Wine in the Time of Pestilence IX – Wine Consumption

‘Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy’

Sir Alexander Fleming

When I began planning how I might reflect on the impact of Covid-19 on the wine industry a few months ago, I aimed to finish by looking at how it might change the world of wine consumers – especially the cultures of consumption and the way that society has an impact on how people drink.  Optimistically – you might say naively – I was hoping that this might be the time when things were getting better, and we would have shown that the disease was at least contained, if not beaten.

So, I got that wrong.  However, I still plan to make this the last post on wine in the time of pestilence (at least for some time) so that I can return to considering a wider world of wine and culture and its social context.  What, then, might result from the upheaval of the last eight months for wine drinkers around the world?  Here, then, is a review of what has happened and are a few ideas for the future – and remember that I’d love to have feedback on this.  It’s a fairly extended essay, so you may want to give yourself a little time to engage with it. The first point is that different places responded to the disease in different ways and with often widely fluctuating consumption levels over the first months of the crisis.  In the very early stages of lockdown in the UK people said they were drinking more (though not ‘too much’), although it seemed that this was less beer and cider.  By May this trend to drink more was noticeable with lunchtime and online drinking becoming more common but that people were spending less per bottle. So, the apparent trend of recent years of ‘less but better’ went into reverse for a while!  Young people were least likely to drink more but those aged 25-54 were most likely to increase consumption. By June and July, however, drinking levels seemed to be declining but this was confused by other reports of record sales (e.g. for Naked Wines, during July).  The easing of restrictions on eating out also stimulated an increase in drinking.  The other key change was the decline in consumption early on, but with a rebound once lockdown ended and there was something to celebrate (and no longer the stigma of drinking a celebratory wine during a time of death, depression and decline).

Nevertheless, the trends in the UK weren’t repeated everywhere.  I’ve already noted the success of champagne in the USA for much of the period of struggle against the disease; high-involvement drinkers there were generally spending more, unlike their British equivalents. Australians drank rather more wine but Canadians less in the early stages. In Germany wine consumption was increasing before the onset of the crisis, and stayed higher, whereas it the Netherlands an early increase was not sustained, with Generation Z drinkers reducing their intake.  Sweden, which pursued a much less controlled response to the virus, allowing bars and restaurants to stay open, saw much less change in drinking behaviour – although the Swedes did start to drink less frequently. 

My own research amongst members of the Institute of Masters of Wine, which I’ve commented on before suggests that women were drinking more (which I think, for a time at least was reflected in the wider population), no Australians were drinking less, and some were drinking better by raiding their cellar.  Ritual and the need for little celebrations became important – and wine does offer the chance for a link to a wider world.

What is also interesting is what and when people were drinking.  Local wines were sought out (see below for more on this); large brands (which offer security in a time of threat) did quite well – at least initially – in Australia but smaller producers suffered. Wines available from online stores did well even when overall consumption was declining in the UK.  Consumers also seemed to be stocking up rather than buying for single occasions and buying in anticipation of running out, rather than waiting until they had drunk everything.

Meanwhile, the pandemic reinvigorated the lobby which opposes alcohol consumption on health grounds, and there is some evidence that certain consumers took the need to improve their health seriously and decided to drink less.  However, the (serious) arguments against the abuse of alcohol founder on the need people have during a crisis for treats and easy pleasures, and things which provide a reminder of a former, more secure and wider world; one of the things that clearly offers those links is wine.  Having said that, sales of low-alcohol beers increased substantially in the USA and the UK in the early months of the crisis.

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One of the most interesting graphics that I saw during the earlier phase of Covid-19 was from the excellent industry research organisation, Wine Intelligence.  This was shown in an online presentation, in early June, focused on the United States (primarily concerned with sustainability).  The graphic reflects how people refocused their drinking choices more towards domestic wines in the early stages of the pandemic.  Interestingly it also shows the regions from which people are buying less wine.

(From a webinar: ‘Consumer and Trade Perceptions on Sustainable Wine’: https://wineinstitute.org/press-releases/consumer-trade-research-shows-increased-demand-for-sustainably-produced-wine/)

As one would expect, consumers tended to shift towards drinking US wine.  This was the key take-out from the presentation.  There are a probably couple of reasons for this.  First, Covid-19 was an alien, invasive entity (‘the Chinese disease’ as President Trump insisted on calling it).  This sense of being surrounded by a dangerous and unknown alien world tends to make people focus on what is local, communitarian and perceived as safe (and remember in this regard the Americans are particularly resistant to travelling overseas, which would help them to see how a wider world works.)  The second reason for this shift is undoubtedly because their economy was taking a hit and Americans would, quite reasonably, have wanted to do their bit to help it back to normal levels by buying more domestic goods.  So far, so logical.

