Monday, June 13, 2011

Further Thoughts on an "American Wine Culture"

Recently, there have been a number of articles (Orlin, Wine: The View from Orlando, Inside IWM, Zester, Fermentation: The Wine Blog)  debating the presence or absence of a wine culture in the US.  In my article I took the position that America does not have a wine culture.  I will hold to that and provide additional reasons for my position.  I propose that while the US does not have a wine culture, there is a wine drinking culture within its borders.  And third, the discussion about national wine cultures obscures the really interesting development: the rise of a world wine drinking culture and the role of the US in the development of same.

First, some definitional issues.  The articles mentioned above speak of a wine culture but if you look at the Zester article, it is focused on wine growers.  The intent in my prior article was to focus on the wine consumer.  With this duality of possibilities in mind, I propose that national wine culture = national wine drinking culture + national wine growing culture and that national wine growing culture = region1 wine growing culture + region2 wine growing culture ...  The implication is that both a wine growing and wine drinking tradition is necessary in order to have a wine culture.  Theoretically, a country/region can have a wine drinking or wine growing culture without having a wine culture.  And yes, I do believe that hundreds of years of experimenting with grapes and soil have led to knowledge of the best locales for specific varietals.

Now back to my thoughts on whether or not America has a wine culture.  One of the factors in favor of an American wine culture cited by Orlin in her Huffington Post article was the fact that we had surpassed France (one of the countries known to have a wine culture) in our consumption of wine.  Gross consumption does not tell us much as the US has approximately five times the population of France.  A more meaningful measure of intensity is per capita consumption and, in 2009, France drank 45.23 liters per capita while the comparative number for the US was 8.96 liters (Source: Trade Data and Analysis).  In the consumption table, we are bracketed by Faroe Islands (9.1 liters) and US Virgin Islands (8.69 liters).

The lack of a broad base of wine drinkers is further borne out by comments made by Robert Nicholson of International Wine Associates in a KQED forum on the state of the Napa wine industry. Robert noted that the US market had a strong core of wine drinkers with 20% of the population consuming 90% of the wine sold.  The remaining 10% is drunk by 44 million marginal drinkers, which places a significant portion of the drinking-age population into the non-wine-drinking category.

Finally, the acknowledged wine cultures consume a significant portion of their wine in association with meals.  We do have a fast food culture and wine consumption and the drive-up window do not go hand in hand.  So no, I do not think that we have a wine culture or a wine drinking culture.

But  I do think that there is a wine drinking culture within the US.  In his 1993 paper (Religion and Ritual in American Wine Culture, Journal of American Culture, pp. 39-45), Robert C. Fuller stated "The consumption and appreciation of wine among Americans has gradually given rise to a distinctively American wine culture.  By 'culture" we mean the words, ritualized behaviors, and ceremonies that express -- and shape -- a people's understanding of themselves and the world they live in."  I accept and adopt Mr. Fuller's premise with two narrowing qualifiers: (i) wine culture here is actually what I have called wine drinking culture and (ii) this culture exists within the community of wine drinkers rather than in the broader America.  Mr Fuller goes on to identify some aspects of the culture to include: wine festivals in non-wine-growing areas; lectures, seminars, and structured blind tastings at those seminars; small tasting groups in cities and neighborhoods; zealous sharing of knowledge with anyone in earshot; a language of wine; and the pilgrimage to Napa valley.

So does the US have a wine culture? One that is as expansive as the beer culture, for example?  The answer is a very decided no.  But there is definitely a culture among lovers of the vine.  In my next post I will examine how this wine drinking culture stacks up against the French model.

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