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Americans are drinking more wine than ever

Mark Gibson and his fiancee, Robin Gardner, enjoy some wine Friday before a private dinner, part of the 14th annual Winefest at Sideberns in Tampa.

BRYAN THOMAS | Times

Mark Gibson and his fiancee, Robin Gardner, enjoy some wine Friday before a private dinner, part of the 14th annual Winefest at Sideberns in Tampa.

Aren't we getting sophisticated? The United States last year, despite wars, government deficits and a punky economy, overtook France to become the world's biggest consumer of wine.

We drank 330 million 12-bottle cases in 2010 compared with 321 million for the French, according to California-based industry consultants Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.

We're not ahead per-capita, of course. The average French aficionado drinks five bottles a year to every one downed by an American. But we're going up — at least 1 percent a year for the past 17 years. And they're going down — by 14 percent since 2006.

It's generational, experts say. The big Millennial Generation, born since 1982, is coming of age sophisticated about wine, made comfortable and savvy by their parents — America's wine-loving baby boomers. Millennials are going straight to complex red wines rather than starting with sweet wine, advancing to dry whites and then to reds as have previous generations, says a study by the research group Wine Market Council. They're more affluent, less affected by the recession than older workers.

"The Millennials are a new force," said Chip Cassidy, chief wine buyer for Crown Wine & Spirits' 29 South Florida shops and a wine professor at Florida International University's hospitality school. "We run seven classes a year at FIU, with 40 students each, and they're all full. These kids are just so attentive and interested in learning about wines."

U.S. wine sipping is "driven by many factors including the adoption of wine in early adulthood by the large Millennial generation, the availability of quality wine at all price levels and the acceptance of moderate wine consumption as compatible with a healthy lifestyle," the council report said.

The rise to the top has been a long time coming. The average U.S. adult drank a gallon of wine a year in 1970. Today it's three gallons, according to the Wine Market Council.

Beer consumption, on the other hand, has declined slightly in the United States for each of the past three years — to a mere 3 billion cases, according to the Beverage Information Group. The slump is led by light beer.

French wine drinking, on the other hand, has been slowly decreasing for decades, for reasons that once would have been unthinkable. The French are getting out of the habit of having wine with meals, according to a study by the University of Montpellier. Also, a French campaign against drunken driving has banned sales of wine in gas stations and lowered the permissible blood alcohol level to 0.05 percent, compared with 0.08 percent in the United States.

In the United States, the recession has had an effect. Moderately priced wines are doing much better than the high-priced stuff. Still, "core" wine drinkers — those who have a glass of the grape at least once a week — increased from 43 percent of all wine fans in 2000 to 57 percent in 2010, the council said.

Baby Boomers, now ages 46 to 65, are enthusiastic sippers, taking home one of every four bottles sold in America last year. Overall, wine drinkers who are increasing their consumption tend to like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Those who are decreasing consumption tended to like white zinfandel or blush wines.

Generation X, born 1965 to 1981, now ages 30 to 46, came late to drinking wine, and still lacks the passion of fans both older and younger.

"Generation X turned to fancy vodkas and beers and tequilas," Cassidy said.

The wine industry is pinning its real hopes on the Millennial generation, born 1982 to 2001, as it comes of age. Already, it has added 54 million adults to the U.S. population, with another 16 million to come over the next decade.

Millennials, the children of boomers, are adopting wine faster than any previous generation, the Wine Market Council says. They're relatively affluent, with total annual income of $200 billion, and can expect to inherit $17.8 trillion from previous generations, according to a Nielsen survey.

Also, the council says, "They have been impacted less severely by the economic downturn than older generations and are sustaining their taste for wine."

Millennials are digitally connected, with two-thirds using Facebook and one-quarter on MySpace, YouTube and Twitter. They use social media to seek information about new varieties, prices, and where to buy it. Of those who have smart phones, 39 percent have wine, food, restaurant or bar apps.

"I grew up drinking wine because my father taught me about it," said Alice Price, 24, a West Kendall print shop manager. "I got used to good wine. It made me a pretty expensive date."

Americans are drinking more wine than ever 04/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 9, 2011 8:47pm]
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