John JuergensWorld Wine Statistics:
U.S. fourth in production, third in consumption

"In the world rankings of wine, the U.S. continues to be a major consumer and producer, although it is 34th in per capita consumption by country. California accounts for more than 90 percent of U.S. wine production and vineyard acreage." So says the Wine Institute in California. I have also heard it stated that if California was an independent country, it would be the fifth largest wine producer in the world.

Normally, I would never devote an article to wine production and consumption statistics because it is about as interesting as an empty jug-wine bottle. However, I was kind of amazed when I read the above statements and thought it might be worth looking into to see just what this meant.

The U.S. is by no means viewed as a wine consuming nation in the sense that most of the old world countries are. Although we rank something like 34th in the world in terms of adult per capita wine consumption (about 2.4 gallons per person), we represent a huge market. That's how we can also rank third in the world in terms of total consumption (553,000,000 gallons). This also tells me that some of us are drinking way more than 2.4 gallons per year!

By comparison, the French consume about 938,000,000 gallons (16 gallons per person), and the Italians 824,000,000 gallons (15 gallons per person). To put this in perspective, in 2001 we imported about 124 million gallons of wine – about one-half of it from Italy and France – and exported about 80 million gallons, more than half of which was sent to the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan. Interestingly enough, we exported about 1.5 million gallons to France. I guess we have some closet American wine drinkers over there or a gaggle of American expatriates longing for a taste of home.

As Americans discovered wine in the 1970s and 1980s, the big, fruity new world style appealed to our palates because the wine was easy to drink and it didn't take a lot of effort to acquire a taste for it, as can be the case with the leaner and frequently more complex old world wines. And since most of it came from California, the style was not so dependent on which part of the state the wine came from. Plus, the labels were in English.

In other words, California wine was just more accessible and easier to understand than European wines.

The bottom line is that new world wines really began cutting into the old world wine market, and those producers, the French in particular, were and are feeling very threatened. However, most of their neighbors such as Italy, Spain, and the Balkan states, have decided to rise above some of their principles and join the trend rather than fight for pure tradition.

Of course, all those countries continue to make regional wines as they have for centuries, but they have adopted the new world style at least to some extent to hang on to or to increase their share of the new world wine market. Even some producers in France have broken ranks, but, officially, France has been attempting to stack the deck in favor of traditional wine making techniques and old world wines by trying to manipulate the rules that govern international trade.

Several years ago I had the extremely good fortune of being appointed as an “expert” (read that as I knew someone who could get me in the back door) to the health subcommittee of the International Office of Vines and Wines, which is headquartered in Paris, France (Yes, this is blatant name dropping, and I´m proud of it).

The OIV, as it is called, is a quasi-governmental organization composed of official delegates from all major countries, but it is dominated by serious wine producing countries. Its purpose is to try to achieve international harmony, collaboration, and agreement on every aspect of wine production and marketing from germination of the grape seed to ingestion of the final products made from grapes. The U.S. delegates came from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the Food and Drug Administration.

As you might expect, if it has anything to do with wine and it is headquartered in France, the French are going to try to control the agenda. However, the new world wine countries had been developing their own leverage by forming a coalition to go head-to-head with the French Goliath. Although the goal of the OIV is to promote and facilitate the international wine market, the organization frequently takes on the personality of a tug-o-war more than an international wine group-hug, and sometimes a hockey game breaks out at the international meetings.

The OIV is divided up into seven or eight subsections, and each has its own hot button issues. But one of the most important struggles between the old world producers – lead primarily by the French – and the new world producers – lead mainly by the U.S. and Australia – has been the mutual recognition of wine making practices that capitalized on all of the variables that compose the local terroir to make the very best wine possible.

Terroir includes everything in the environment from subsoil to the amount of days of sun and rain during the growing season, and it is directly responsible for the character of the wine produced in any given location.

For the most part, during the last couple of decades the new world countries have embraced the notion of making wines that reflect the local terroir rather than trying to shoehorn their wines into the old world style. New world terroir tends to produce grapes with high sugar and bold fruit flavors, but low acidity. Acidity contributes to the crispness of the wine.

On the other hand, old world terroir tends to produce grapes with greater acidity but lower sugar and more subtle fruit flavors. Generally, these characteristics carry over to the wine, that is, new world wines end up with big, bold fruit flavors with relatively high alcohol levels, but less acidity, and old world wines tend to be leaner, more acidic wines with lower alcohol and more subtle and delicate flavors.

Therefore, in the effort to make well balanced wines the new world wine producers sometimes have to add a bit of acid (called "acidification"), and many of the old world producers sometimes have to add a bit of sugar, a practice known as chaptilization. Without these adjustments, many old world wines would be undrinkable acid bombs with low alcohol, and some new world wines would be soft, flabby, and flat, sort of like an out of work fashion model.

However, with the growing popularity of new world wines in Europe, France has been putting up trade barriers to keep them out of its internal markets because the wines do not conform to their traditional wine making regulations. That is, the artificial acidification of our wines amounts to an adulteration or unacceptable manipulation of the product. They like to use the term "manufactured wines." Somehow this is different than their need to chaptilize some of their wines, which they claim is a legitimate and time honored practice.

In reality, all parties recognize this for what it is, protectionism, but they still play the game. In all fairness, every country has its own protectionist issues and they have to dress up their windows in the manner that will be acceptable to the folks back home and to save face. I was a bit embarrassed, for example, at the way the U.S. delegate team got all indignant and sanctimonious about international efforts to disseminate the good news about the positive health effects of moderate alcohol consumption, which the BATF and the FDA were dead set against. Never mind the table of health experts they brought along who were armed with solid medical data to support those health effects.

So what this all means is that the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, South America, and South Africa have won world wide acceptance of their products, which has done wonders for their self-esteem. They are no longer intimidated by the big old dogs of the old world, and in some areas new world wines are now leading the pack. In fact, about a year ago the U.S. and other new world countries said to hell with France and withdrew from the OIV to form their own new world wine alliance, much to the chagrin of the French. We have finally broken the apron strings and are now making our own way.

My hope is that this will eventually lead to the point of mutual recognition that high quality wine can be made in many different places around the globe rather than drive us farther apart. In today's global community we should be reveling in the wonderful diversity of wines available to us, and we should be doing everything we can to promote appreciation of the wines that result from different terroir, viticultural, and wine making styles rather than erecting protectionist trade barriers to the free flow of wine around the world. If we all dig in our heels on our positions, we just end up with muddy boots. I say, Viva la Différence and Cheers!

July 12, 2002

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