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Our drink of choice? And no, it’s not Bud

Times Staff Writer

What could it mean? For the first time since the Gallup Poll began keeping track in 1992, more Americans have reported that their alcoholic beverage of choice is wine, not beer. Months after Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was caricatured as a Chardonnay-sipping Francophile, and somehow less American for it, the French national beverage seemingly has become our preferred swill.

According to Gallup, 39% of American drinkers said they drink wine most often, while only 36% said they drink beer most often. (The rest prefer liquor, and a small percentage said they like all three equally.) Technically, the pollsters said, the numbers put wine and beer into a statistical dead heat (when the margin of error is considered). Still, the trend inspires speculation: Is the slippery-floored college keg party going to be replaced by civilized gatherings with string quartets? Will American guys trade their beer and baggy board shorts for Petite Sirah and man bikinis? Is our country, in other words, on some ineffable road to effete?

“That wine drinking is more effete than beer drinking? No question,” said Joseph Epstein, author of the bestselling “Snobbery: The American Version.” Epstein happened to be enjoying what he identified as “a promiscuous but ultimately responsible Pinot” when a reporter called him at home in Evanston, Ill. “People who drink wine think of themselves as more cultivated, more educated, more sensitive. I think they are not. I just think they have more money.”

But wine is also more affordable and available than it used to be, said Jodie Morgan, executive director of the American Institute of Wine and Food in Napa. “We have more wine, and we have more good wine, and it’s affordable.” In particular, she cites retailers such as Costco and Trader Joe’s for helping get quality wines to consumers inexpensively.

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L.A.'s French consul general, Phillippe Larrieu, offered to discuss the poll over a glass of wine. For obvious reasons, Larrieu said, he is obliged to serve French wines on the job, but he speculates that more Americans are drinking wine because California vintages, in particular, are so good. “Another idea which comes to me,” said Larrieu, “is that maybe with all these debates about overweight and diet, and I am not a doctor, but I think that beer is more dangerous for the body.”

Indeed, health reasons also came to mind for satirist Brian Unger, whose “Unger Report” airs on the National Public Radio program “Day to Day.” “Red wine is good for everything,” he said. “It prevents heart disease, and I am pretty sure it does cure cancer. And I think it improves your fertility. They’re going to pour red wine into the fuel tanks of the space shuttle, and I think it’s going to work better.”

The idea that wine is wimpy while beer is manly did not resonate with Unger. “There’s a rich history of wine drinking that is very American,” he said. “The Mad Dog 20/20 variety -- that doesn’t seem effete or foreign. In the heartland, where I am from, it was considered a nice red wine.”

Unger thinks the wine trend may have something to do with the popularity of last year’s indie movie hit “Sideways.” Even though its protagonist was an unattractive loser, the movie inspired in some people a powerful thirst. “After seeing ‘Sideways,’ I don’t know anyone who didn’t want to go out and get hammered,” said Unger. “The only ones who didn’t were alcoholics, but even they wanted to drink again.”

Gallup Poll Senior Editor Lydia Saad agreed that “Sideways” might have had an effect on wine consumption, but she is not sure why. “I couldn’t follow the movie very well -- maybe I was watching it too late at night -- so I don’t know.”

What she does know is that even though at least half of her poll was conducted in the early evening, known in some homes as the cocktail hour, people were not slurring their words, and they seemed to be self-reporting their habits honestly.

“I don’t see any reason that people would be inhibited to be truthful about what they drink most often,” she said.

There are many theories about why wine is considered by some to be a less manly drink than beer. “I suppose it’s because beer is connected to football broadcasts and the rest of it,” said Epstein. “Beer ... accompanies male activities.” (On the other hand, the Food and Wine Institute’s Morgan has found a way to feminize her beer; she likes it over ice with a slice of lime. She also mentioned that she had just had a dream about a can of Heineken. Unfortunately, she was at a loss to explain its meaning.)

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Kevin O’Connor, a winemaker who is wine director for Spago, thinks that the masculinization of beer in the culture has roots in American history.

“If you think about it,” he said, “where does a strong beer culture come from? It comes from the British Isles. Look at our food. If you take away Latino food and ethnic food ... everything prior to that is influenced by the Anglo-Saxon kitchen, and that is a limited one, and it carries over to beverages. You could draw a line right to that. That has created obstacles for wine to inculcate in our psyche and culture.”

O’Connor and others trace the rise in wine’s popularity to the economic booms of the ‘80s and mid-'90s, when people had money to spend on luxuries such as fine wines.

This is not great news for the beer industry, which has steadily lost market share to other forms of alcohol for about a decade. In sheer volume, though, beer still reigns. According to the Adams Beverage Group, which tracks the wine, beer and spirits market, 2.8 billion cases of beer were sold or consumed last year, compared with nearly 270 million cases of wine. (This is a growth of 3.7% for wine and a mere .6% for beer. According to Gallup’s Saad, adults under age 30 are drinking far less beer and far more spirits -- in the form of sweet drinks such as Cosmopolitans. Their wine consumption has slightly dropped. “I thought the data on liquor is the most interesting part of the poll,” said Saad, “but no one has called me on that.”)

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Brewer Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Co. and star of commercials for his Samuel Adams brand, said he finds the trend “concerning” but added that “I’m not crying in my beer about this.”

However, try as he might, he could not resist knocking the competition. “I’ve been to these wine tastings,” Koch said dismissively, “and they actually spit it out! We beer people actually enjoy drinking. We don’t have to force it down.”

He believes that wine makers often harbor a secret passion for beer, something he learned at Colorado’s Aspen Food and Wine Festival, where for many years, his was the only beer served. “There are hundreds of wines there,” said Koch, “they’re in a tent pouring for hours, and when they shut it down, where do you think those winemakers go? They want a Sam Adams, because it’s so hot.

“One of them said to me, ‘We got a saying in Napa -- It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine.’ Hey, when you’re on a tractor and it’s 90 degrees ...”

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Koch also recalled that on election day in November, his friend Kerry ate lunch at the Union Oyster House in Boston. Kerry, said Koch, washed down his meal with an incredibly manly Sam Adams beer.

By then, of course, it was too late.


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