Wine, says political scientist Tyler Colman, stands out in this age of globalization as a uniquely local product. It's made according to distinct, regional production protocols, and the end product reflects its origins. His interest in that dynamic led to his Ph.D. thesis as well as his book Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink. Now known as Dr. Vino, Colman says the current economic downturn is unlikely to inspire Americans to drink less. He spoke with U.S. News about why wine is still considered a drink for elites and why the United States had so much trouble making wine. Excerpts:
Why did France originally become such a center of wine production?
France had an easy fit with vines, the soil, as well as the society. Wine has been grown in French territory for thousands of years, and consumed a lot, especially in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The society has traditionally glorified wine. It's been one of those iconic aspects of being French, along with a beret and a baguette.
The new American colonies, on the other hand, did not produce such good wine. Why is that?
King James, a fan of the fruits of the vine, wanted to develop the American Ccolonies as a wine-producing area so he wouldn't have to trade with archrivals France and Spain. He was optimistic when he heard that huge grapevines were growing naturally. He ordered the colonists to make barrels of wine and have them sent back. It was horrible.
Even in Thomas Jefferson's day, a couple of hundred years later, when he retired to Monticello and made wine, it didn't do that well. It was a multicentury conundrum—why wine could not grow in America. The problem was that [the grapes native to America] were a different species, with a thicker skin [and resistant to local pests]. Now, [American wine producers] take the American root and graft it on the European top, so it's resistant to the bug but produces delicate fruit.
Many states have rules about keeping liquor stores closed on Sundays or not selling wine before noon. Why do we have such strong regulations?
It derives from our Puritanical roots, which is what the temperance movement was based on. This [regulation] does disadvantage the consumer. It really reduces consumer choice and often raises prices. The funny thing is, if you look at France and America today, we're going in different directions.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, there's been a decline in the consumption of wine in France for a lot of reasons. There's been a crackdown on drunken driving and also consumer health. In 1991, the minister of health pushed through a law to ban alcohol advertising.
In America in 1991, there was a 12-minute segment on 60 minutes extolling the health virtues of red wine. It was the opening for the Mediterranean diet and the French paradox—they have low rates of coronary failure [despite a rich diet]. That's when you saw wine consumption take off, and it's continued unabated since. We're in a bull market for wine, while in France, it's heading the other way. France is still ahead of us because there are large parts of America that don't drink wine, but we'll pull ahead of them next year.
What parts of America don't drink wine?
Predominantly in the South. There's a lot of consumption on the coasts—in the Northeast and West Coast. You still have a lot of counties that are dry in the South. Not that you can't consume alcohol, but they prevent the sale of it.
Has wine always had the reputation of being somewhat of a drink for "the elites" compared to beer? Certain presidential candidates have been criticized for preferring wine.
Although people are drinking wine more than ever, and at all price points, there is a lingering perception that it's an elite drink. But that said, wine in France has been poured for kings at the royal court but also at the table of peasants at regional feasts and everyday meals. So it really spans a socioeconomic range in France and Europe more generally. And you are seeing [wine being consumed] here everyday, as well, but for some reason it got stuck in popular consciousness as an elite thing.
How is the down economy affecting the wine market?
The preliminary evidence so far is that wine and a bad economy are not a bad mix. Consumption has increased for the past 15 years, and there have been some economic downturns during that time. In this downturn, some consumers may trade down. Instead of the $15 bottle, they may get the $10, or they may start eating at home more, which is one way to extend your wine dollar. A $50 bottle at a restaurant will be about $15 in a store. So they may trade down in price, but America has been bitten by the wine bug regardless of the economy.
What are your own wine habits?
I like light-bodied red wine. Some of my favorite grape varietals are pinot noir, Barbera, and Loire. Both red and white, and some sparkling wines, are often on our table.