Beer in the Headlights

Sales are flat. Wine is ascendant. How did this happen?

Last year, a grainy video appeared on YouTube. In the clip, three scraggly-looking men in a scraggly yard shoot full cans of Milwaukee’s Best Light beer out of a homemade cannon. They shoot at a bottle of what they call “fancy-pants wine,” which they’ve placed at the bull’s-eye of a giant white target. On their first shot, they miss. The second shot sends green glass and red wine flying, in the kind of glorious mess that would please Jackson Pollock. The men hoot.

As it happens, the video was made by a beer company—SABMiller, which owns Milwaukee’s Best—and while it plays class warfare for laughs, it also represents the ultimate fantasy of American beer executives, who have been jittery for years. For one thing, wine consumption in this country has nearly doubled in the last decade, while beer sales have been pretty much stagnant, growing less than 1 percent since 2000. Even more galling, in 2005 a Gallup poll revealed that, for the first time ever, Americans preferred wine to beer. This was an astonishing development, akin to Americans jilting baseball for bocce.

Soon after, Lew Bryson, a columnist for a beer-industry trade magazine called Cheers, lamented that beer had “lost its way.” Bryson summed up beer’s predicament: “Wine overcame beer’s lead in the hearts and minds of American drinkers,” he wrote. “Forty years ago, wine was mired in a swamp of low-margin jug sales. Drunks were called ‘winos.’ Now wine has cleaned itself up, with a freshly shaved face and a fashionable suit of casual clothes, and is headed uptown.”

How, exactly, did wine become so dominant? The shape of American aspiration—our sense of connoisseurship and the good life, the character of our nostalgias, even the thirst imperatives of a nation of office clerks rather than line workers—has changed radically over the last few decades in ways that have helped wine and hurt beer.

Of course, the rise of the American fine-wine industry has spurred the broader acceptance of wine here. But who’d have guessed wine would join beer at the football game? Watching last winter’s Giants-Eagles NFL playoff, I saw an ad for a cell-phone plan featuring a graying, rugged-looking man strolling through his vineyard and examining dusty bottles of older vintages in his cellar. Winning over football fans with wine! It was as if the “But of course!” Grey Poupon man of the ‘80s TV ads had become an unironic icon for the WWE. Somehow, wine had become manly.

Part of beer’s populist appeal—and its edge in the beer vs. wine war—has always been its absence of cant about its main point: to provide a little (or a lot of) happy intoxication. You can appreciate wine, but you drink beer, the saying goes. Wine’s cult of connoisseurship has always had a specious edge. Like the Victorian obsession with the “grace” of the nude female form, the high-flown language and ceremony of wine-drinking can seem like a fig leaf of sorts, a cover for fancy-pantses who like to get buzzed.

Wine connoisseurship became more palatable to Americans, though, when wine talk changed. As Sean Shesgreen pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), the old vocabulary of wine, passed down to us from the English squirearchy, graded wines in class terms, privileging pedigree and refinement. The ultimate parody of this kind of wine talk is James Thurber’s cartoon line: “It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”* The new wine grammar, popularized foremost by the American critic Robert Parker, sounds like a really weird grocery list, privileging flavor over domain: notes of blackcurrant, eucalyptus, tobacco. As annoying as this new pastoral language of wine can be, it’s certainly more democratic-sounding, less forbidding. It trades one set of referents that Americans view suspiciously and uneasily—class—for another that, even when we haven’t the foggiest notion of what it signifies (Chokecherry, anyone? Lychee?), sure sounds nice. Call it the consumer pastoral.

Meanwhile, the American middle classes have fast become connoisseurs of everything—coffee, ‘80s Japanese garage-rock bands, environmentalist toilet paper. Now, Americans who want the exclusivity that connoisseurship offers but didn’t want to seem like snobs can have it both ways. Beer’s approachability became less of a virtue. Ironically, in the ultimate about-face, craft-brew drinkers lifted the language of wine. (Tasting notes for a pale ale from the Web site BeerAdvocate: “Nose is floral, like orange blossoms, with some citric rind and soft apple.”)

