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As the U.S. grows more diverse, the wine industry remains white

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Yesterday’s stunning news that more minority babies are being born in the U.S. than white babies, for the first time ever, has tremendous implications for the domestic wine industry. The problem, which in my opinion the wine industry has never wanted to admit much less deal with, is that wine is pretty much an upscale beverage for white people of European heritage. That’s worked well, in the past, but with these demographic changes (California already has more people of color than whites), a strategy that used to work seems destined to fail in the future.

I don’t see Latino or Hispanic people drinking wine, and the same goes for Asians and Blacks. African-Americans seem to prefer fortified drinks, like cognac, or beer, if they drink at all. The same goes for Latinos. Asian people don’t seem to drink very much wine either. Of course, as members of any one of these groups make money through the professions, they’re more likely to enjoy wine. But the explosion of minorities in America is mostly due to immigration and birth rates, and those two groups–immigrants and babies–tend not to be wine drinkers! Wine drinkers have always been, as the study says, the country’s “economic and political elites [who] remain essentially white and primarily male.” Of course, women buy a lot of wine, too, but they’re white women.

What should the wine industry be doing about it? To begin with, they need to stop being complacent. And let there be no doubt, there is a lot of complacency in California. Most people still get into the business for aspirational and lifestyle considerations. If they have a plan at all (which they don’t), it’s to sell their wine to people like them: white, well off, educated, living on the coasts or in the nation’s urban hubs. That is not a marketing strategy.

If you don’t believe me, then you haven’t been to Napa Valley, Santa Barbara, the Russian River Valley, the Monterey Peninsula or other regions in California’s wine country lately. They’re all beautiful places, like movie sets, with gorgeous scenery, fancy restaurants, chichi shops, trendy bars, and designer clothes. They’re also overwhelmingly white. About the only people of color you see in wine country are Mexican immigrants who work in the fields or clean white people’s houses. At fancy wine events, there’s a smattering of Asians, but I think you could count them on the fingers of two hands at an event like Premier Napa Valley. As for African-Americans, you’d never know that America even had any, if you limited your explorations to wine country.

I point out these inconvenient truths not to embarrass or confront the wine industry, but to make the point that it’s going to have to figure out how to get everyone to drink wine, if it wants to stay viable in 10, 20, 30 years. Unfortunately, I don’t see any evidence that anyone’s really thinking about this. Look at the advertisements in wine magazines, and ask yourself if there’s anything there that would entice a person of color to buy wine.

  1. Steve, I’m sure you are right about this (“beverage for white people”) thing , but for me (White) it wasn’t an advertisement that beguiled me into drinking wine, it was the necessity of having something in my cellar that wouldn’t spoil in one year, that’s how I began tasting wine; now I understand that only some wines are worth keeping, so I’m beginning my collection of Port.
    LOL with the demographics, maybe Californian wineries could look to Argentina for South American answers to drinking wine, since they produce more wine than Germany, and drink 90% of the wine they produce, there has to be some cultural explanation for this. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argentine_wine

  2. Tough topic and something that I don’t even think I can get into at length here. Maybe more suited to a full blog post….

    “Look at the advertisements in wine magazines, and ask yourself if there’s anything there that would entice a person of color to buy wine.” – I don’t have a marketing degree, so help me out on this one….what WOULD that “ideal” ad look like?

    I’m not just saying this (in order to remain couth), but I don’t talk about wine to a black guy any different than I talk to an asian guy any different than I talk to a white guy etc.
    I always find that any time marketers try and skew towards a particular demographic, it’s blatantly obvious and comes off as being patronizing.

  3. Dear Kris Chislett, I’m not an advertising guy, so I can’t tell you what such an ad would look like.

  4. 100% of the problem here lies in treating wine as a luxury good or lifestyle product. If wine was a car, it would be pitched as an either/or: Yugo or Bentley. But there are Nissans and Oldsmobiles as well. The reality is aside from the top few % of Americans, most people work for a living. Their living isn’t finding ways to conspicuously consume, show off and otherwise try to be more glamorous than the rich guy next door. Pitch good wine as an affordable step up, like getting a better car, and the middle class will follow (provided it still exists if 10-20 years).

