Field Maloney was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, May 31, to examine the factors that have boosted wine's popularity over beer, the options brewers have for reclaiming the lead, and whatever other questions readers have about alcoholic beverages. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Field Maloney: Good morning, everyone. My name is Field Maloney, and I just wrote a piece for Slate on beer and wine in America. I'm here to answer—or try to answer as best I can—your questions.
Lincoln, Neb.: You say that the American model of "the good life" shifted from a model based on Northern Europe to a model based on Mediterranean life. I think you're right. Do you have any idea why this happened?
Field Maloney: It's hard to pinpoint precisely the factors behind large cultural shifts like that. Partly, it seems like these things happen because of big personalities at the right time: someone like Mario Batali say. David Brooks wrote a great book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, that examines these cultural shifts—I think of it as a great loosening up of American culture.
Gaithersburg, Md.: I am a wine lover who wants to enjoy beer, but I find it a tad too bitter. I currently drink Belgian Iambics when I can find them (Lindemans's Framboise, etc.) ... what else can I try that is along that "sweet" line so I can have more options when I don't find this offered at an establishment? Thanks!
Field Maloney: I'm not a beer authority, but I think a lot of the American craft-brewers are making ales that are fruit-inflected these days, and they usually have a touch of sweetness. (The best ones, like Lindemans's in Belgium, use real fruit. The lesser ones add fruit concentrate or even just fruit flavoring and sugar.)
Falls Church, Va.: Who at the Post thought it would be a good idea to schedule a discussion of wine and beer at 10 a.m.? Do journalists think that everyone shares their habits of drinking in the morning? Obviously this is subject matter better suited for the late afternoon.
Field Maloney: Very good point. I'll get to it once I finish my morning cocktail.
D.C. Wine Blogger: I love this topic! Thanks for surfacing it and for your insight, particularly into the passion vs. refinement question. I think there are a couple other reasons for wine's ascendance that you didn't mention in your article: More people are beginning to realize (consciously or not) that wine and food enhance each other, but beer is a refresher that washes food down. A lot of wine—or at least wine in the under-$20 category—has been dressed down and become more democratic ... even more democratic than the Robert Parker descriptors of tobacco, cassis and chokecherries. I think the boom in "critter label" marketing and also in wine blogging by casual enthusiasts—who review wine in haiku poetry and in profanity-laden language—is a testament to this point. I'd be interested to know whether you—or the other chatters—agree with this. Thanks!
Field Maloney: I agree with you completely—the "critter label" phenomenon, most notable with Yellow Tail, had a huge impact in making wine seem more informal and approachable to Americans. I do think beer can be more than just a "refresher" with food—that is, I think its flavors can play off the flavors of food nicely.
Somerville, Mass.: A lot of your article discusses the effect of marketing and image. I've always understood one truth of marketing to be that if you target a specific group (for this comment, we'll use "the well to do" and "the ne'er do well") you take a risk of offending another, opposed group. If this is true, as wine becomes more popular with the ne'er do wells, it will lose some of its appeal to the well to do? Beer has addressed this problem, kind of, with the advent of craft brews. Has something, or will something, similar happen with wine?
Field Maloney: Good question. I wrote about this subject in a piece I did for Slate on golf and tennis. The trick for marketers is always to expand their audience, without losing the aura of exclusiveness and prestige that has made their product aspirational in the first place. How do you increase your marketing share without watering down the exclusiveness of your brand?
Oakland, Calif.: One thing your story did not address, but made all the difference for my extended family: the influence the women in the family have on what is offered at family gatherings. Most of the women in my family don't like the taste of beer, nor how it fills them up. When the U.S. started to offer locally made wines that tasted fabulous, my family started to migrate toward serving wine at family functions instead of beer because it is the women who arrange our family gatherings. Once the men had tried wine, they found out they liked it as much as beer. We now serve only wine at family gatherings.
Field Maloney: This is a very interesting point. I think the power women have regarding what goes on the American table probably hasn't been explored enough. (And I wonder how it has changed through the decades and centuries. Is it greater or less now than it was, say, 50 years ago?)
Philadelphia: Another question: despite the Gallup Poll in 2005 (the 2006 poll put beer back on top, by the way, but it didn't get anywhere near the press attention the 2005 one did—more evidence of a wine-wing media bias...) beer continues to handily outsell wine, both in volume and dollar sales. What's that indicate?
