Can Starbucks Transform Americans into Liberal Winos?

In one sense, the United States drinks a lot of wine. Last spring we passed France as the largest wine consuming country in the world. But that is because the U.S. has 5 times the population of France. Per capita the U.S. lags far behind. The French drank an average of about 14 gallons per person in 2008, compared to 2.6 gallons for Americans. And wine consumption lags well behind the consumption of beer and spirits in the U.S.

Why is wine consumption less popular than beer or spirits in the U.S.? I would think it is very much path dependent. The early American settlers were from England—a beer drinking nation. And the Germans and Irish followed—more beer and whiskey drinkers. Although the latter part of the 19th Century brought many Southern European immigrants to our shores with their love of wine, American preferences were already well established. After prohibition it was much easier to establish breweries and distilleries than to plant new vineyards and wait patiently for the grapes to develop.

But cultural factors may play a role as well in inhibiting the growth of a wine culture. In the U.S., wine has always been associated with effete intellectuals out of touch with the mainstream of American life. Wine critic Steve Heimoff puts the point in a political context:

When did wine and cheese become the odious signifiers of those unpatriotic, deviant, nattering nabobs of negativity, the liberals?

I trace it back to the split between wine and beer cultures that Europe saw in the Middle Ages. Where winegrapes could be cultivated in the warmer Mediterranean south, people were Latinized: less warlike, fond of siestas, food, dancing, conversation, good living and lovemaking. In the north, where it was too cold for vitis viniferato grow, people turned to beer; they were Continental tribes, descendants of Huns, Vikings and Slavs, a warrior society not keen on art or philosophy. They preferred drinking beer from the skulls of their enemies.

We see this split echoed today in America, where Dr. Vino last week wondered “…how did light beer come to be the choice of NFL viewers?” Simple. The NFL reflects the Prussianized, warlike, hyper-masculinized psyche many American males believe themselves to embody (or wish they did). Wine is more the beverage of effete people who go to the Opera.

This strikes me as bogus history. Italy, was a bloodbath through much of its history, with cultural baggage left over from the Romans who were anything but peaceful, and the Northern Renaissance followed closely on the heels of the flowering Florentine artistry, with the Germans far surpassing Southern Europe in the production of philosophy and literature.

But the point still stands. The U.S. is a beer culture that has not taken readily to the beauty and subtlety of wine.

Until now.

Since Starbucks has announced it will sell wine, I’m sure the American wine renaissance is just around the corner. The company that taught Americans how to spend $5.00 on a cup of whipped milk dosed with over-roasted wood ash from a forest fire will now school Americans in the charms of soft and sappy “supermarket” wines.



  1. I think you’re confusing the later, Renaissance history of Northern Europe to the medieval times to which I referred. Germany did indeed become a center of European culture, but the split between the Latinized south and the continental north preceded that by a milliennium, as did the accompanying split between a fondness for beer in the north and a love of wine in the south. Of course, the vineyards of the Mosel and Rhine had been developed by the Romans–but those areas were always different from Prussia.

    1. Thanks for the comment Steve.

      I thought your point was that the signifiers (roughly) wine culture=peaceful, beer culture=warlike have some persistence since they have popped up again in the 21st Century, in which case they were quickly disrupted in the late middle ages/early renaissance. But even if we restrict the discussion to the heart of the middle ages, I’m not sure the generalization that Northern Europe was not keen on philosophy holds up. (The case for visual art is a little better, although fans of Bosch and Van Eyck might disagree).

      Although Aquinas, Augustine and Boethius were Mediterranean, Anselm, Scotus, William of Ockham, and Eriugena were from the British Isles, and Abelard from Norhern France (outside the wine region). And Francis Bacon should be mentioned as well. It would be a matter of great controversy among medievalists to suggest the Northern European thinkers were of little importance.

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