  5. Brian M says:

    Steve

    From a “street” perspective, I have to disagree with some of your assertions. Come to NYC and spend time in the popular wine bars littering Manhattan. The are wine bars located everywhere from the Financial District up throught the Upper East/West Sides. Hell, the original Terroir is in Alphabet City (sorry, the East Village). You will see crowds representing the diverse mix of people living here.

    That being said, restaurants with renowned wine lists/cellars are exactly how you describe: affluent and, to some some extent but not exclusively, white. Also, the more haughty the wine bar, the less diversity you will see.

    Accessibility is the key to introducing people, regardless of color, race, or socio-economic background, to the world of wine. This most likely won’t be accomplished by a push-down strategy from wineries or magazine advertisements. Wine isn’t a brand of detergent or beer you can target market and see results.

  6. I work in tasting rooms all over the Napa Valley. There are a lot of people of color drinking wine. I see lots of Mexcans. I see many, many Asians, particularly from China and California. There are also several varietals that are popular with different ethnic groups. So as far as on the ground in Napa, there are terrific numbers of ethnic groups coming through.

  7. This has been an issue from the beginning of wine’s post-WWII popularity and of course economics plays a part. But with Moscato we at Moscato Nation (trade association for the varietal) see real enthusiasm in urban communities; so it depends in part on taste as well.

  8. Patrick says:

    I don’t think we should worry about it, because the problem is deeper. Wine was perfected in climatic zones where (mostly) white people live, and white people’s genetics got accustomed to the flavors and effects of wine. White, i.e. European, cuisine is based around wine. Other ethnicities also have their genes & cuisines. Am I missing something.

  9. Jose Antonio says:

    Steve,

    You couldn’t be more incorrect about this topic! I’m a winemaker in the Napa/Sonoma area. I’m also a wine broker whom dsitributes many wines from all over the world. In addition, I’m a Mexican born, U.S. citizen.

    Every year there are more and more young educated “non-white” people coming into prominance in the wine industry. Latinos don’t just work in the fields anymore! Maybe you should visit wineries like Robledo Family Winery, Ceja Vineyards, Mi Sueño, Encanto, Ochoa, Maldonado and a few others which have emerged in the past couple of decades. Or another option would be the Brown Estate winery, which is owned by an African-American family. Another choice would be Kenzo Estate which is a “non-white” owned winery also.

    Along with myself there are many other prominent latinos in the wine industry. Take the winemaker at Shafer Vineyards, Elias Fernandez… does that sound like a “white” name? He’s makes the Shafer Hillside Select. Several other Latinos will welcome you into the many different tasting rooms in the Napa and Sonoma Valley!

    Maybe you should take a trip to a “Cheers! St. Helena” event, and you will see the ethnic mix of people walking up and down Main St. in St. Helena. Or maybe you should take a trip to the “Napa Chefs Market.”

    I’m going to take a wild guess, and say that you don’t live in either Napa or Sonoma, because this would be evident to anyone living within their boundaries.

    Oh, and by the way… some of the Premier Napa Valley’s biggest bidders are sometimes of Asian descent, like Mr. Ichizo Nakagawa of Japan.

    I will agree with you on one thing… they do need to market better to the Latino/Black/Asian/etc communities, because there is quite a bit of room for growth! But there is also quite a bit of room for growth in the rest pf the “Beer Swiggin’” middle America!

    Like a previous entry said before… “I could write a whole blog about this subject!”

    I respect your resume quite well, but I don’t believe you have donw your research on this one.

    Cheers!