At the same time, Americans, who had traditionally looked to a French and upper-class English model of the good life, one that emphasized refinement and formality, began in the 1980s to look farther south, to the Mediterranean, and particularly to an Italian ideal of good living, one that emphasized passion, spontaneity, and bounty; in other words, we went from Julia Child to Mario Batali. This American embrace of the Mediterranean spirit loosened things up—and the foodie tent got immeasurably bigger when food culture became better suited to the American temperament. Our fundamental attitude about the ceremony of food and the pleasures of the table changed: What counted was passion, which anyone can have, not refinement, which you must be born into, or cultivate very deliberately.

Wine had a prominent place at this new Mediterranean table—it was now part of a “lifestyle,” while beer remained just a drink. The power of these linguistic associations can be measured: A Google search of beer and passion yields 1.48 million entries, while wine and passion yields four times that; a search of beer and lifestyle yields 1.6 million entries; wine and lifestyle turns up 13 million. The explosion of lifestyle in America is such a recent phenomenon, in fact, that my 1987 Compact Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t even have an entry for the word. But marketers know what it means: intangible values attached to material goods. Or: serious bank. Beer executives are in the process of trying to limit their product’s associations with certain lifestyles—”frat-boy animal house,” for example, or “devotees of the brown bag Bud lunch”—without alienating those core audiences; beer marketers seem torn between broadening their appeal and energizing their base. But brand repositioning has to be at least somewhat convincing: In 2005, Anheuser-Busch released a malt liquor called Bistro 8, a “new fermented beverage created in collaboration with Master Chefs to complement Bistro Fare. Bistro 8 features the aromas of exotic fruits, spices and citrus. … ” Bud executives pulled it.

Wine marketers have it comparatively easy. They merely summon a picture of a bucolic vineyard or people raising their glasses around a table full of food—they don’t have to sell their selling points. This is why brewers have been frantically pushing beer-and-food pairings lately. Beer—which can be great with food, by the way—is in danger of being left out of the American mealtime, banished to the den (only when pro sports are on) or to the back porch (only for the early rounds of grilling). 

The boom in foodie connoisseurship in this country has dovetailed with the rise of pastoral chic. Both trends work in wine’s favor. Wine, even when it’s made at oil-refinery volume, can trade on pastoral associations; beer seems somewhat industrial, no matter how handcrafted the brew. This is a serious handicap. Cheers columnist Lew Bryson, in his beery lament, acknowledges as much when he calls for “a change in beer’s culture: Scotch whisky people don’t talk about ‘moving units’ of ‘the liquid’; they talk about ‘selling cases of whisky.’ “

But it’s more than a question of switching terminology. Wine is basically an agricultural product (fermented grapes), while beer is the result of a complicated process of manufacture (boiling barley to extract sugars, adding hops and yeast, fermenting the wort that results). This holds true whether the brewer is a medieval English villager or Anheuser-Busch. The hallmark of beer is consistency: A brewer strives to make batch after batch of Pilsener so it tastes the same—and often succeeds without much difficulty. Wine is more variable: The sugar levels and tannins and acidity of the grapes fluctuate from year to year, and so does the character of the resulting wines. This explains why the whole concept of vintages is so central to wine but largely absent from beer.

In fact, you can trace the United States’ shift from an agrarian society to an urban, industrial one through beer. In the Colonial era, settlers drank mostly hard cider (the rural drink of choice), rum, and whiskey. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when German immigrants came over in large numbers to man the new factories and brought their brewing skills with them, that beer really took off. When beer became more popular than cider around the time of the Civil War, it signaled an altered American landscape as much as altered tastes. Mass-market beer arose out of two key innovations of the industrial revolution: refrigeration and pasteurization. Suddenly, beer could travel long distances, and lager slowly took over countryside as well as town.

But in America today, beer has lost its grip. In a column on brown ales, Eric Asimov, the drinks writer for the New York Times, wrote a line that could serve as a beer elegy: “Mild brown ales, the knock-back drink of thirsty coal miners and dock workers, are not so appealing to post-industrial office workers, who are less thirsty and more aspirational.”

But who knows? Pastoral nostalgia fueled the wine boom—after all, we long ago became a mostly urban and suburban nation. Maybe industrial nostalgia will be next, now that our factories are gone. Cubicle-dwellers, raise your pints!

Correction, June 2, 2007: This piece originally misquoted Thurber’s cartoon line about presumptuous wine. (Return to the corrected sentence.)