However, I feel the graphic has some other interesting implications.  (These are highly speculative and I only have a hunch to support them, not hard data – so if you want to dismiss this as the ramblings of an ignoramus that’s fine).  The first implication is specifically about the performance of Californian wine.  Those buying more of it are much more than the overall increase in American wine purchasing – but the state also registers a higher percentage of consumers who chose to buy less wine from the state.  Why the two extremes?  Think back to the early stages of the crisis in the USA – a federal government that appears to play down the scale of the pandemic and takes no active role in combating it – rather leaving that to the states.  Some of those states, notably New York and California, take the threat seriously, work hard to contain the disease, and are vociferous in their opposition to the laissez faire attitude of the national leaders.  Meanwhile Trump and his allies aggressively attack those state governments suggesting that they have been hard-hit due to their own public health or organisational deficiencies.  The USA is now, notoriously, a very divided, tribal society, with about one third of the population taking fairly hard-line and non-compromising positions on the left and on the right.  My interpretation of the data is that those who broadly oppose the national government will be happy to identify with (and buy from) a state which challenges it.  Yet, when we look at those buying less from California, the percentage has also increased – which suggests that those with sympathy for the President and dislike for the critical stance of the state leadership show their distaste in their unwillingness to drink Californian wine.

What follows is even more speculative – and statisticians will complain that there is no significance level in the data.  We might, however, draw from this that the higher number of those more likely to drink Californian wine compared with those drinking less (19% more and 11% less) means that wine drinkers are more likely to be opponents of the President than his supporters.  Given the demographics of core Trump support, this would seem quite possible.

There is another aspect to this, moreover, which I find interesting.  If you look at those who have changed buying behaviour to purchase more foreign wine there are variable but low numbers for each country.  However, if you look at the negative figures – those turning against wines for other countries, three stand out as being poor performers: France, Spain and Italy, all registering 20% of drinkers who are buying less of their wine.  One other country, New Zealand, stands out for losing less of its market share than anywhere else.  Now, at this time European countries (especially Italy and Spain and to a lesser extent France) appeared to be coping badly in response to the pandemic.  New Zealand famously was (and has consistently) managed to contain it with minimum damage to health and disruption to the country.  There is a suggestion here that people’s willingness to buy wine has a link to an apparent (possibly subconscious) ‘cleanliness’ or ‘uncleanliness’ of a place.  Perhaps, by association with the origin, we may become infected by drinking the wine from that place – so it becomes taboo.  Note that politics does not seem to be so much of an issue in this response.  The government in France is centre-right, Italy populist and left, and Spain and New Zealand socialist.  Perhaps this suggests we need to broaden our view of what makes a country a suitable source of imported wine beyond the obviously political and diplomatic and include factors of perceived healthiness or factors which may provoke distaste, danger or a fear of contamination.

The interesting outlier in this is Chinese wine.  Only 15% are ‘actively buying less wine from’ China, so despite its stigmatisation as the ‘source’ (even creator) of Covid-19 it is apparently less actively targeted than the European nations.  However, at this point the wording of the question that is posed is important.  Wine drinkers would have been much more likely to buy French or Italian wine (with imports from both countries worth over $2 billion) than wines from China (under $15 million) so most people would not need to ‘actively buy less’ to drink no Chinese wine.

*          *          *

So how might all of this change the future of wine consumption?  Here are a few ideas – but it is important to remember that national differences, even between apparently similar cultures, can substantially alter how behaviour evolves.  Furthermore, as I said right at the onset of the crisis, epidemics like this don’t usually introduce revolutionary change – rather they tend to accelerate changes which are already in motion.  First, this may be the point where the millennial generation (now aged about 24-40, although the precise ages vary substantially) finally moves to drinking wine rather than beer and spirits. This move, much anticipated (including by Millennials themselves) sees a shift away from alcohol volume (beer, spirits and especially premixed drinks) to lower quantity but aesthetic value.  One American commentator has suggested that this will be the ‘awakening’ and the point at which this cohort wine consumption for the next few decades.  Certainly, while young people are careful to get value for money, they don’t equate value with paying less, and they will buy more expensive things if they consider them worth it.  There are a couple of caveats here, however: the first is that almost all research on Millennials is based on those in the USA, rather than worldwide and previous academic research has reinforced that national differences have an impact.  The second limit to this is that the successors to the Millennials, Generation Z is showing a marked reluctance to drink alcohol compared with previous age groups which may skew the longer term wine consumption trend.

Next, will women drink more wine from now on?  Confinement freed many from the thought of the next morning and the need to be up bright and early to get the children to school (still, until now, regularly a gender-defined role).  In the wake of #MeToo confinement, with fathers forced to be at home as well, may accelerate a move towards consumption equality which was already in train for those who were not mothers.  Perhaps even more important will women be equally involved in wine selection – hitherto generally regarded as a male domain, even where women have been drinking as much as their male counterparts.

Third, perhaps we will see the ‘new occasions’ for drinking become more embedded in our lives.  Online aperitifs are, anecdotally, less satisfying than the real thing when everyone is present – but now we have experienced it (especially with those who are far from us) it is unlikely to go away, and for the more wine interested at least it is likely to increase in popularity.  Again, the use of the internet for exploring wine has been growing for a number of years now, with some forays into drinking during webinars, but now it has moved away from mere education and into the social sphere, and will probably continue even if it is only second best.

