considered a crisis for brewers. Brewers are "desperately re-examining" their options while analysts say that those options are limited: "You can't come out with a new flavor of beer," one said, "Beer is beer." C'mon, pal, even you must have heard of Guinness. This is baseless panic.
Besides, flat beer sales are nothing compared to the disaster wine is recovering from. Wine's trumpeted growth in the past 10 years came after a crash that bottomed out in 1993, with per capita consumption down 25 percent from a high in 1986. Wine only regained those 1986 sales levels in 2002. If beer sales dropped 25 percent in seven years, there would be headlines in every food magazine in America about how wonderful it was that Americans were finally getting sophisticated enough to drop beer and appreciate wine, and I'd have to go puke.
(For the record, the United States continues to have one of the lowest rates of wine consumption in the Western world. Croatians, Uruguayans, Slovenians, Slovakians, Argentinians and Macedonians all drink more wine than Americans. So much for the notion that wealthy people prefer wine.)
Enough whining (couldn't help myself). Back to the poll. We have to assume that there's real polling science behind these Gallup numbers, and wine truly is the first choice of more Americans. How to square this with those big beer numbers up above? One possibility, one I really like, is that the people polled are a bunch of lying bastards. "Wine!" they chirp up when the Gallup guy asks them about their favorite drink, even though they've got a fridge full of beer, because they've been beat over they head by the media and its wine writers and they think smart, cultured people drink wine. They want the Gallup guy to think they're cool! He's working a phone in New Delhi, and you're trying to impress him?
Fun to think about, but probably not the case. It's much more likely that while there are more people drinking wine than there were in the past, they don't drink very much of it. (Who would? Do you want purple teeth?) Take a closer look at the numbers, and that comes into focus better. The Website reported that: "The Gallup poll showed wine as the preferred drink of the 30-49 and 50+ age brackets. In the 18-29 group, wine comes third place behind beer and spirits."
Ah-ha! When did you do your biggest drinking? That's right: the under-30 drinker is the biggest drinker by far, always has been. Beer is the first drinking choice of the people who make a drinking choice more often. Wine has shown its biggest gains in the 30-49 age group; it's been the favorite of the over-50 group for a long time. There are a lot of factors on why that's true: my dad has pretty much given up on beer and switched to wine on his doctor's advice, for example, and other people quit because of the whole Atkins carb frenzy and never went back. (These people were fooled into thinking beer has a lot of carbs. It doesn't. One apple has three times the carbs of one beer, but that's a story for another day.)
Are there more wine drinkers today than there were in the past? Probably ... or maybe there are more people who drink wine sometimes. Because there's another damned poll out, this one from the Wine Market Council (which couldn't possibly be self-serving, right?), that finds that more people than ever in America are drinking wine. A large part of that is because drinkers who prefer beer and spirits are adding wine to their drinking mix.
I applaud that. I've recently been ignoring the advice of wine-loving friends and trying some wines on my own, and I've found a number of wines I like, mostly Italian reds and icewines. As another, better-known beer writer, Michael Jackson, put it, beer is a playground, not a prison. I like to go over and play with the wine kids next door sometimes – until their mom sees me and calls the cops – and I sure like to play with those whiskey boys down the street.
Mostly, though, I drink beer. Despite what Gallup reported, so do most of you. And I think, given the way the beer trends I mentioned earlier are headed, it's going to be that way in the future. Maybe we can get more of those drinkers who prefer wine to add beer and spirits to their drinking mix. Maybe we could even get a bunch of beer columnists working on the media angle.
Now ... if you still want to run down to the packie and stave off those wine numbers, go for it. Pick up a sixer of Sammy Adams for me while you're down there, will you? Might as well hedge our bets.