America is not a wine-drinking nation and is not likely ever to be one. Counter to forecasts in the mid-1970s that Americans would turn to the grape faster than vineyards could be planted, consumption has increased but slightly in a decade and is still only 8.4 liters per person per year.
That ranks the United States 31st in the world, behind such wine-thirsty countries as Finland, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and, lo and behold, the vodka empire, the Soviet Union. For several reasons, wine consumption is not likely to catch the fancy of Americans and change that ranking dramatically.
First, there is the wine industry's ridiculously elitist advertising. It is difficult to imagine many readers accepting wine as a drink of the masses when bombarded with ads that show men in black tie and women looking like high-fashion models just back from a shopping spree on the Rue St. Honore'. The absurdity is that most of these advertisements are by inexpensive, California jug-wine producers. I dare not suggest that these wine advertisements should resemble those of fast-food chains, but certainly they could have a much broader appeal than just to those whose life consists of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.
If advertising promotes the myth of wine as an esoteric beverage of a few wealthy aristocrats, the pricing of wine at the great majority of restaurants most certainly guarantees that no one of moderate means can seriously consider this splendid nectar of moderation with a meal. Awareness of the increasing percentage of discretionary income spent eating out is enough to make one realize that the cornerstone of increased wine appreciation in this country is the restaurant table.
Yet, restaurants, by treating wine as a beverage for which one does not mind getting ripped off on a special occasion, have effectively halted any growth in wine appreciation. The majority of American restaurants mark up wine 200 to 500 percent above their cost. For example, a simple pinot grigio that costs the restaurant $4 will be found at $16 and up. A bottle of $10 California chardonnay will be found for $25-$40 at many restaurants.
If you are eating out on a corporate expense account, this is hardly a problem, but if you only want a night out away from the kids it seems much easier and a heck of a lot quicker to just have a martini or gin and tonic than spend $30-plus for a bottle of average-quality wine. Restaurants will argue that the cost of maintaining a wine inventory for long periods justifies such charges. However, except for a handful of restaurants in this country that buy wines for cellaring and serving in the future, the preponderance of American restaurants are engaged in nothing but plain and simple price gouging.
Little do they realize that in effect they are actually precluding a wider recognition of wine as a beverage of moderation and something wonderfully complementary to the food they are serving. Local wholesalers who sell wines to restaurants will privately attest to the fact that markings above 100 percent over cost are quite standard and, from their point of view, counterproductive to the enjoyment and understanding of wine. Yet, when asked if they are willing to put pressure on restaurants to lower prices, the answer is a unanimous "no," for fear of losing a sale.
Consequently, the image of wine as an elitist drink for the rich is well assured with such pricing practices. I will admit that 10 years ago the situation was even worse than today, but wine will never become widely appreciated in this country as long as wine pricing remains as it is.
If pompous wine advertising and exorbitantly priced restaurant wine lists aren't enough to impede American wine consumption, consider two other factors. In addition to the neoprohibitionist movement that is gaining strength throughout the country, there is the nightmarish specter of more wine scandals over harmful chemical additives increasing the apprehension of potential wine drinkers.
All this is rather sad, for wine, when enjoyed in moderation, is a healthy, fascinating beverage with enormous potential for broad public appeal. In fact, it has enjoyed such a reputation since the history of mankind began. Whoever said in vino veritas, would certainly be saddened by the state of wine appreciation in America today.