  10. Steve, I think you need to spend more time in the Wine Country. It is far from the stereotype you present. We all see an increasingly broad demographic at the winery. It is the high income portion of any minority, but that is the nature of the luxury wine business. Our market is upscale, but when a group of African American or Chinese visitors spill out of the limo, no one blinks an eye. The only thing holding back people of color and wine is the disparity of income.

    And, if you live here, where half of the students in all the schools are of color you will see it is deeply integrated. Certainly as much or more than urban areas. And income levels of minorities exceed all other California counties.

    The other night I was a little depressed that a local restaurant had only two Pinots in a low enough price range ($60)for me to consider. My choice was a Campesino Pinot, label is hands of a field worker, Pablo Ceja, a relative. And you know, I didn’t blink an eye.

  11. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, this is really far and off my expertise, but i guess that major multinational beverage companies *might* be happy with things as they are.

    As they produce all types of alcoholic beverages that man could invent, they reach all the ethnic and age groups and are not concerned about reaching more blacks, asians, latinos or whoever else when it comes to drinking wine.

    As for the smaller wineries, they should be really working hard on creating demand in all layers of society (take a few out of the picture as I hardly think the trailer-park folks consume $ 20.00 bottle wine). They (the small wineries) can’t afford (i only imagine) to sell their wines only to the highbrow crowd…

    Salute e auguri!

  12. Steve,

    There is a healthy cultural/ethnic diversity in the wine community, and I see it most pronounced where you don’t – Napa Valley. Hestan, Kenzo, Dana, Sloan, Kosuge, Mi Sueno, Ceja, Campesino, Mario Bazan, Gustavo Thrace, Maldonado, Brown Estate are all established minority owned wineries that come to mind without even thinking hard, and this group will likely continue to grow. Their success and the respect they generate among the community at large can’t help but create awareness among minority consumers. But I agree that as mentioned elsewhere here that income level is probably the greatest determinant for consumers to become more involved in wine drinking as opposed to other types of alcohol. Over the years I have had many clients who showed great interest in wine. Among the top ten are an African-American, Mexican, Japanese, and Sri Lankan and half of the rest are women). What they have in common is all are more than comfortable financially. I am not worried about the future of the wine industry as consumer education is more sophisticated and easily accessed. Barely thirty years ago most domestic wine consumers were drinking Riunite, Mateus and Lancer’s and the domestic industry was barely crawling out of the Christian Brothers, BV, Charles Krug and Beringer era. Sunset Magazine put out a coffee table book in the late ’70s about Napa Valley. It is very fun to look at.

  13. Jose and others, I wasn’t talking about wineries that are owned by “minority” people, or about winemakers who are “minorities,” like Elias, whom I know well. I was talking about consumers. I do not see the broad acceptance of California wine by “minorities” (a word I hate, but we’re stuck with it), and I don’t see the wine industry figuring out how to solve that problem. Individual companies are, like Gallo, but hundreds of family wineries that sell in the $12-$30 range don’t seem to be penetrating those markets.

  14. Doug Wilder project of wealthy minorities versus minorities who built and own a winery. Big difference. Try being a minority and raise money to start or open a winery. Yes different ethnic groups have different tastes. Moscato is being driven by whom? Who is driving Ciroc flavored spirits?

  15. PAWineGuy says:

    Steve,

    Read your own post… “About the only people of color you see in wine country are Mexican immigrants who work in the fields or clean white people’s houses. At fancy wine events, there’s a smattering of Asians, but I think you could count them on the fingers of two hands at an event like Premier Napa Valley. As for African-Americans, you’d never know that America even had any, if you limited your explorations to wine country.”

    I’d also like to add the Sterlings of Esterlina, owners of America’s smallest AVA, to the list of people Steve missed on his wine country visits.

