Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a "One-Hour Wine Expert" seminar at Lake Placid's Mirror Lake Inn with Kevin Zraly, author of the best-selling Windows on the World Complete Wine Course and the 2011 recipient of the James Beard Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award. I don't know if the seminar turned me into a wine expert, but I did learn a few things and was thoroughly entertained in the process.
Zraly was the wine director at the Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the World Trade Center that, before it was destroyed in the terrorist attack of 2001, sold more wine than any other establishment in the country. Since then he's been focused on wine education as a roving connoisseur, raconteur and probably some other French nouns. But his high-energy presentation is purely American, delivered with equal parts Jay Leno–style witty audience banter and Tony Robbins zeal (there was even some tongue-in-cheek "what-your-favorite-wine-says-about-you" analysis).
Zraly shared some interesting tidbits about American wine consumption and how it's changed over his four decades in the business. "This is the golden age of wine," he said, explaining that there is more good, affordable wine available now than at any time in history. And we're drinking a lot more than we used to. In the 1970s, the domestic wine industry had yet to really take off, and Americans were far behind Europeans in their wine consumption. In 2010 the United States overtook France as the world's biggest consumer of wine, according to a recent report from Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.
This doesn't mean, of course, that we are the largest per capita consumers of wine—not by a long shot. That distinction goes to the Vatican city-state, followed by Luxembourg, according to the Wine Institute's latest report, from 2009. Zraly noted that 40 percent of Americans don't drink any alcohol at all, and many more prefer beer or spirits.
But those of us who do drink wine are quaffing it in larger quantities, and in ways that surprise and possibly dismay traditionalists, i.e. frequently without food. The practice of pairing wine and food comes from centuries of European tradition, where wine is an essential component of leisurely meals. That lifestyle doesn't exist for most people in the United States. Earlier this week the New York Times wine critic Sam Sifton Eric Asimov wrote about a recent survey of 800 Americans who drink wine frequently; it found that only 46 percent of the wine they drank was consumed with a meal. The rest was paired either with snacks like nuts and crackers, or without food at all. Sifton, Asimov, who wrote that he considers wine "a grocery item" (despite the fact that New York law prohibits wine sales in grocery stores), added that he found "the idea of divorcing food and wine unsettling, to say the least."
Personally, I'm not surprised by the survey results, because those percentages correlate almost exactly with my own wine consumption; I like a glass with dinner, but I will just as frequently drink it in place of a cocktail at a party or to unwind after work. I'm admittedly no wine expert—even after an hour with Zraly—but I imagine the industry doesn't care how people are drinking their product, as long as they're drinking more of it.