Friday, June 11, 2010

What We Drink, Where We Get It

Spring finally has blown into Sacramento, but I'm still hanging out in the barn, moving 40 years of newspaper clippings and notes from big bales into slightly smaller bales. Among the papers I've newly uncovered is a 1985 report from the Wine Institute comparing the growth of the California wine trade over the previous decade. Statistics can be both enlightening and misleading, but in this instance I prefer to think of them simply as fun. In that spirit, let's compare how the California wine scene shaped up statistically in 1974, 1984 and today, a quarter of a century later:

Table wine's share of the American wine market, table wine being defined as unflavored still wine not over 14 percent alcohol:
1974: 54.9 percent
1984: 73.1 percent
Today: 87.3 percent
Comment: Forget for the moment that a lot of what is being marketed today as table wine exceeds 14 percent alcohol, and that much of it is flavored with as much oak as fruit, if not more. The sociology represented by these figures is that Americans increasingly expect their wine to be more dry than sweet, and that they prefer to drink it with food than as a stand-alone appetizer or dessert wine. As a further measure of that shift, the share of the market held by wines with more than 14 percent alcohol (again overlooking today's high-octane table wines) steadily has declined from 24.7 percent in 1974 to 8.4 percent today.

The U.S. wine market:
1974: 349.5 million gallons
1984: 554.5 million gallons
Today: 767 million gallons
Comment: In 35 years, the United States clearly has become a wine-consuming nation, though annual per-capita consumption among Americans (2.5 gallons today) has increased only slightly over what it was 25 years ago (2.35 gallons).

California's share of the U.S. wine market:
1974: About 70 percent
1984: About 70 percent
Today: 61 percent
Comment: This is the most interesting trend, but what's it mean? Two things. For one, California still is the nation's leading state in the number of wineries and in the acreage planted to wine grapes. Several other states, however, most notably Washington, Oregon and New York, but also Texas, Nebraska, North Carolina and Wisconsin, among several others, have found that they can produce fine wine, sometimes with traditional vitis vinifera varities like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, sometimes with native grapes or French/American hybrids customarily not cultivated in California. Secondly, the 61 percent represents only wine made in California; it doesn't include the wine that California wineries buy in bulk from other countries, ships here, and then bottles and releases from their home bases. If that undetermined figure were included, California's share of the U.S. wine market would be more than 61 percent, though it might not again be close to 70 percent. As I was typing up this post, I received coincidentally the results of the recent Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition. As a measure of the rising quality of wines made elsewhere in the U.S., the best-of-show wine in the limited-production division was a chenin blanc from Washington state, the best-of-show white wine in the $15-to-$30 range was an edelweiss from Nebraska, the best pinot grigio/pinot gris was from Oregon and the best riesling was from New York state. California wines still won most of the high awards, but the competition is intensifying.

California's growth, sign one:
1974: 300 bonded wineries
1984: 662 bonded wineries
Today: 2,972 bonded wineries
Comment: Despite more competition both at home and from abroad, and despite the continuing economic slump, entrepreneurs in California still look to vineyards as a way to self expression and financial reward, and by the next time a census is taken of the state's wineries the total easily should surpass 3,000.

California's growth, sign two:
1974: 322,044 acres in wine grapes
1984: 358,001 acres in wine grapes
Today: 473,000 acres in wine grapes, and possibly as many as 531,000, given that the totals are based on voluntary disclosure
Comment: It just seems that all that growth is due to the immense popularity of chardonnay. All sorts of grape varieties are being cultivated in California, but it is true that chardonnay rules. In 1974, just 10,037 acres were planted to chardonnay in the state. The total more than doubled over the next decade, to 26,143 acres in 1984. And since then it's almost quadrupled, now standing at 94,986 acres.

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