Mondavi + America’s Wine Problem

The late vintner helped transform this country into the world’s largest market for wine. So why do so few Americans bother drinking it?

Did you hail the arrival of 2009 with a glass of wine from California? Or, for that matter, a glass of just about anything nobler than Cold Duck? If so, you were honoring the memory of Robert Mondavi, the patriarch of the American wine industry whom we lost last year. Mondavi, who was 94 when he departed for that great tasting room up yonder, did more than any other single person to change the public identity of California wine from unmentionable in polite company to major player across the globe. When he started working in the Napa Valley in 1936, even many vintners couldn’t believe that an American wine would ever be taken seriously by connoisseurs. But Mondavi spent every day of his career in passionate pursuit of a vision that did, ultimately, come true. Today wines from California compete with the best from around the world, and California has become the fourth-largest wine producer after France, Italy, and Spain. Meanwhile, there’s hardly a hot dog stand in America where you can’t buy a glass of Chardonnay; and with wine readily available in supermarkets and discount chains, the democratization of a once-intimidating product appears to be complete. Retail sales of domestic and imported wine in the U.S. last year came to some $30 billion, making the America the world’s largest wine market. Many, many people have contributed to the amazing march of American wine since the end of Prohibition 75 years ago, but Mondavi surely leads the parade.

But there was one miracle even Mondavi couldn’t pull off. For all his hard work and many triumphs, he couldn’t transform the U.S. into a wine-drinking country. We just aren’t. Despite all the two-buck Chuck we’re lugging home, Americans as a whole have never associated wine with daily life. We are stubbornly, doggedly, foot-draggingly unwilling to get with the program. Yes, this country is the biggest wine market; but that market is measured by money spent, not wine consumed. According to wine industry statistics, per capita consumption is less than three glasses a month; and even that pathetic number is misleading. What the industry calls “core drinkers”—people who have wine at least once a week—amount to about 17 percent of the population, and they’re drinking 92 percent of the wine. I’m in that happy percentage, and you’re probably there, too, and so are our friends—but we aren’t typical. Typical is a glass of wine on very special occasions.

Which is why Mondavi was intent, not just on producing and promoting good wine, but on remaking America itself. He had the notion that we weren’t necessarily condemned to swig soda at suppertime, that we could become the sort of people who open a bottle of wine at family meals as comfortably and automatically as we pick up our forks. It wasn’t his fault that this vision ran counter to every other influence in American life, including our entire history.

Wine-drinking nations, I suspect, are born that way. Mondavi and his colleagues managed to create wine-drinking households, which was a pretty remarkable achievement; but it’s not the same thing. As a nation, we have habits that go back centuries and make it almost impossible to incorporate wine comfortably into ordinary life. We eat and run, we swerve frantically between teetotaling and bingeing, we think of food as a necessity but wine as an indulgence, and we wouldn’t dream of raising our children to drink sensibly by offering a little watered-down wine at the dinner table. Wine-drinking nations see wine as an intrinsic part of the meal, a feature so unremarkable that food-and-wine practically constitutes a single entity. Americans just don’t think that way.

The wine industry is well aware of this mindset, of course, and has been determined to change it for years. That’s where White Zinfandel comes in, and wine coolers, and cute packaging—they’re all meant to reassure us that wine is really no scarier than a soft drink and sometimes even tastes like one. But new products don’t get to the heart of the problem, which is that wine doesn’t have any obvious role to play in American culture. Of course it’s a reliable intoxicant, but apart from that, why should Americans bother with it? Wine isn’t a bit useful. It doesn’t speed things up, or teach us anything practical, or help us get rich, or make us better looking. All it does is round out a meal with incomparable charm, which for most people is nice on an anniversary but definitely beside the point on a Tuesday night at home.

Believe me, I haven’t forgotten the main reason why a lot of Americans drink wine; but I’m trying to, because I find the whole notion so depressing. People in this country pour a glass of red in the evening to reduce the risk of heart disease. They drink for the health benefits. In recent decades, study after study has shown that moderate wine drinking is probably good for you (unless it’s bad for you—that is, if you’re pregnant or prone to drinking too much or have any other reason to avoid alcohol). For the wine industry, this is the best news since Repeal. But to put wine in the same category as aspirin and dutifully medicate yourself every day doesn’t make a dent in the graceless culture of speed and artifice that defines American life. Okay, so laboratory mice do way better on the treadmill once they’ve been treated with resveratrol, a component in red wine. So what? Until they can sit at the table with me over a beautiful bowl of winter soup, clink glasses and talk about reading Trollope, I’m not impressed.

There really are health benefits associated with wine, but a laboratory can’t replicate them. They have to do with slowing down for a meal, tasting what we eat and drink, spending time with people we care about, and bringing back the art of conversation. In fact, following this prescription you could skip the wine entirely if you don’t happen to like the stuff—you’re still going to feel better, and all the side effects are good.

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