But enough about millionaire wine drinkers; what about the rest of us? Chistopher Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, has studied the relationship between alcohol consumption and recessions and says that people tend to ease up on booze during lean times, either because they have less money to spend or because they fear that their jobs or incomes may be vulnerable. "There is pretty clear evidence that when the economy weakens, alcohol sales fall," he says. Ruhm thinks one reason for the reduced intake might be that people are less inclined to go out to bars and restaurants; they'll continue to imbibe at home but will cut back elsewhere (if true, this may explain why drunken-driving fatalities also decline during recessions). Interestingly, though, wine seems less sensitive to economic downdrafts than either beer or spirits, which suggests to Ruhm that there is a socioeconomic dimension to oenophilia—that the people drawn to wine tend to be older and more affluent.
And so far, at least, things seem to be playing out almost exactly as Ruhm's research indicates they would. According to Nielsen, bars, restaurants, and nightclubs have seen a sharp falloff in business, and many proprietors report that the customers who are showing up are purchasing fewer alcoholic beverages and less expensive ones (i.e., draft beers and house wines). At the retail end, however, wine sales appear to be galloping along. In a Nielsen survey released in June, 86 percent of respondents said the slowing economy has had little or no effect on their wine buying (similar numbers were reported for beer and spirits sales). The most recent sales data published by Nielsen confirm this: Total wine sales in dollars were up 4.7 percent for the 52-week period ending Aug. 23, and turnover in some price categories showed even better growth—10 percent in the $9-$11.99 range, 8 percent for wines $15 and above.
In addition to its auction business, Zachys has a huge retail operation in Scarsdale, N.Y., which is home to many financiers. Jeff Zacharia, the company's president, says that he has seen no decline in floor traffic to date. Certain wines are having trouble attracting buyers; some high-end California cabernets ($100 and up) are struggling, but their problem seems to be sticker shock more than anything else. "The prices were pushed too quickly when the quality wasn't there," says Zacharia, "so there's a shakeout taking place." But he says other categories, such as 2005 Bordeaux, continue to sell well and that while customers may be opting for less expensive choices, they are not inclined to reduce their wine consumption in the face of all the grim tidings on Wall Street. "Wine is a staple for people now; it's part of the lifestyle," he says. "Instead of buying a $40 bottle, maybe they'll go for a $25 bottle now, but they want wine on the table."
That will no doubt change if the more dire predictions about the country's economic outlook come to pass. But if the bottom really does fall out of the barrel, at least there's a Depression-era song that can be easily updated for our straitened circumstances: Brother, can you spare some wine?