  16. C.Lawrence says:

    it’s a beguiling beverage. make it. sell it. drink it. simple. do it like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RO1SWelNk48

  17. Regarding how to expand a market to minorities it is an interesting to consider two brands, Hennessy and Roederer Cristal. There are parts of this country, these brand’s biggest markets, where they are known as Henny and Crissy. Someone there holding a half-pint will offer you a “henny and coke” or an “hypnotic”. Or someone will brag about buying some “crissy” or “Cree-stall”). But if you look at the marketing that brought the brands into this demographic, neither were targeted to the black community. The marketing was upper class, about luxury and for the most part, represented by Caucasians.

    I had National Sales Manager who had left Beam in a disagreement over what he thought was their oversight of the fact that 60 percent of Henny was sold mostly in half pints in black communities. All the while Beam marketing blissfully ignored the demographic they were actually selling to and promoted the product as if it were only appreciated by the most elite European connoisseurs.

    That was the 70’s and 80’s when despite the marketing, the brands flourished in the minority market. It is only recent, where these brands are associated with insanely rich, hip hop artists. But you will note the artist is in Armani and the ad drips with luxury.

    I think we have more to fear from the growing disparity in wealth and class, than we do with how we position wine and to whom we try to appeal.

  18. I think Moscato is mostly ethnic,…isn’t it?

  19. Sin City says:

    Steve, are you worried that there aren’t going to be enough white people to keep wine sales from collapsing?

    You don’t see blacks, Latinos, Asians drinking wine??? You ain’t looking, buddy, you ain’t looking.

    No, you don’t see them in line at the Rutherford Dust tasting. You don’t see expensive ads from Motel 6 in the glossy magazines.

    But you don’t spend too much time in corner stores, groceries, carnicerias, Ranch 99, Big Lots, and in the low income neighborhoods’ Ralphs, Safeways, etc.

    How does Gallo sell billions of $ of wine every year? To the subscribers of Luxury Wine Image magazine? Who drinks Yellow Tail, the van Cleves and the Rockefellers?

    Your horse is bending under the weight. Get off before the horse dies.

  20. Sin City says:

    OK, I finally read the last paragraph and it too is bunkum hokum. Get everyone to drink??? The industry has to? Nonsense. White boy nonsense. Only a small % of the US adult population drink wine. Do some dam research before you write. Wine consumption in low income city ‘hoods is higher than in many towns in the wheatfields and cornfields of America. I think you are alarmed that the blacks, Latinos, and Asians are NOT going to drink what you do nor what you want them do drink. They are not paying attention to you. They don’t care. And your magazine, all the newsletters and magazines are useless to them. But they pay the bills. Cash flow on a million cases at $60 a case pays the bills, Steve.

  21. Everet Green says:

    This is a very liberal racist article, a person of heritage, can stoop so low under the cover of altruistic concerns. This is definitely not the Judea-Christian ideals of today.

  22. Big prob is Latinos Biggest growing group do not traditional drink wine. So how do you market product to them that they don’t use, know or understand. I have distributor friend, who is Latino, he went broke trying to sell wine to them for weddings. Can change culture especially when knowledge and education is so bad.

  23. Fine wine (not the kind drunk just to get buzzed) is an expression of civilization, it’s not just fashionable but important as an indicator of refinement and culture.

    If your idea that minorities (who you say are not minorities any longer) are not adopting wine as a civilized drink, that is a sad commentary on them and on the future of our nation.

  24. Jason H. says:

    Steve –

    If you’re using Napa Valley, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara as benchmarks for the entire wine industry, of course it’s going to look white-washed… very few people (white people included) can afford to live that lifestyle and purchase expensive wines.

    The reality is, wines priced at $20+ represent only 2% of the total wine volume currently consumed in the United States. Hardly a sliver compared to the remaining 98% priced under-$20/bottle, or more importantly, the under-$10/bottle segment that represents 75% of all wines sold. **Nielsen FDL, 26wks ending 4/28/12

    Using the “Napa is white, therefore the entire wine industry is white” logic hardly even qualifies as an educated guess.

    I would suggest stepping out of the Kermit Lynch aisles and into a Walmart, CVS, or Sam’s Club wine section — I think you’ll find the results quite “colorful”.

