Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Generational Roles in the Demise of the French Wine Drinking Culture

French wine drinking culture is dead.  So says Marion Demoisser in her book French Wine Drinking Culture ..., where she details a number of changes in French wine production and consumption which have had material, deleterious effects on the "strong national wine drinking culture."  According to Demoisser, a key indicator of the death of the French wine drinking culture is a decline in consumption, a decline that can be attributed to a number of factors: (i) wine has been replaced by water and other beverages in many instances as the liquid accompaniment to meals; (ii) a government clampdown on drinking and driving; (iii) an increased focus on healthy living, especially among the younger generation; and (iv) an increase in beer consumption among young people.  In a recent journal article ("The representation of wine in France from generation to generation: a dual generation gap." Int. J. Etntrepreunership and Small Business 13(2), pp. 162-180, 2011), Lorey and Poutet provide additional insight into French wine consumption and the roles played by successive generations in its decline.  We examine the Lorey and Poutet research and findings in this post.

The table below shows the decline in French wine consumption using a number of different indicators.  The table shows both overall and per capita consumption declining markedly, even in the face of an almost 50% population increase since the beginning of WWII.  It also shows the precipitous decline in people who drink wine on a daily basis and a significant increase in the people who self-identify as non-drinkers of wine.

Looking at the declines in consumption, the authors wondered whether they were reflective of a shift in the way that wine was imagined or thought of (The way of thinking or imagining about an item is called representation and is "... a dynamic structure which evolves and becomes different with the passing years and social changes, under the influence of culture and social practices.").  Further if such a shift had taken place, could its tracks be followed across generational cohorts.

In order to answer these questions, the authors undertook a research study whose objectives were to (i) describe and assess the representation of wine, and its relation to consumption, for a generational cohort comprised of people over 65 years of age; (ii) conduct similar exercises for a 30-40-year-old cohort and a post-1980-birth cohort; and (iii) compare and contrast the results.  Data for the study were collected from subjects in face-to-face interviews.

The research shows the over-65 generation as key markers for a French wine drinking culture: they consume wine on a daily basis; they view wine as a symbol of French culture; they feel very strongly about the generational transmission of this very French patrimony and were very forceful in identifying the father as the person responsible for transmission; they see wine as a healthy, therapeutic drink; and they are not impacted by drunk-driving campaigns.

In examining the data for the 30-40 year-old cohort, the authors note what they call "the first generational gap."  This group drinks wine occasionally and wine becomes the preserve of social groups -- rather than society wide as in the older generation -- that seek to promote it as a status symbol.  It is also in this group that we first begin to see concerns about drunk-driving beginning to take hold.

There is a second generation gap for the cohort born after 1980.  Wine drinking in this group is reminiscent of the way that champagne is drunk in the US -- occasionally and for special events -- and wine loses its cultural identity as fathers from the prior generation fail to pass on the patrimony.  It is in this group that wine begins to take on the mantle of a "hazardous product."

With the insights provided by this data, the demise of the French wine drinking culture is easily tracked.  The baseline group (over-65) represents the epitome of French wine drinking culture; and they continue to consume wine according to their beliefs but in declining amounts as members of their cohort die off.  The 30-45 group has elements of the wine drinking culture passed on to them but they begin to go their own way and drink wine occasionally or as a part of a special group.  So during the time when these two generations are in their "wine-drinking years," the over-65 generation is fully engaged while the 30-40 group is only partially so.  And the consumption numbers reflect this situation.  Then along comes the post-1980 generation and they contribute almost nothing to the pot: occasional/exceptional drinkers; no wine culture; and, furthermore, beginning to look at wine with upturned noses.  So now in society as a whole, we have the older generation fully engaged (but their numbers declining), the middle generation partially engaged, and the post-1980s acting as a drag on the system.  The picture that emerges is of a declining national engagement in wine drinking with the resultant decline in consumption.  Hence the statement regarding the death of the French wine drinking culture.

The French wine drinking culture has given way to what I call the Unitary wine drinking architecture.  According to Demoisser, the forces in France have led to the culture transitioning from a perception of ubiquitous wine knowledge to a three-tiered society with (i) 38% of the population (2005 figures) self-identifying as non-wine-drinkers; (ii) a middle grouping -- which she characterizes as the "wandering drinker" -- that has limited knowledge and only drinks occasionally; and (iii) the wine lover.  Given the technologies available today, and the international nature of wine opinion making, this architecture will likely prevail.


  1. Keith,
    Such fun to talk tonight! Thanks so much for keeping me company on last evening in Milan and so sorry you had to get emergency room in hotel but perhaps you can give this a twist in a blog post; lol!

  2. You call it emergency, I call it emergent. Anyway, really enjoyed your company and wish you continued success in your ventures.