Creating American Wine Culture

 “Wine is sunlight, held together by water”, Galileo Galilei. It is a favorite quote of mine, a beautiful turn of phrase, and for me, an absolute poetic truth. Wine factors into my life in subtle and less than subtle ways. As winter approaches, I settle into my nightly routine with a glass of something rich, heavy, and red – something that holds a bit of foreboding, something dark, something refined. Every spring, my attention turns to luscious, soft, pink rosés. They are vibrant, delicate, and sensual. Wine is more than a drink, it is a touch of poetry in a glass that grounds the season and establishes a dining pattern for myself and my family, though they probably don’t really know the connection between my wine habits and what I tend to cook. But as an American, I know that am an exception to the rule in this regard.

In per capita wine consumption globally, the United States ranks 39th. That’s one spot behind Bulgaria. We even trail Iceland, Canada and Estonia (34, 33 and 32). But while the US is 39th in per capita consumption, we rank 4th in wine production. In addition to sheer scale, American winemakers produce some of the best wine on earth. Wine better, cheaper, and more available in the US than it ever has been. And yet, 38 countries enjoy more wine per person than we do. But to my mind this isn’t discouraging, it’s exciting. Very, very exciting.

People who gravitate to wine imagine that everyone has at least a few bottles on hand, this isn’t the norm everywhere in the country. And looking at the statistics it would be easy to assume that wine is not as much a part of our culture of food and drink. Our country’s winemaking history dates to the arrival of British settlers in New England and the Spanish settlement of the Southwest. When Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida in 1513, he was followed by Spanish and French Huguenot settlers who began making wine with the native American grape, Muscadine, as early as 1565. So wine is quintessential to our history. But looking back on the timeline of wine production in the US and it’s loss of ground to other alcoholic beverages, we are in something of a rebound. That said there are wineries in every state now, from Alaska to Florida. It’s no longer a matter of Napa.

If we contextualize the actual per capita amounts of wine we drink, it comes out to about 3 gallons of wine per year, or about a bottle a month. The French drink 15.3 gallons a year. So there is clearly room to grow. But wine is part of French culture – it’s part of the national identity (along with Luxembourg, Argentina, Austria, etc.). The question is, how do we make it part of ours in the US?

A study of 2,000 wine drinkers showed that the average Americans will only start to fully appreciate a good bottle of vino toward the tail end of their 20s, but how they get into it, and what they prefer, varies greatly. But the most common way Americans get into wine is from a friend, with 30% reporting that’s how they originally tried it. One in five discovered it on their own, and 17% were drawn into wine by a partner. So relationships tend to be the dominant entry point.

The question is, can you take those simple introductions into a craft and turn them into something bigger? Can you create a rite of passage, a “wine awakening”? Imagine travel packages specifically targeting the expert and apprentice, so to speak, that makes the process smooth, unintimidating, and transformative. Or fostering a practice (e.g. a holiday) that celebrates a person’s graduation from the days of rum and coke and sloppy Saturday nights into a world of refinement and reflection. Or meal prep delivery services that include wines and points of discussion. The point is, there is an opportunity to turn wine from a mysterious consumable to a cultural symbol.  

The good news is that wine is on the rise. The upward trend for wine consumption in America is positive, and expected to keep growing at a small but steady rate of around 2% to 3 % per year. Consumers are finding more reasons to “celebrate” with a bottle of wine or drinking more wine when a bottle is opened, and in some cases doing both. But the process is slow and unlike other drinks, wine has yet to become an American cultural standard. It is still mysterious, threatening, and perhaps a touch too sophisticated in the minds of some. But with mystery comes curiosity. With threat comes excitement. With sophistication comes transformation. Those all represent powerful tools for creative problem solvers.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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