  25. Hi Steve,
    While this is a great blog topic, I’m not sure I totally agree with you on your comment regarding African Americans. At our 2011 Tastings on the Lawn at the Charles Krug Winery, I photographed many African Americans that came to enjoy an amazing event honoring our 150th year. To view the photos from TOL, you can visit our facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150376535493179.408641.141279863178&type=3
    Also, I wonder when you mention Asians that you may not be thinking of the huge increase in percent exports to China. And the Asian tourists in the Napa Valley are quite prevalent – ask tasting room employees. Thanks for the post.

  26. John Roberts says:

    I think there’s a deep prejudice in the article, and not necessarily a racial one. Writing for one of the two big wine magazines in the country, I can how one would end up thinking like this. As one can read from the comments, the experience in wine country is a bit different. Of course, accessibility often comes at a price, and the more limited the access and more expensive, the more exclusively white. However, having worked at wineries in Sonoma and Napa, I can say that it is a very diverse community, that of wine consumers and tasters, visiting vineyards in the North Bay. It’s not a racial issue and the industry shouldn’t think of race at all, not in marketing or production or anywhere. I’m a huge supporter but this one if off base in my honest opinion. -John R

  27. Steve, Steve, Steve. Please, get out of Berkeley now and then, and when you visit wine regions start at the tasting counter, not the proprietor’s cottage out back. You will find yourself rubbing shoulders and swapping opinions with a wide range of people of various ethnic backgrounds. That “ethnic minorities” are about to be the new majority, incidentally, isn’t exactly breaking news. This has been a demographic change that’s been building for about two decades. The recent stats only confirm the obvious.

  28. Dear Mike Dunne, I don’t live in Berkeley, I live in Oakland, the most racially and ethnically diverse city in America. I rub shoulders and swap opinions with people from every conceivable background, every day.

  29. JR Wirth says:

    I hear this often from people who live in Napa, Santa Barbara and Monterey. They say to themselves “you know, this really is a great place, but it could use for black people, Vallejo is just so much more earthy.”

    I think you’re confusing race with class here. There will always be an upper and upper-middle class in the U.S. and they will always be wine drinkers, period, regardless of race. And what they don’t drink will be exported to Asia, which is just beginning its wine consumption journey. No, the black guy you see in Vallejo won’t put down his Olde English for a bottle of Chardonnay, but his grand daughter will, assuming she enters a higher tax bracket.

  30. Sin City says:

    Hey Stevie, Oakland is segregated. Half is beautiful up in the hills, half is a black ghetto with “The Killing Zone” taking up a lot of space. You don’t rub shoulders in Walmart, or the shops on San Pablo or 55th & Macarthur, and you don’t swap opinions with the masses in Ranch 99 or Chinatown. And it is uniformly liberal, like Berkeley, both white and black. Ever shop in the Goodwill store near Fruitvale? Or the downtown Salvation Army?

  31. Dear Sin City, you don’t know what you’re talking about. And your remark that half of Oakland is “a black ghetto” is blatantly racist and ill-informed. I live in downtown Oakland, not the Hills, and my neighborhood is a wonderful hodgepodge of every ethnic, racial and religious background you could name. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  32. Sin City says:

    You are still not addressing the common criticism about your original post. That is, you have not answered WHY do PREMIUM wineries have to find some magic to sell to people of color to survive? A few writers have said that you are not seeing the full industry picture. You get defensive about where you live. What about the 2% vs the 98%? What about the billions of bottles at Walmart, Costco, etc. that sell for $7? Nope. You assume that the premium brands ARE the industry. Another point: the # of POC babies is higher than the # of white babies. So what? What is significant about that? There is still growth of the white population. There is still miniscule penetration of much of white America by premium wine brands. So, their path to the future lies equally in four groups:
    1. increase the penetration into current white people
    2. increase consumption per capita of current white wine drinker
    3. increase penetration of non drinker non white
    4. increase consumption per capita of current non white drinker

    There. That is a more coherent statement. Now, rank the four by priority to various price point brands.

