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What drives wine drinkers? Price, of course

wine drinkers priceNot that the Wine Curmudgeon had any doubt. But listen to enough people in the business, and especially to the Winestream Media, and it’s scores and romance and tasting notes and about as much foolishness as you can imagine. But we have better evidence than ever that wine drinkers buy wine based on price, in the form of the 2013 Wine Market Council Study.

And what kind of wine do most of us buy, even those of us with deep pockets and subscriptions to the wine magazines? Cheap wine, of course.

More, after the jump:

The slide at the top of this post says it all. Even the group that the study defines as high-end wine buyers purchases more cheap wine than any other kind, and more than half of their purchases cost $10 or less. Which means they’re buying wine that the Winestream Media loves to hate and almost completely ignores — Barefoot, Cupcake, and Two-buck Chuck among them.

You can parse the study anyway you want, but almost every finding reinforces the idea that price matters most:

 • Why do most people join a wine club (and wine club members are some of the wealthiest wine drinkers)? To save money. Almost four in five said it was to get discounts on wine.

 • Restaurant wine sales have “steadily eroded” since 2005, both in quantity sold and in dollar volume. At the same time, the average price of a bottle of restaurant wine has increased to $46 and the cost of a glass has gone up to $10. This is a parallel that would surprise only people who sell wine in restaurants.

 • Almost half of the group that the study defines as high-frequency wine drinkers — those who drink wine more than several times a week — buy “budget” wine (costing less than $20). And almost one-quarter of high-frequency drinkers buy box wine.

• Per capita wine consumption in the U.S. rose 25 percent between 2000 and 2013, an eye-popping total given that it had been mostly flat since the 1970s, and that period included two recessions. The best explanation for the increase? More and better made cheap wine. “Wine is so much more available than ever before,” says John Gillespie, the study’s author, “and is sold by the glass in very casual restaurants, and with the adoption of wine in early adulthood by millennials, you just have a long term trend toward increasing per capita consumption.”

In one respect, the study doesn’t say anything new, and the 2012 report contained some of the same information. But the depth and detail of the 2013 effort is unprecedented, and that’s what makes it so important for anyone who cares about wine. Yes, my colleagues can keep writing about $100 wine, and plenty of people will keep making it. But in the grand scheme of things, even among the wealthiest of wine drinkers, no one really cares.

  • Liz Bennet

    I’m not sure you can make the leap that high-end wine buyers are buying Cupcake, Barefoot and Two-Buck Chuck unless there’s something specifically about that in the study that those of us who don’t have access to it don’t see. The under-$10 market is tough, for sure, but there are other choices.

    I also don’t get why it matters that Wine Spectator, et. al. don’t write much about low-end mass-produced wine. Even you don’t write about them that I’ve noticed from an actual wine standpoint, and I’m guessing that’s because there’s not that much to say. They’re produced to hit a specific price and have every bottle taste the same. The fact that they’re sold in high volume doesn’t on its own mean anyone wants to read about them. People buy them exactly like you might buy mass-produced bread, and they’re sure not looking for what a food writer has to say about that!

    The more interesting stories in the low-price segment are more along the lines of who is making the best box wine, what countries or AVAs are making the most reliable cheap wine and which low-priced widely distributed wines deliver good value. All of those, of course, are in your wheelhouse. And there are all kinds of interesting things going on in the $10-$20 market and in the local wine market (also your wheelhouse), where wineries struggle to provide competitive pricing because of low volume. I’ve tasted some really good Washington Malbec, for example, but it’s going to be hard for it to make inroads because it costs so much more than Malbec from Argentina. Plus France is starting to do major marketing around Cahors=Malbec, and a lot of that is inexpensive as well.

    And I think it stands to reason that in the $100-plus market (the $50-plus market, really, I would expect) the appetite for information is large because the stakes are higher. So even though the vast majority of wine drinkers don’t care, those who do care, care a lot.

    • http://winecurmudgeon.com Wine Curmudgeon

      I may not have done a good job of explaining my point, Liz. The cheap wines I mentioned are among the national sales leaders, so aside from the anecdotal evidence (people piling cases of Two-buck Chuck into their Range Rovers at the Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe), someone is buying those 6 million cases of Barefoot each year.

      I do write about the things you mention like AVAs, widely distributed cheap wines and so forth. I’m a huge advocate of Gascon and Sicilian wines; of interesting cheap wines like Yellow + Blue in its juice box; of the Spanish tempranillo sold at Aldi; and who knows how many others. I do 52 wines of the week, and all of them cost less than $15. Most are $10 or less. And let’s not forget my epic week of tasting $3 chardonnay — http://winecurmudgeon.com/?p=42.

      My problem with the Spectator and its brethren is not so much that they don’t write about cheap wine, but they assume that it’s not worth drinking and that everyone should drink expensive wine. This may work for their business model and make their bosses rich, but it doesn’t do much for wine.

      Your other point is excellent, and is the crux and dilemma of what I do. Food writers don’t write about grocery store bread because everyone understands bread. I write about cheap wine, and my audience is not necessarily wine drinkers, but people who drink wine, because they don’t understand wine. Most of the things you mention are as foreign to them as nuclear physics. My challenge is to find a way to get them here, give them information they need, not scare the hell out of them in the process, and hope they come back. Otherwise, I have to get a real job.

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