Wine Consumption

Can wine become an American habit? (Fortune, 1934)

March 25, 2012: 9:30 AM ET

Editor's note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week, we turn to a feature from 1934 on the U.S. wine industry (original headline: "The Wines of the U.S."). Prohibition, which lasted for just under 14 years before it was repealed on December 5, 1933, decimated the U.S. commercial wine industry. After the repeal, American winemakers and merchants had to play a serious game of catch up, both in their quest to make decent wines and in converting U.S. drinkers. Today, California is one of the finest wine regions in the world. And in 2010, the U.S. surpassed France and became the world's largest wine consumer -- by total volume, not per capita -- a far cry from the situation in 1934. One additional note: The writing below is a product of its time. It does not reflect the cultural sensitivity that we at Fortune observe today. 

Can wine become a national habit? Several people, not altogether disinterestedly, have set out to make it one. But even in the world's greatest grape-growing country, there are many obstacles.

FORTUNE -- Fine sleet beat a painful tattoo against the windows of the Manhattan apartment in which Mr. Paul Garrett sat nursing a fever and talking about utopia. A utopia of vineyards stretching southward to the Gulf and northward to the Lakes and across the debt-ridden farm belt down to where California pokes a long fingernail into the tropics. Outside, the holiday traffic rumbled through East Seventy-ninth Street, making jagged discords in the shrill music of the sleet upon the windowpanes; inside the only sounds were Mr. Garrett's hoarse voice and the soft burr of a sliver of jewel scraping against the wax cylinder that was Mr. Carrett's only audience.

There was good reason why Mr. Garrett could talk about a vineyardist's utopia. Everybody called Mr. Garrett the Dean of American Wine Growers, although sometimes Mr. Garrett didn't like to be reminded of that. If he had not so persistently kept his mind upon utopia, Mr. Garrett might perhaps have become bitter ... The cylinder began to whir beneath the sharp sapphire and Mr. Garrett resumed his monologue into the mouthpiece.

"In France the average per-capita consumption of wine is thirty-seven gallons a year. The population of France is less than one-third that of the U.S. About 7,000,000 people are employed in France in the growing of wine grapes, wine making, and in the transport and sale of wine. If we apply these figures to this country we have 130,000,000 people each consuming thirty-seven gallons of wine a year, which makes 4,810,000,000 gallons of wine. At the same rate of man-hours per gallon the production and distribution of 4,810,000,000 gallons of wine would give employment to 21,000,000 people. The development of a wine industry in this country comparable to that in France would wipe out unemployment and provide a shortage of labor able to absorb further technological unemployment for a generation to come."

Now Mr. Paul Garrett is no idle dreamer. It took a very practical man to promote the only American wine whose name almost everybody knew -- Virginia Dare. Mr. Garrett had been in the wine business since 1876, when he was thirteen and began work in the North Carolina vineyards his father and uncle had bought at the close of the Civil War. While still in his teens he took over the management and conceived the idea of establishing a name for his wine and selling it in bottles, a procedure hitherto unheard of in the U.S. By prohibition time Virginia Dare was selling 1,000,000 cases a year and was by far the most popular bottled wine in the country ... And so Mr. Garrett switched off his dictaphone and ran over in his mind some statistics he knew by heart.

In 1918 U.S. wine consumption was 51,000,000 gallons. During prohibition it trebled. Mr. Garrett was one of the few people who realized that amazing fact -- that by 1928 the annual consumption of wine had become about 160,000,000 gallons a year. During those years liquor consumption increased only 50 percent -- by gallons, 60,000,000. Yet the liquor business was organized and aggressive, and the wine industry had been disrupted.

The statistics told Mr. Garrett more. In 1918 some 3,000,000 gallons of wine were imported to fill the slippers of chorus girls and the gullets of the rich. Most of the 51,000,000 gallons produced domestically was sold in bulk and drunk by the foreign-born people of the cities. Of the 159,000,000 gallons consumed in 1928 only a few thousand were imported and only 5,000,000 produced legally and domestically for refreshment while communing with the Lord. That left 154,000,000 gallons which were made illegally in cellars and legally in homes. Since the foreign-born population has not increased since 1918, it seems logical to conclude that much of the 100,000,000-gallon increase in those years was due to new habits contracted by the rank and file of the population. In other words, prohibition has done something very startling to the taste of this nation.

If wine consumption trebled in a dry decade, suppose it trebled during the next wet decade? And again in the next two, which would take it until about 1960, or a generation, to approximate 4,810,000,000 gallons a year and produce an eight-billion-dollar industry and the utopia of Mr. Garrett. The only trouble with drawing such a conclusion is that it is contingent upon wine's being plentiful and good and cheap, and that is why Mr. Garrett, knowing whereof he spoke, did not draw it. The rumble of the traffic and the patter of the sleet kept Mr. Garrett from going too utopian ... The cylinder whirred again. More

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