The Decline and Divide Among French and American Wine Culture

In France, still I think the undisputed center of the wine world, per capita consumption continues to drop. A new report out of France shows that the the average French adult now consumes not more than 1 glass of wine per day. This amounts to an annual per capita consumption level of roughly 53 liters. To give you a sense of the on going and historic decline in French wine consumption, consider that in 1965 average per capita consumption of wine by French adults was 160 liters!

Whenever I read or hear about declines in French wine consumption (and it’s something I’ve been hearing every year since getting into this business) I can’t help but think about the United States’ wine consumption habits. Even in the face of the stark decline in wine consumption among the French, American per capita wine consumption remains shockingly small in comparison. Annually, Americans consume 11.5 liters per capita. While this number is on the rise, it still pales before France’s 53 liters per capita—a figure that falls behind only Luxembourg globally.

Over the past few years, much has been made of the fact that more wine by volume is now consumed in America than in France and in any other single country in the world. This is a striking factoid, but it only means that there are lots more people in the United States than European countries and lots more high income folks.

If Americans ever rise to the level of the French in their wine consumption, it will not be in my lifetime. And unless that kind of rise comes at the expense of beer and spirits consumption, it would mean that we will have developed a significant drinking problem in this country assuming we remain a country where nearly 40% of adults don’t even drink wine.

My first encounter with the French wine culture came on my first visit to that country in 1985 when I stayed at the home of the parents of my then girlfriend. We all—mother and father, two sisters and a brother and myself—sat down at the table for every meal. At lunch and dinner glasses (not stemware) were placed in front of mother, father, girlfriend and me. Red wine was poured from a carafe, which was filled from a barrel of wine located comfortably in the cellar. No water on the table. No Coca Cola. No fruit juice, except for the younger brother and sister. I quickly learned to pace myself after a disastrous first couple of meals that convinced the girlfriend’s parents their daughter was dating an alcoholic.

I expect French wine consumption to continue to decline. And I expect American wine consumption to continue to rise, both in volume and on a per capita basis. But I see no reason to believe that Americans will ever come close to emulating the French in our devotion to the grape.


17 Responses

  1. gdfo - November 29, 2012

    History. In many places and areas of Europe you could not easily and quickly find drinkable water.
    There were not soft-drink companies, etc. People learned that they could drink wines and beers without drinking fecal compounds that had been leeched into the soils and into the ground waters.

    USA. First settlers were pilgrims seeking to establish christian communities Here there was mor abundant clean water. Many of, though not all, limited drinking of alcoholic beverages. Combine this with the Calvinistic attitudes and you end up with a population that does not drink alcoholic beverages as much per person as some countries in Europe.

    Add to the mix the evangelical types who inadvertantly promotes the evil joys of gambling and drinking and such. Now you have some segments of USA populations who are taught that the devil invented wine so seduce them into depravity. History.

    • Barrel man - November 29, 2012

      I’ve been in the wine industry for over 30 years and I’m so sick of reading columns about how the French are superior wine drinkers, producers, etc. per capita consumption has risen in this country substantially, wine is much more a part of our culture than it ever has been. There is a winery in every state in the union and wineries continue to be built and new vineyards planted. The French sell their superiority as a wine nation but the truth is the US has surpassed France in every aspect of winemaking and as a wine culture with the phenomenal amount of diversity in the wines and foods we produce. I really don’t care about the 40% of the adults that don’t drink wine in the US, that number has continued to decrease (I believe it was over 80% in the seventies). Put together California, Oregon and Washington you have a larger area than France, larger volume of quality wine produced and a wine and food culture that sets the pace for the world. The French can drop off the face of the wine world as far as I’m concerned.

      • CAS - November 30, 2012

        You said : “US has surpassed France in every aspect of winemaking and as a wine culture with the phenomenal amount of diversity in the wines and foods we produce”

        Then : “Put together California, Oregon and Washington you have a larger volume of quality wine produced and a wine and food culture that sets the pace for the world.”

        IT’S ABSOLUTLY UNTRUE.

        Are you a delirious person ?..

      • Lenny - November 30, 2012

        The majority of premium California wine is a joke. It conforms every bit to the stereotype of overblown, manipulated cocktail wine that is manufactured to appeal to one fat lawyer in Baltimore rather than be a complex, food-friendly beverage. It is a house of cards built on pretense, “lifestyle” marketing, the illusion of scarcity as an end in itself and hubris…..massive amounts of hubris.

        I will say that you have one thing right, and that’s the notion that American wine consumers (at least in major metropolitan areas in the NE, West Coast and Chicago) are getting more sophisticated, which is precisely why they are turning their backs on domestic wine in favor of more balanced, food compatible European wines that also offer much better value across the entire price spectrum.

        In 1999, imports accounted for 18% of the entire United States wine market. In 2011, they were 34%. Premium Napa/Sonoma producers can’t give their wines away in NYC, DC or Chicago these days. So yes, the American wine consumer has become much more sophisticated.

        • Tom Wark - November 30, 2012

          Lenny: How do you define “premium wine”?

          • Lenny - November 30, 2012

            Tom, that’s a good question and one that I don’t think is easily answered by merely a price point. If one were to use a rather standard industry price level as a starting point, I would argue that point would start somewhere around $25 bottle retail and move up from there. Now, the next question becomes do you further subdivide that into premium, super-premium, ultra-premium, cult or what have you.

