Low-Alcohol Trend? Think Again

A couple weeks ago Joe Roberts (1WineDude) queried on Twitter “Curious: I keep hearing about a low alcohol wine trend in the US, but does any consumer data exist to back it up?” Tyler Thomas (winemaker for Donelan Wines) replied on Twitter with a link to a page of statistics compiled by Wine Institute and Gomberg, Fredrickson.

The data show US wine consumption per capita from 1940 through 2010, along with figures for total gallons consumed and gallons consumed of “table wine” (defined as wines under 14% alcohol by volume).

I pulled these figures into a spreadsheet and subtracted the table wine gallons from the total wine gallons, to calculate the gallons of wine consumed that is (by definition) greater than 14% ABV. Then I expressed this as a fraction of the total wine consumed, and graphed it: click to see larger No question that today we are drinking wines with lower alcohol than we were in 1948. Six decades ago more of the wine Americans drank was fortified, compared to what we drink today; the fraction of wine consumed qualifying as “table wine” (under 14% ABV) exploded after 1968. There is definitely a trend to lower alcohol from 1968 through 2000.

What’s interesting is that the fraction of wine consumed in the US that is over 14% ABV has been increasing steadily over the last decade. So it’s safe to say that if there is some trend to lower alcohol, consumers in general don’t know about it yet. (Click here to see the complete spreadsheet.)

7 thoughts on “Low-Alcohol Trend? Think Again

  1. Thomas Pellechia


    If ATF regs still refer to Table Wine with a limit of 14%, what do they call non-fortified wine that is above 14%?

    More important, how do the charts refer to wines under 14 as opposed to over 14?

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Thomas – the WI chart has one column for all wines and another column for table wines. Subtract table wines from all wines and you get wines over 14%. TTB doesn’t have a special category for non-fortified wines over 14% – they are just table wines above an arbitrarily determined alcohol level which triggers an increase in the amount of excise tax paid by the producer. The 14% alcohol level is meaningless in any other context.

  2. Tyler Thomas

    I believe wines over 14% are referred to as dessert wines!

    John, what I wish we could get access to would be trends in wines over $30…or whatever price category you want to view. Don’t you think it is safe to assume that since the majority of wine produced is below $15, and at that price produced at a very large volume, that the explanation for so much wine <14% is purely economical: companies pay less tax.

    The problem I have with those who cite low alcohol trends is that they do so with very little data, and they seem to be talking about very specific parts of the wine market (i.e. smaller, high-end brands) but they do not indicate that this is what they are doing. To paint a broad brush is clearly inaccurate as evidenced by your data. But what of the higher tier wines?

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Tyler – yes, that’s IT! TTB does call wines from 14%-24% ABV “dessert” wines: CFR, Title 27, Part 4.21(a)(3).

      It would be extremely interesting to look just at the super premium, ultra premium and luxury segments; I can’t find a source of data.

      But consider for a moment: if, as you suggest, the vast majority of the wine consumed is produced as table wine for reasons of lower excise tax, then the trend to increased consumption of wines over 14% since 2002 is even more significant.

  3. Thomas Pellechia

    Yes, I remember now that over 14% was always TTB’s dessert category, which doesn’t help much in the analysis, because some of those non-table wines in the WI chart may be dessert wines.

    Tyler’s point is a good one, and as you say, John, it places an even greater spotlight on the significance of the consumption of over 14 percenters.

    In any case, I wonder what it is that producers, WI, and you may be trying to get at by analyzing the data. You can’t have either a higher or lower alcohol trend unless producers put a higher or lower alcohol wines on the market at significant levels.

    Unless you guys know something that I have never discovered, it seems to me that the majority of American wine consumers don’t clamor for either high or low alcohol–they consume what is available to them. With that in mind, I think the focus of the trend, if there is a trend, should be on the trend to produce rather than to consume high or low alcohol wines.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      “…the majority of American wine consumers don’t clamor for either high or low alcohol––they consume what is available to them.” Exactly. There are a couple of points here. One) the paucity of data available in this discussion is clear indication that nobody who matters gives a crap, that there is no money to be made in attempting to document some “low-alcohol trend” fiction. Two) this very sparse data set suggests that producers are not moving to produce low alcohol wine in great numbers – hell, even sales of 3.8 million gallons of low-alcohol Moscato in 2010 has not bent the curve down. Three) the tremendous amount of ink being spent “in pursuit of balance” is, at best, a discussion occurring at the very outermost fringe of the market; at worst it is just so much wishful thinking and pointless mental masturbation.

  4. Thomas Pellechia

    Yeah, I don’t spend ink in pursuit of balance, I spend what counts in the quest: my money.

    I wonder if the stupidly-named Beringer White Zinfandel Moscato is low or high alcohol.

    Actually, I don’t wonder. I don’t even care…


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