Does this all mean boom time for wine producers?  Perhaps.  There is also talk that we will mirror what happened after the First World War and Spanish ‘flu a century ago, and report the exuberance, dynamism and excess of the roaring 20s.

This would be a reaction to the constraints, austerity and state control of our pleasure during the current situation; we’ll want to party every night, it has been argued.  However, if wine factors into partying, what kind of wine will it be?  Serious and expensive wines (top-flight burgundy, Napa Valley Cabernet or Penfold’s Grange) don’t really fit into nightclubs.  So are we going to see an acceleration of the popularity of undemanding pinot grigio which doesn’t need much thought while we’re dancing, or of fizz (everything from prosecco to champagne), and pink wine for the summer pool parties?  Sparkling wine especially (the one wine consumers consider is ‘dynamic’ – in comparison to most wine which is static or quiet) may continue its upward growth patterns if our world finally becomes more active and frenetic.

The way we buy wine will continue to change rapidly also.  Purchasing was already going online (especially in the most wired-up countries such as China).  That is going to accelerate further.  However, it may be that people will be in the habit of buying more less often.  One of my friends who makes wine in France noted early on in the pandemic that ‘instead of going to a caviste and buying one bottle people are buying six bottles; it’s a big change’ and as I recorded above there is evidence that consumers are stocking up for a period and not buying just when they need a drink.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement which was advancing rapidly and energetically in the two years before Covid-19 hit is also benefiting from some aspects of the crisis.  The threat from the sudden onset of the disease has probably made many of us more responsive to the looming threat from climate change and unsustainable lifestyles – and the fact that this threat could crystallise at any minute.  Wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters while the sickness has dominated will have seemed more intensive harbingers of how our world is deteriorating.  Zoom means we need to travel less for meetings and quarantine makes it less attractive to travel for pleasure.  Many of us noted the reduction in pollution when we had to work form home and the decreased costs associated with journeys to and for work.  So, do we buy wine that is more environmentally acceptable?  That means wine which travels less distance, comes in lighter bottles or even – as is increasingly common – isn’t in bottles at all?

All of the above suggests that the move to drinking more wines locally and less imported wine may be part of a longer-term trend.  Even if the tide of political populism in the world retreats a little in the near future (we’ll see in another week if that is the case!) the resurgence of local identity and commitment seems to have settled in for the mid to long term.  Whatever our political outlook many of us are willing to focus on regional or national products to help our immediate community.  Good news maybe for English, German and US wine producers; less so maybe for New Zealanders, South Africans and other export-focused wine industries.

Yet even if we wish to support local businesses, how many bars and restaurants will actually remain when we come out of all of this?  Despite government support in the small to mid-term a number of food and hospitality businesses have already given up and I suspect that the post-virus economic rebalancing will lead more to follow.  Does this therefore mean a continuation of the growing trend to drink at home?  Yet wine is a social drink, so how do we involve others in our drinking if we are going out less?  Perhaps, however, the return of the ‘roaring 20s’ that many foresee will reverse the trend and reinvigorate an apparently failing service sector.

In this context, what will become of wine tourism?  It has been a key factor for many regions in the long-term growth of wine industries and the creation of place attachment and regional brand loyalties.  Yet, if we travel less, and overseas tourists become less common, how will that play out in the continued growth of many new wine regions and emerging countries?  Again South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (with strict limits on foreign tourists coming in for the time being) and many emerging countries in eastern Europe or the Mediterranean may suffer as a result and another way of profiling their wines and building longer-term loyalty will be lost (as well as many jobs in the tourism sector). The last thing I want to mention is nothing to do with wine: it is the growth of ‘hard seltzers‘. For those, like me, who have been sidetracked by their politics from following the really important developments in American life, these are flavoured, alcoholic mineral waters.  They were only invented in 2013, sales in 2018 totalled $210 million p.a., this went up by almost 600% in the year before Covid-19 and by the end of June this year the 2019 figure had already been exceeded.  So why is this important in a blog about wine?  Well, wine may fulfil many consumer needs.  Of course it tastes good, but at some moments wine is about authenticity, at others it is about aesthetic pleasure – the sense of beauty; it has a lot of symbolic meaning and is a great social lubricant.  While alcohol and its effect are part of its attraction it is rare that people only drink wine for the impact of the alcohol.  Yet with hard seltzers we seem to have reached that end of the spectrum a drink only consumed because it is an easy (the drinks may be sweetened, albeit slightly), unchallenging (they are lightly flavoured) source of alcohol.  So what does this say to us?  That, for some people, the key issue with drinking in a period of pandemic is just to feel better.  There is no story here, no intellectual interest, no authentic sense of link to place.  Can that trend last?

This blog theme will not be continued…  At least for the time being.  Normal service on wine and culture is now being resumed.

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