    We like your writing about wine. We often think you write poorly about social issues. I was a homeowner for 10+ years near Mills College. If you google Oakland killing zone, or gang wars, you will read enough to make you sad for 1000 years. Non-whites in the USA in big cities with highly dominant Democrat Party elections, are not doing well, in spite of all the years of govt. programs to help the poor. Saying you live in Oakland still does not mean you know wine marketing by race or by demographic. Which is what several writers said to you.

  33. I appreciate your view and am glad that someone is concerned about non-white wine drinkers. You’ll be happy to know that the statistics on paper do not reflect real life. I teach wine tasting classes in the Los Angeles area and plan monthly wine tours to Santa Ynez. Over half my customers are African Americans, most of which are novice wine drinkers some however are experienced and prefer dry red wines. What I’ve learned is that my African American customers are excited to learn more and easily connect with wines when I introduce wine to them in a way that directly relates to their selves/life/experience. For example my wine tour to Rideau winery (the first female African American owned winery in California) sells out in days and customers leave my trip with a greater appreciation for wine.
    As part of our tour we invade the small town of Solvang, I admit that random people have stopped us on occasions and asked if we were having a family reunion because they are not use to seeing 50 African Americans wine tasting at one time.
    The wine market is accommodating the cultural change and making it easy for minorities to find their place and enthusiasm for wine.

  34. “I don’t see Latino or Hispanic people drinking wine, and the same goes for Asians and Blacks. African-Americans seem to prefer fortified drinks, like cognac, or beer, if they drink at all. The same goes for Latinos. Asian people don’t seem to drink very much wine either.” I just want you to read this again and consider what you’re saying, if indeed you’re polling effectively. I’d invite you to see my presentation to the Diversity & Inclusion department of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory but, unfortunately, it’s only for employees. Perhaps we could discuss my thoughts some time, as my focus continues to be on inclusion concerns – not simply related to ethnicity but, as expected, socioeconomic perceptions/barriers/opportunities.

  35. Hi Steve,

    I enjoyed reading your post and I do not envy you for all of the flak you must have assuredly expected to receive from your fellow countrymen who are racially sensitive. At no point in your post did you misrepresent yourself as a sociologist having recently come to your conclusion about minority drinking habits after collecting and organizing decades of statistical data…..LOL So chillax people.

    That being said you do have a valid point. Wine consumption by Blacks,Asians and Latinos pales (No pun intended) to their White counterparts. Now listen closely folks I am merely sharing with you my observations as a Black Man who routinely attends wine tastings in Temecula,Sonoma,Napa,San Diego and L.A. with the lone exception of L.A. I am frequently the proverbial “Fly in buttermilk” at such gatherings unless there is a specific black organization, group,sommelier or vintner that has specifically created a tasting or tour event directly targeted at minorities.

    I equate my love for wine with my love for Jazz. Every one can enjoy it but it can be a lot more enjoyable if you understand and appreciate what you’re being presented. It’s because so much has been written about the subject of wine and those who embrace embibing as a hobby create a facade that wine like Jazz (I’m not talkin SMOOTH JAZZ by the way) is approachable only by rich and the nerdy.

    This is simply not true. Currently wine reaches consumers at every possible price point and as far as marketing to Black drinkers specificly only the purveyors of Congac and Malt Liquor target the African American market on a routine basis BTW Crown Royal has recently decided to target this market also. Marketing however is not the sole answer, it’s merely a step in the right direction.

    As I stated earlier liking wine is similar to loving classic American Jazz ie. Be-Bop, Hard-Bop, Modal, Symphonic Big Band Swing etc. It is rather challenging to get the average VH1,MTV,BET enthusiast to see any remote value in embracing the virtuoso musicianship coupled with innovative composition and amazing arrangements. Such is the bridge that wine has to cross….One drinker at a time.

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