The Paradox of Wine Democracy

supermarket wine aisleMy post yesterday on the outdated charge that wine lovers are snobs got me thinking more about the democratization of wine. Wine and wine knowledge are now available to almost everyone, anywhere. It is no longer a beverage for the wealthy or those who want to appear wealthy. But that availability does have a downside that might explain why, even before Covid 19 ravaged the wine business, the growth in wine sales had plateaued.

My point will require a brief tour through the history of the wine trade in the U.S.

After prohibition and the Great Depression, it took many years to revitalize the wine business. Wine sales grew steadily but slowly through the 1950’s and 60’s and most of the wine consumed was cheap, sweet, and very high in alcohol. Basically it was so called “bum wine”—Thunderbird, Ripple, and Wild Irish Rose. Yet, by 1978, 70% of wine sold in the U.S. was dry (or relatively dry) table wine and wine sales were rapidly growing. A combination of soldiers returning from Europe, better transportation that facilitated vacations in Europe, and a growing interest in food planted the seeds for Americans to emulate the French approach to wine—dry, nuanced, food friendly, and a source of aesthetic experience. The wine trade was quick to recognize the symbolic power of this image of wine and created an imaginative discourse in which wine came to symbolize a life of refinement, luxury, sophistication and romance.

For the boomer generation wine was an aspirational beverage, the consumption of which meant you had your eye on the prize of upward mobility.

But success often plants the seeds of failure. Wine has become too successful and can no longer serve those aspirations. It is too widely available to be the the exclusive domain of the upwardly mobile. It can’t be a symbol of wealth and expensive tastes if everyone is drinking it. Thus, wine no longer has the symbolic charge that made it fascinating and warranted the high prices some consumers were willing to pay. As boomers age out of the market there is no similar symbolic reference to give wine special status.

This is not to say that wine has no capacity to serve as a symbol. Wine still symbolizes community, sociality, conversation, and good cheer (once we can meet face to face again). The problem for the wine business is that for wine to serve that function it need not cost $50 per bottle. A $15 Rosé will do just fine.

I suspect in the future, the market for fine wine will be largely wine lovers seeking the kind of aesthetic experience that only wine can provide. Hopefully, there will be enough of us around to support the kind of wines we want to drink.

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