Field Maloney: Good question. Some of the beer people pointed this out in 2005. Even though more Americans said they preferred wine in that pool, beer still outsold wine 6 to 1. So either a very few people drink a whole lot of beer, or people are more stuck on beer than they let on. I think because wine has become more of a "lifestyle" drink, people might be more likely to say they "prefer" wine in a poll, even though they actually drink more beer. But who knows? The unpredictable psychology of polling behavior is fascinating to me.
Also, I think the American media loves stories that indicate a shift in the status quo. In this case, with wine vs. beer, it was a shift in the status quo that seemed to reinforce some larger cultural trends. That kind of stuff is catnip to journalists.
Richmond, Va.: Can the rise of wine popularity be partly attributed to the range of prices and better offerings for lower prices? It's no longer taboo (for most people) to set a bottle of $7.99 Yellow Tail Shiraz on the table. Heck, some restaurants even serve Woodbridge and Sutter Home wines, which retail for less than $5 per bottle at most stores.
Field Maloney: Definitely. A huge factor in all this, which I didn't really go into in my piece, is that wine-making overall has improved vastly in the past two or three decades. The quality of cheap wine has gone up astoundingly. I think that made it easier for Americans to think of it as an everyday drink and not a special occasion luxury. (And I think that was the big hurdle for the American wine industry—how to get Americans to think of wine as an everyday thing, the way they do, say, in France or Italy.)
Alexandria, Va.: When it comes down to it, wine just seems to give me a better buzz than beer. Don't get me wrong, I like beer just as much as the average American woman, but I love wine because it seems there is a whole art that goes into selecting just the right bottle for the occasion (or non-occasion, like a Tuesday night).
Field Maloney: This is an interesting point, when you say "wine just seems to give me a better buzz than beer." Many people believe that different kind of alcohols cause different kind of intoxications—that gin, say, gives you one kind of high, that is different from wine's, which is different from beer's, and so on. I'd be very interested to know if there is any scientific basis for this. I've certainly found many people swear by it.
Cleveland: Are you kidding with this article? Macro beer sales are flat; craft and import beers are fastest growing alcohol segment. Craft beer is somewhere around 18 percent growth this year, and just a little bit less than that last year. This is why Anheuser-Busch is trying to get a piece of the craft beer market. The craft beer movement is huge and still gaining momentum. Your article completely ignores this.
Field Maloney: You're right that the craft beer segment has shown robust growth in the past few years. I think it's an encouraging sign for beer in America, and there certainly has been a renaissance of great beers being made here. But craft beer still only commands about 5 percent of the American beer market, so it's still a drop in the pint glass. (Bad pun, sorry.)
Arlington, Va.: In one corner, there are wines for the masses—two-buck chuck, Box wines and screw-top wines that get great reviews for their quality and accessibility; then in the other corner there are the expensive wines for $60-$80, and that crowd that would turn up their nose at the rest.
I think that the most well-known wines are the expensive Chateaux Margaux with a fine reputation, and the mass-produced and well-advertised wines. The true "value" wines—excellent quality, the for which reputation has not pumped up the price—are the hardest to identify. Do you have a recommendation?
Field Maloney: Well, there's a whole industry out there—on the Web, in books, and magazines—dedicated to searching out value wines. Often unfashionable or overlooked regions or varieties are the key for values: Portugal is making great wine these days, I love the white wines of Alsace, and there are some great whites being made in New York's Finger Lakes.
Helena, Mont.: Don't you think that part of the reason for falling beer sales may be that more people are brewing their own?
Field Maloney: I don't think so, because the home-brew movement (which I'm a big fan of—in fact, as a kid I used to brew my own root beer) still is a tiny sliver of the American beer trade. I think the opposite is true, in fact—the more people make their own beer, the more they will be interested in seeking out and tasting good American beers to buy. I think the DIY ethic in food and drink, which is growing, is a great thing for this country.
Roseland, N.J.: I was chosen to attend a advertising focus group for an import beer I shall leave unnamed. I won't get into the details (man was it bad) except the core concept revolved around the consumer being faced with difficult relationship problems that demanded they make a choice. This begs the question: Is one issue that men associate beer with misery and woe? If my girlfriend's spending time with her old flame, I don't tell the bartender "gimme the fruitiest Riesling you got—and leave the bottle."
Field Maloney: Very well put. Don't cry in your Riesling, as they say. Drinking is as much about association as it is about taste. The trick of marketing is finding the right associations and making them stick (and banishing the wrong ones). It's sort of Spuds MacKenzie meets Proust's madeleine.
Field Maloney: Thank you everyone for all your questions. I've had fun trying to answer them.