Consumption of wine is rising quickly in the United States, and what is happening in Southwestern Illinois is mirroring the trend.
The Wine Institute, an organization of more than 1,000 California wineries and affiliated businesses, reports a 36 percent increase in wine consumption in the U.S. since 2000.
“The U.S. is the largest wine market in the world with 19 consecutive years of volume growth,” said Wine Institute President and CEO Robert P. (Bobby) Koch. “Competition for retail shelf space and consumer attention is intense.”
In 2012, wine sales in the U.S. from all production sources — California, other U.S. states and foreign countries — increased 2 percent from the previous year to a new record of 360.1 million nine-liter cases with an estimated retail value of $34.6 billion, according to wine industry consultant Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.
“Wine shipments to the U.S. market climbed by nearly 50 percent since 2001 and it is likely that American consumption will continue to expand over the next decade as wine continues to gain traction among American adult consumers,” Fredrikson said. “The amazing diversity of choices and exciting new offerings are attracting new consumers and boosting consumption. Among key growth drivers are favorable demographics, a widening consumer base and increasing points of distribution in both on-sale and off-sale outlets.”
Local business people like Stanley and Arlene Browne are tapping into this booming interest in wine, having opened this summer their third Robust Wine Bar location, in downtown Edwardsville.
Stanley Browne said he believes there are a lot of factors helping to create this boom. High-quality wine is being produced all over the world due to improved processes for making it, he says, making the wines more readily available.
Allison Babcock, who, along with David Nagle, is a partner in the Wine Tap — a wine bar and bistro located in downtown Belleville — says the increase in the number of small local wineries and wine bars has done a lot to help accelerate the boom.
“Many times a person can sample a wine at these establishments,” Babcock said, “and that helps expand one’s tastes in wines. Sometimes people are scared of wine and local wineries, but wine bars can help to put them at ease and explore new varieties.”
The explosion of wine businesses, she adds, has made wine less mysterious to people. Twenty years ago, United States consumers did not think about wine as an everyday or dinner drink.
“It was something you had only on special occasions,” Babcock said. “Consumers are beginning to have wine more often with dinner on any given day, not just on holidays and anniversaries.”
The growing interest in wine, says Stanley Browne, is a major factor in the success of his establishment.
“If you opened a wine bar 20 years ago, it would have probably been very challenging,” Browne said. “We opened our flagship Robust Wine Bar in 2007 because wine drinking was clearly on the rise in the U.S. market.”
The process among the American public began in the 1980s when drinking sweeter wines became popular, according to Browne, but he is quick to add that a craze over white zinfandel was another factor.
Babcock says a broad array of customers frequent the Wine Tap, ranging from the early 20s to retirees.
“We get people of all professions and from various backgrounds,” she said. “The most important thing is to be open minded and willing to try new things. It’s OK if you try it and don’t like it. There’s a wine style for everyone.”
The level of affluence in a particular area can be a factor in the success of a wine business, according to Browne, who also believes part of the success in promoting the drinking of wine is related to younger people as well as women’s preferences, easing away from beer.
“We do see a higher percentage of women as guests,” Browne said. “One of the reasons wine is appealing to some women is that beer fills and bloats you too quickly, whereas with wine, one can sip on and converse without this feeling.”
People like to visit wine bars, according to Babcock, for girls’ nights out, date nights and after work and happy hour get-togethers. Having a large selection of wine is a major factor in the drawing power, Babcock says, adding that “many people tell us they feel like they are in Italy or a European bistro when visiting.”
“Guests come to a wine bar,” Browne said, “and they usually stay because of social interaction, to unwind, enjoy food and learn more about the wine. I think a good wine bar offers an expanded experience beyond the average restaurant. What goes with good wine? Good food. Good wine bars offer good food that will pair well with wine, and this keeps guests enjoying the full experience.”
Part of the appeal, too, says Browne, is that wine bars are usually a little more informal. If you want to stop for a quick glass or stay for an evening, they are generally flexible and accommodating.
Babcock says the lengths and purposes of consumers’ visits are varied — ranging from a few minutes for a quick dinner and drink to several hours for the purpose of enjoying a bottle of wine.
Interest in wine has come a long way, in Browne’s view. The consumers all are “thirsty for more knowledge,” he punned, “and for a better understanding of what they are drinking.”
Wine is consumed now by all different demographic groups, Browne says, including younger people who are just beginning to explore it to the older baby boomer set, and most who already know what they like.
“Everyone has a varied palette and wine does not discriminate,” he said.