Wine: Can America swallow one more glass a day?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Famine is giving way to feast in the Californian vineyards, which have had a bumper harvest. But with wine drinking on the decline in the US, who will drink it all? Tim Cornwell tests the waters. Wine maker Scott McLeod lingered over the barrel sample from his 1996 Rubicon, a wine that won't be released until at least 2000. "The wicked youth," he called it, still an awkward adolescent when tasted against its mature uncle, the 1993. "A real teenager," he said, studying the colour of the young wine - "growing too quickly, not its full self."

Since 1992 Mr McLeod has worked at the Niebaum-Coppola winery, owned by the director Francis Ford Coppola. The flagship Rubicon wine, retails for $55 (pounds 33), and is one of the top-rated wines in the Napa Valley. The vineyard, first planted in 1855, presents an autumnal patchwork of reds and browns in a scene more European than Californian. But it is also very Hollywood: the tasting-room at the original chateau sells cigars, olive oil, cutlery and tablecloths and the museum contains, with the history of the Finnish sea-captain who started the place, Don Corleone's desk from the Godfather set.

The good times are very much evident in the Napa Valley, in an industry where the old saw said that to make a small fortune, spend a large one. Several years of short harvests, as the California and American economies rebounded, drove prices and profit margins up in the mid 1990s. Millions of tourists now converge on the valley year round, to ride and dine on the wine train, eat in some of America's best restaurants, and do the tasting trail along picturesque roads not known for strict enforcement by local police. They spend far more on souvenirs - bottles with personalised gilt labels, for example - than your average punter. But a shadow of uncertainty hangs over Napa. California, a state that often seems perilously short of water, is awash with wine this winter. The 1997 grape crush is a giant. At about 3.5 million tonnes, it is expected to break all records.

The prediction for consumers in Europe and the US is that Californian wines will be plentiful and cheap. But the coming glut threatens to undo the prosperity of recent years, particularly for the mid-size wineries who have no quality name like Coppola, or Rubicon, to carry them. It is forcing marketers to grapple with an old question: why won't Americans drink more wine?

In 1996, Americans drank a meagre 1.92 gallons of wine a head. That is about half as much as consumers in the UK, and a fraction of French or Italian consumption. Even in the mid 1980s, Americans drank nearly two and a half gallons. "Every year, we still tend to drink a little bit less," said McLeod. "If we got everybody to drink just one more glass ... "

Wine drinkers are few in number, and tastes are fickle in a country that still has a strong prohibitionist streak. Red-wine consumption soared recently after health studies suggested it broke down cholesterol.

But surveys show that a majority of households have no corkscrew, and suggest that many people, including waiters and waitresses, are intimidated by the physical act of pulling a cork. They are scared that opening a bottle of wine is wasteful because it will go off.

Bigger companies like Sutter Home, which expects to ship 7 million cases of wine this year, and has unblushingly sold sweeter wines in screw-top bottles to cater to middle-American taste buds, have launched advertising campaigns to encourage regular drinking. "Here's to each and every day," goes the slogan.

"Its the big nut to crack," said Stan Hock, Sutter Home spokesman. "People are actually spending more dollars on wine but they are drinking less. The other problem we have is that the Gen' X's [Generation X, the twenty- somethings] seem not to be interested in wine, and the wine industry is not doing much to try to appeal to that group." Sutter Home sells only about 10 per cent of its product overseas, a pattern repeated across the California wine industry. The US is still the dominant market. But while US wine exports are still tiny - the UK, a top importer, bought just $80m (pounds 49m)- worth last year - they have tripled in 10 years, while domestic sales stayed flat. Observers predict a new export drive to Europe, which seems eager to taste Californian.