            To me the answer is more nuanced and should be some subjective formula of both price and artisinal production. Is the $40 bottle of Napa Cabernet that is sourced from bulk juice and thrown into a heavy bottle more “premium” than the 750 cases of Muscadet made from a single block of 90 year old vines that have been in the same family for generations but only retails for $13? Is that Muscadet less “premium” than a wine sourced from a more prestigious AOC or DOCG yet through a rather mediocre co-operative for an importer’s private label with undercutting price in US retail shelves the primary requirement for what goes into the bottle?

            For me premium wine is rather reminiscent of Potter Stewart’s description of hard-core pornography. “It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.”

          • Lenny - November 30, 2012

            Tom, let me just add one thing. I guess to me–and wine is supposed to be subjective–I would much rather drink a Sandrone Dolcetto and would consider it a more premium wine and a more premium experience than to be subjected to some private label Fauxrolo from Monsieur Touton.

  2. vinnie - November 29, 2012

    I believe that the decline of wine drinking in France is a direct correlation to the drastic “drinking & driving” law. As a reminder: the legal limit in the US is 0.08% whereas in France it is 0.05%… Here are some of the deterrents
    BAC between 0.05% % 0.08% = fine of €135 (and the loss of 6 points on your licence if resident in France).

    BAC in excess of 0.08% = 2 years in jail, €4,500 fine, the confiscation of the vehicle (and the suspension of the licence or the loss of 6 points if resident in France).

    BAC exceeds the legal limit, and a presence of banned narcotics (drugs) is detected, the penalty could include: 3 years in prison, €9,000 fine.

    This will you make think twice about drinking alcohol…

  3. Blake Gray - November 30, 2012

    I’ve never understood how the French don’t drink more water.

    I was tasting Burgundy all day once and felt dehydrated. I saw a winemaker I know had a pitcher of water in a room where almost nobody else did. I asked for some water. She poured more wine in my glass and said, “Drink wine instead.”

  4. Tom Wark - November 30, 2012

    Blake….I think they are drinking more Fizzy Water.

  5. Tom Wark - November 30, 2012

    Lenny,

    I think you are right that there are two ways to deal with the issue of “Premium”: The standard categorical method based on price point that has long been used in the industry and the more personal, subjective use of the term. I understand you perspective on both.

    We differ on the quality level of CA wine, however.
    Cheers.

  6. Peter Wasserman - November 30, 2012

    I think that there are better and better wines produced world wide today than ever before new world old world alike. Whether you like French or Italian or American is more a matter of your own taste for a particular terroir or production method. Postulating that America or France or for that matter the Canarie Islands is better is total baloney. Its not a competition, its a drink for God’s sake. Just drink what you like and if you have a problem with another region’s wine there are good meds for that!

  7. Tom Wark - November 30, 2012

    Peter, your point about there being more good wines in the world now than ever before is very well taken. I’d argue we are in the golden age of both wine quality and wine diversity.

  8. Austin Beeman - December 2, 2012

    Any discussion of changing French drinking habits has to take into consideration changing religious demographics.

    Anyone who spends more time in France than a mere holiday knows that the under 30-year-old demo in France is a strong plurality (if not majority) Muslim or culturally Muslim. And Muslims tend to be non-drinkers.

    That has to be part of this discussion as well.

  9. Jamie Smith - BTN - December 3, 2012

    Wine is like food. So its not point discussing whats good and whats bad. Everyone has their own taste. Statistics is what we need to worry if we are in the trade and then adopt. If India and China becomes the top consumer in 20 years, then we are all going there to sell…in a nut shell, I will sell who ever will buy the wine and pay me.

  10. Donn Rutkoff - December 4, 2012

    Reply to gripe of barrel man: why is it, that France, still, not Italy or Spain, is still regarded by so many, in all facets, by smart and dumb, snob and drinker, why France is STILL considered to be the wine benchmark? The French certainly don’t spend too many francs, soos, or eurps, to blanket the US with adverts. Diageo probably outspends the entire French wine industry about 5 or 10 to 1 in marketing $$$ spent in the USA. France is blessed by nature and the extensive, multi century, trial & error history to plant certain grapes in certain places to great success. I just washed down a 1998 Pinot Auxerrsois from Josmeyer in Alsace. Fourteen yr old white found in a corner liquor store a day earlier. It stole the day among 15 bottles for Thanksgiving. When that grape was planted, it had centuries of human work history and plant husbandry behind it, and sometimes, that goes a long way. Similarly, our Constitution was crafted by a lot of historically versed revolutionaries. And it has stood the test of time, while most other countries have churned thru many shorter lived constitutions and ruling laws. France is on it’s 5th Republic, right? Italy has new govts. every time women’s skirt lines go up & down. (Huh?) Argentina and Brazil introduce new currency every few years because they screwed up the previous. But French wine still makes waves all around the world. Blessed by nature.

  11. Uwe - December 20, 2012

    I read books in French. We never really used rreaeds too much, I mostly began reading French magazines and newspapers and then moved onto novels. The first novel I read was Camus’ L’etrangere. It only took me about four or five months to become proficient enough to read novels, but I studied French as a second language (Francais langue seconde FLS) at university (similar program to EFL/ESL/EFL for people learning English) and it was pretty intense.Cheers.


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