Monday, January 14, 2013

Rant: The Colonists, Football & Pretentious Wine

Wine is pretentious and elitist, best suited to the upper classes while beer is more the drink of the common man. Or at least that is how many Americans seem to view the two beverages. While many Europeans may view wine as an ordinary drink, a common accompaniment to their meals, far less Americans view it through that prism. And it has been that way since the founding of our nation.

The original Jamestown and Plymouth settlers brought beer and malt with them and it was their favored alcoholic drink. "The colonists’ interest in beer was understandable: it was the most important beverage in England, so much so that English families expended an estimated one-third of their budgets on malt for brewing." Besides continuing to import beer, the colonists also brewed their own beer, creating a wide range of different flavored beers.

The "...colonists tried virtually anything to brew and flavor their beer, including wheat, cornstalks, maple sap, elderberries, gooseberries, nuts, bark, various roots, pine chips, hemlock, and assorted leaves."  The most commonly brewed beers included those made from molasses and those from the berries of persimmons. George Washington was a big fan of molasses beer.

Wine was imported too "...but many colonists eschewed it, considering it pretentious. For the most part, wines were favored by the upper class." As today, price was an important factor in which wines were the most popular. "Wines imported from Europe were taxed, whereas wines imported from European possessions were not. As a result, wines from the Portuguese Azores or Spanish Canary Islands were less expensive than those from Continental Europe, and these wines became popular in colonial America." As we can see, wine attained a reputation from the start as being seen as pretentious and that image remains with us even today, though there are cracks in that facade.

How do we shatter the perception of wine being pretentious and elitist? Currently, the U.S. market is divided into approximately 52% beer, 32% spirits and only 15% wine. Since 1995, shares of spirits and wine have increased while shares of beer have actually decreased, by nearly 9%. Despite the increase in wine consumption, there is still a long road ahead before it becomes more widely consumed. For four hundred years, wine has been seen as pretentious so that is a significant obstacle to overcome and it won't occur overnight.

Over the last few years, there has been much talk of the “democratization” of wine, efforts to make it more accessible to the common person. Such efforts have been made by producers, marketers, retailers, writers, and more. For example, the rise of wine blogs is one such effort, the ability of any person, of any knowledge level, to write about wine, to share their thoughts and experiences. There are some wine blogs which perpetuate the aura of pretension, but the vast majority work at making wine more accessible. As another example, there are more wine stores now that aim at lowering pretension, trying to make the purchasing decision much easier for their customers.

Most of their efforts are still in their relative infancy and efforts need to be continued and expanded. Yesterday, I worked at the wine store and football was on the mind of many, important playoff games to decide who would battle in the conference championships next week. The drink of choice of the majority of customers was beer, not wine. Consider also how many beer commercials you see during football games. Who tailgates with wine? Will we one day see wine become as common a choice for sport events as beer? If that day happens, maybe we can truly say that wine has become democratized.

Do you contribute to the stereotype of wine being pretentious or do you help defeat it? If so, what do you do to help fight the perception? What do you drink for sporting events? And why? We all need to contribute to enhancing the perception of wine.

All of the above quotes are from Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages by Andrew F. Smith (Columbia University Press, November 2012)


Jason Phelps said...

I reckon a few key points were missed here.

You touch on this one, but not completely. While the origins of many of those who emigrated to America are both beer and wine cultures, rooting the beer culture in the new land was easier. That happened almost immediately, where native wine took much longer. We developed a taste for what we could easily make. Wine was expensive. And for what it is worth cider was America's beverage before Prohibition.

If you extract all the plonk, crap beer from your stats and just focus on craft beer, beer made in the same way interesting worthwhile wines are, you have a more fair comparison. And this comparison is both in product AND people. It is likely still going to be skewed numbers-wise, but America is a beer culture, so I am not surprised. Furthermore, craft beer people can be elitist just as well as wine people can.

What happened to all the jug wines from back in the day? That is the Budweiser of wine world, but somehow we made it pooh-pooh and low class to drink that stuff. We can't be a wine culture without table wine. We do have Yellow Tail and Bella Sera, etc, but I think most of the consumers think it is a step above the jug wines. Is it? Maybe.

Cheap beer is still cheaper than the cheapest wines, and thus more appealing to the common, working "man".

You didn't happen to mention that you aren't a beer person. Not having a taste for it diminishes your desire to seek it out and be exposed to the cultural context of it. You might find a vibrant celebration of food and drink there if it was more to your liking. I know I do.


Richard Auffrey said...

English colonists already came with a prejudice in favor of beer. And the beer they were used to could not cheaply or easily be made in the colonies. Instead, they had to make beer from a variety of other substances, hence the popularity of things like persimmon & molasses beer. Wine probably could be made as easily, and cheaply, as beer if they used native grapes and other fruits. Though they made some such wine, beer remained far more popular. When cider production began, it was even cheaper to make than beer, so it became more popular.

Yes, there is a craft beer contingent that some may consider pretentious, but the "wine" as a generality is considered pretentious by many, and they don't just refer to the more craft wines out there.

Jug and inexpensive wines still exist, and in large numbers. Think of Two Buck Chuck. 2-3 bottles of Two Chuck can cost less than a 6 pack of Budweiser. How many $2 six packs of beer exist out there? It has to be more than simply a matter of price, as plenty of wines exist which actually cost less than a number of beers. Price is important but it is one one factor in the purchasing decision.

Why did I need to mention that? I have mentioned it plenty of times before and it is irrelevant to this topic.

The premise here is simple. Wine is seen as pretentious by many, and I believe that perception needs to change.