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Americans are NOT Abandoning Wine!

So, saw this post from the Wine Curmudgeon the other day: Are Americans turning away from wine? In the post, the Wine Curmudgeon cites a Gallup poll indicating that only 30% of Americans indicate that their preferred alcoholic beverage is wine, the lowest number in 14 years. The Curmudgeon then goes on to let us know that this is because of premiumization and craft beer, along with the increase in the proportion of Americans who don't drink.

Is the Curmudgeon right? Maybe some things have some truth to them, but I don't see much evidence presented for his claims. In fact, Americans are decidedly not turning away from wine.

Wait, what?! But the numbers say - I'll stop you right there. I am a skeptic. I need evidence to underpin a belief. The survey gives some evidence that Americans are "turning away" from wine, but we have better evidence at our fingertips. Let me establish that I would consider "turning away" to be defined as "reducing consumption of" or at least "reducing consumption of, relative to common substitutes." Since alcohol is a regulated product, we actually have reliable numbers on per capita wine consumption:

Per Capita Wine Consumption, US

Not only is per capita wine consumption - which is measured across the whole population, including teetotalers and children - rising, but it is doing so steadily, consistently and for about 25 years. Current per capita consumption is not at a 14 year low; it is at an all-time high (at least as far back as the data goes, which is 1934.) OK, so we know Americans are continuing to drink more wine, but then where did the Gallup survey go wrong?

Your first thought may be that overall per capita alcohol consumption must be rising, so wine consumption can increase, while market share falls. That is not the case. Per capita alcohol consumption is certainly not rising as per this source and this one. Of course, I don’t know for sure what explains the discrepancy between the survey and the actual consumption numbers, but here are three things to keep in mind, in order of importance:

  • Just because someone prefers something does not mean they consume more of it. For instance, the number of people who prefer tequila to wine may be increasing, but these people may still be wary of consuming tequila on a weekday. They would prefer to drink tequila, but they also want to hold down their 9-5 job, so they drink wine instead. Similarly, it may be the case that the people who are changing their preferences drink relatively little alcohol. That is, we are losing the low-consumption consumers, while either gaining heavier drinkers or benefiting from established wine drinkers consuming more.

  • Surveys and polls are estimates. Data such as that presented in the chart are basically just counting or adding verifiable numbers together. Surveys and polls tend to exhibit errors much larger than, say, excise tax figures would ever have. Furthermore, and here I am getting into educated opinion, it is my belief that a reliance on basic, Fisherian statistics leads to chronic overestimation of the accuracy of surveys and polls. I won’t get into what exactly that means, but I think a good example would be the New York Times’ estimate that Trump had less than a 5% chance of winning on the eve of the election.

  • The last thing to keep in mind is, I believe, the most important. People don’t know their own preferences. Our brains were made to help us avoid saber-toothed tiger and to catch and eat lizards. They are not ideal for combining introspection with the processing of tons of information in a data-rich world to make choices from a menu of myriad options. We greatly overestimate our understanding of ourselves. This is well-documented in the academic literature (see: Kahnemann, Tversky and Thaler). Studies show, for instance, that our musical preferences do not line up with our choices of which music to listen to. Similarly, our preferences as indicated in a survey may not actually reflect our real preferences. Somebody may see themselves more as a cider, whiskey or beer lover than a wine lover, but actually be more of a wine lover.

Americans are not turning away from wine. The data we have at the moment indicates an historically high per capita consumption of wine that is increasing, even though alcohol consumption is not. Surveys are useful sources of information, but should be taken with a grain of salt and verified against actual measures of behavior. If the assumption that Americans are turning away from wine is demonstrably false, what should we make of the Curmudgeon’s theories that premiumization is turning people off to wine and the beer is eating our lunch?

I would class these as speculation, pending better data. Of course, speculation is the right and habit of wine industry folks, bloggers, well... pretty much people in general. We humans like to explain the world around us with neat narratives, but these do not always correspond to reality. Of course, the Curmudgeon may have better data that I just have not seen, as I do not focus much on retail sales of non-wine beverages. If so, these could add more weight to his theories.

Listened to While Writing This: Kygo, Best of Kygo

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