Drink, Wine

A Wine Glass Half Empty

America is producing more and better wine than ever, but hardly anyone’s drinking it

One of michael mondavi’s favorite stories, harking back to the dark ages of American wine drinking, takes place around 1969. The California winery he began with his father, Robert, was only three years old, and he was on the road pitching Cabernet Sauvignon to a doubtful citizenry. “I was in Des Moines, staying at the Adams Hotel, which had one of the better restaurants in town,” he recalls. “I went in for dinner and asked to see the wine list. The waiter said they had red or white, and I asked for red. He brought me a glass of port–that was their red wine. I thought, oh my God, do we have a big job.”


In fact, they had a huge job–but three decades later we’re swimming in fine domestic wine. Half a billion gallons of wine were sold in the United States last year, nearly three quarters of it from California, and it’s no longer newsworthy when California wines triumph over their European counterparts in blind tastings. In Napa Valley, home of 240 wineries including Mondavi’s, 5 million tourists a year swarm from town to town, blissing out on sun, vineyards and wine tastings. Many in the wine business credit the Mondavis–especially Robert, 85, a legendary promoter of wine and the good life–for revamping the image of California wine from plonk to plush. As his winery grew into a $300 million business, Mondavi pioneered the notion of wine as lifestyle. He opened his doors to tourists, invited top chefs to cook at the winery and still travels the nation and the world talking up California and Mondavi wines. He’s been photographed so many times genially swirling a glass of red that he’s probably got one permanently affixed to his fingers by now. This fall the family celebrates its past with the publication of Robert’s autobiography, “Harvests of Joy” (Harcourt Brace), and looks ahead to next year’s groundbreaking for the project closest to his heart. The $70 million American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, scheduled to open in Napa in 2001, will be a nonprofit museum-performance-education complex. It’s expected to draw some 300,000 visitors a year, and the family calls it his legacy.

Wine Glasses
Wine Glasses

But for all the celebrating, there’s a strange disconnect here, and the Mondavis know it. “We’ve got a long way to go before we’re Italy or France,” says Tim Mondavi, Michael’s brother and the company’s winemaker-in-chief. Americans are producing wine, we’re selling wine, we’re buying $1,595 temperature-controlled storage units to hold cases of rare Burgundy–but precious few of us are drinking the stuff.

Americans consumed less than two gallons of wine per capita in 1996, compared with 54.2 gallons of soft drinks. Among wine-producing countries we’re fourth from the top: only Italy, France and Spain make more than we do. But among wine-drinking countries we’re fourth from the bottom, just above Iceland. A measly 11 percent of Americans drink 88 percent of the wine. Worse, they’re the wrong Americans–aging baby boomers. No wonder the industry is getting nervous. Retail sales hit $16.1 billion last year, up $6 billion since 1991, but half the wine is being consumed by people 50 and older. As for the rest of the population–a survey by Sutter Home winery revealed that some 80 percent of Americans don’t even own a corkscrew.

Even the French Paradox didn’t affect our drinking habits as dramatically as early reports suggested. On Nov. 17, 1991–a date Tim knows by heart and recites with reverence–“60 Minutes” aired a story suggesting that cardiac health among the butter-happy French could be attributed to their consumption of red wine. Sales of red wine jumped and kept going: they reached 57.2 million cases last year, up 159 percent from 1991. Yet relatively few new drinkers came on board. Most of the buyers are longtime wine lovers. “It gave our best customers permission to drink more wine,” says John Gillespie of the Wine Market Council, a trade association.

All these bleak statistics have finally prompted the industry to take a step Robert has been urging for years: a generic advertising campaign. “Microbreweries are taking over the youth market,” says Robert. “We’ve done ourselves a disservice. Now we’re being forced to do something about it.” In February the Wine Market Council will begin test-marketing TV, radio and in-store ads targeting the 21 million Americans identified by council surveys as “marginal wine consumers”–people who like wine but drink only a few glasses a month. According to the council’s research, these desirable customers, many in their 30s with incomes of more than $60,000, seem to be shying away from wine. Four years ago 43 percent of this group drank wine once a month; last year only 30 percent drank that much. “They think wine makes an occasion too formal,” says Michael, who sees the snob/ceremonial image of wine as the industry’s biggest obstacle. “The old emphasis on the proper-shaped glass, the proper wine of the proper age, served with the proper food–we’re fighting all that. We want to take wine off the pedestal and put it on every table.”

Among marginal drinkers, the subgroup the industry is eying with greatest interest is women in their 30s–“the strongest target for expanding wine usage,” according to council research. Focused on home, friends, family and food, well equipped with discretionary income, these women are considered ripe and ready to drink more wine. Alas, they’re also a group with reason to think twice before ordering that second glass. While most of the medical news about wine is positive–moderate drinkers tend to have healthier hearts and live longer than nondrinkers–some research raises questions very pertinent to women in their 30s. Scientists are still investigating a much-debated possible link between alcohol and breast cancer, and a recent study suggested that women who drink have a harder time conceiving, and suffer more miscarriages, than abstainers. “Our position is that health is an important issue, but the way to discuss it is by edu- cating the press, opinion leaders and the health community,” says Gillespie. “Advertising is not the venue for a discussion on wine and health. This campaign simply allows people to reconsider the perception that wine is for special occasions, and make it seem more friendly and fun.”

For wine that’s friendly and fun, it would be hard to beat Sutter Home’s new Portico line, released in July: two white zinfandels, flavored with kiwi-strawberry and peach-mango, and a red zinfandel flavored with raspberry. (Unlike the old wine coolers, these are 99.8 percent premium wine.) “Everyone in the industry has been wringing their hands and saying we have to appeal to young adults,” says Stanley Hock of Sutter Home. “We thought, maybe if we add fruit flavoring, they’ll give it a try.” If they do, they’ll find the kiwi-strawberry tastes disconcertingly like Jell-O. But Sutter Home tends to know what people want. White zinfandel, the sweet concoction it invented 25 years ago, is second only to Chardonnay as America’s favorite wine.

Mention fruit-flavored wines to the Mondavis, and they get choleric. “We’re losing the credibility of zinfandel,” exclaims Robert. “This has no zinfandel flavor, come hell or high water.” Their own latest wines stick to the high road. Sea is a $50 Cabernet Sauvignon blend made in Chile; and in April the company will release a sangiovese and a pinot grigio, made in Italy, each for about $8.95. As these new wines indicate, Mondavi’s partnerships with wineries in other countries represent an increasingly important avenue of expansion. And they show the family working, as always, with its antennae out. Chile, where Mondavi and many other American wineries have found land and labor cheaper than California’s, doesn’t yet have a fine-wine reputation; Sea is intended to help create one. And the Italian pair will hit two boom markets at once: Italian food, and premium wines in the $7-to-$12 range. “The Mondavis are in every niche there is,” says Stephen Singer, a wine consultant based in Berkeley, Calif.

More important, they’ve learned to carve out niches where nobody’s been before. Three years from now, Disneyland will open a new attraction called Disney’s California Adventure, featuring mini-versions of famous California sights and landmarks. Mondavi has contracted to build a “wine-country experience,” with vineyards, exhibits, tastings, a film and a restaurant. Some 8 million people are expected to troop through every year, meeting California wine perhaps for the first time–and every bottle in sight will be Mondavi’s. Who needs fruit-flavored wines when you’ve got Mickey stomping the grapes?

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