Over the past decade, U.S. wine consumption has set all sorts of records, and most observers expect that to continue. This year’s Silicon Valley Bank report called for a 14 percent increase in high-end wine sales, while a study commissioned by the VinExpo trade show said U.S.wine drinkers will power world growth.
But not everyone is convinced.
“It’s not that I’m not optimistic, it’s that the reality of the market when you look at the hard data of total table wine sales over the past three years following the recession,” says John Gillespie, the president of the Wine Market Council, which tracks U.S. wine drinking habits. The group released its 2014 report last week, and it seemed to be at odds with what the others have been reporting.
Gillespie’s point: After more than a decade of substantial growth, in which per capita wine consumption in the U.S. finally passed that of the early 1980s, sales coming out of the recession were nothing like the previous 15 years. Perhaps, says Gillespie, this more or less flat growth is the new normal, the sign of what economists call a mature market.
Which raises two questions: Why is this happening, and what does it mean for wine drinkers? Gillespie says it’s difficult to know why consumers do what they do, but that the Wine Market Council figures suggest some of us are drinking less wine and more craft beer.
My theory isn’t as nuanced (and doesn’t have Gillespie’s experience or data to support it) and should not be surprising to regular visitors. It’s about price; consumers don’t want to pay the higher prices the industry is trying to impose, and aren’t happy with the quality they’re getting at lower prices. Hence, they’re looking for something else to drink. The Silicon Valley Bank report said producers are focusing on premiumisation, the idea that better quality wine should cost more money. In this, they want consumers to trade up from their $10 and $12 bottles to $18 and $20 bottles.
Could the flat growth that Gillespie sees be consumers rejecting premiumisation? Will we start to look elsewhere, like craft beer, for value? If so, the wine business could face problems over the next decade, since producers expect pre-recession growth. If growth is flat, we’ll have more wine, and especially more high-priced wine, than there is demand for, and prices could collapse again, just like they did during the recession.
Which may be welcome news for consumers, but hardly anything the wine business wants to hear.