We have some catching up to do. The world is crushing us in wine drinking.
In volume, because we are many, we are up there with the best of them. But individually, on a personal-productivity level, we are not even a factor. I’m basing this on official statistics published in the newest edition (2015) of “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” and even if there are newer figures available, these are adequate for our purposes.
Hold on to your hats. Globally, in per capita wine consumption, the United States ranks 39th — one spot behind Bulgaria, and barely ahead of Macedonia, Belarus and Albania (40, 41 and 42). We trail Iceland, for crying out loud, and Canada and Estonia (34, 33 and 32). Surprisingly we’re ahead of Kazakhstan (53), because have you seen the way Borat chugs wine?
OK, you’ve held on to your hat — now hold on to your socks. While we’re 39th in per capita consumption, in wine production we rank … fourth. Anyone still wearing socks, feel free to gently release your grip because the bitter, shocking winds are over. Only France, Italy and Spain produce more wine than we do. There are no real surprises in the rest of the top 10 either (Argentina, China, Australia, Chile, South Africa, Germany). China is relatively new to winemaking, but when they set their minds to something, they tend to get results. If you think about it, it’s not all that unusual for something to be made in China. Why not wine?
Besides a few “Hmm” countries, the production list’s 11th through 19th spots are occupied by well-known winemaking countries — Portugal, Austria, Greece, Hungary, New Zealand — and this makes our low guzzling rate only more perplexing. In other words, most countries are ranked where we expect them to be. Of the top 25 per capita consumption countries, about half are known for winemaking, and most of the rest either have lesser-known winemaking traditions or are relatively close to famous winemaking countries.
American winemakers produce some of the best wine on Earth. Our restaurants are as good as any country’s. Wine from the world over is better, cheaper and more available in the United States than it ever has been. It’s in fine wine shops, chain supermarkets (which can stock great wines next to plonk), and quick marts — not far from the fly strips and WD-40. Wine is everywhere!
Or is it? It’s everywhere I look, but I don’t look everywhere. People who pay attention to wine (us) imagine that everyone has at least a few bottles on hand always, or 100 bottles in the basement, or 1,000 bottles in a climate-controlled cellar across town. While all of these things are happening somewhere, they’re just not the norm everywhere in the country. This isn’t a revelation — but perhaps the statistics will inspire us to reflect on our relationship to wine and its presence in our lives.
I can recall every time I have shot a gun in my life. The first was in high school when my brother Tom took me skeet shooting with a shotgun. As a cub reporter, I shot a 9 mm pistol in a police shooting range on two occasions, and about that time I also shot at tin cans in a farm field with a .357 Magnum. That’s it. Guns aren’t a part of my daily life. But still, I don’t need official statistics to know that the United States leads the world by far in per capita gun ownership. Everybody knows that.
In certain parts of our country, gun culture is everywhere. Not gun violence. Gun culture. People who hunt. People who keep a gun at home for protection. People who collect guns. This isn’t a gun debate. The point is, I live in a gun country, and despite seeing evidence of gun violence and/or advocacy almost daily, I am not immersed in gun culture — not even the legal part of it — and I don’t know many people who are.
Looking at those wine statistics could lead one to think that wine is not as much a part of our overall culture as we think. We are probably still a rather esoteric group, we wine people, so embedded in our movement that we don’t realize how fledgling it remains to be. Which, to me, is not discouraging — it’s exciting.
Our country’s winemaking history dates to the arrival of British settlers, but as the population grew and migrated from New England, wine culture got diluted. Standing where we are now and looking back on the timeline to colonial Virginia, some 300 years ago, one could say that we are in the midst of a rebound, with heavy concentrations of wine fanaticism tempered by equal or more amounts of wine apathy, or even aversion. There are wineries in every state now, and more than 6,000 of them from Alaska to Florida and Maine to Hawaii, but still 38 countries enjoy more wine per person than we do.
Those actual per capita amounts? Americans drink three gallons of wine per year — a little more than a bottle a month. The French drink 15.3 gallons a year, but they’re not even the tops. That honor belongs to Luxembourg. Folks there drink 16 gallons. It doesn’t make them better or worse than us. It just means that wine is more a part of their culture, and I can’t imagine that ever being a bad thing. Let’s catch up.