From the SF Chronicle, still my favorite west coast newspaper. Are we really drinking more?
It certainly looked like everyone was drinking a lot more during quarantine, with the emergence of new terms like quarantini, a catch-all word for any cocktail made and consumed in quarantine.
But the quarantine binge narrative may have been exaggerated — or at least, it may not have lasted beyond the early days of the pandemic, according to preliminary year-end data for 2020. That was especially true for wine drinking, whose industry desperately needed a boost after reports that the country’s overall wine consumption had been trending downward.Depending on which source you consult, U.S. wine consumption in 2019 was either flat or very slightly down, the first time in 25 years it had failed to grow. Though the final data aren’t all in yet, McMillan projects that wine consumption by volume will have grown between 0-1% in 2020, ever so slightly above 2019.
During the week of March 15, when stay-at-home orders came down in the Bay Area and many other parts of the country, retail wine sales were up 66% by value year-over-year, according to Nielsen. It didn’t take long for those rates to taper off a little bit, but in the following months, they remained in a positive growth pattern. At some point in the spring, warnings began to surface about the “quarantine 15,” a danger apparently posed not just by all the tiny pancake cereal but also by excessive boozing.
It now appears that the rise in retail wine sales didn’t tell the full story, and maybe even obscured it. The first way to explain that is that those skyrocketing sales in March and April represented panic buying. Fearful that the stores might run out of everything from meat to baking yeast to toilet paper, people stocked up.
The second reason the retail growth figures are misleading, McMillan said, is because they were part of a phenomenon known as channel shifting. People simply moved their drink purchasing from bars, restaurants and tasting rooms to the grocery store. Again, they didn’t drink more; they just shopped differently.
Ultimately, Nielsen numbers show, retail wine sales by volume grew 16% during the pandemic period, but that wasn’t enough to make up for the losses of wine sales in other sales channels. It would have needed to rise by 22%, in fact, “in order to merely level off from the detrimental impact that the pandemic has had on bars and restaurants,” said Greg Doonan, external communications manager for Nielsen.
But as with in-person wine purchases, the bigger companies made the bigger strides in e-commerce. Total wine sales were up 68% by dollar value year over year, by Nielsen’s calculations, and the drivers of that growth were not the mom-and-pop winery’s website. Rather, McMillan said, the major gains were made by “companies like Walmart.” (I don’t do much bar drinking, but I am certain I bought more wine via mail order wine as well as Trader Joe’s)
The real winner of 2020, however, wasn’t big wineries or big wine retailers. It was hard seltzer, which continued its meteoric ascent, exceeding $4 billion in retail sales during the year, according to Nielsen. As of September, hard seltzer’s dollar share of total off-premise alcohol sales in the U.S. grew by 2.3% over the previous year, while wine’s decreased by 2.1%, suggesting that many drinkers may have replaced wine with hard seltzer. (I bought some too)
So, here is my question. Did you buy any hard seltzer this past year, not having purchased any previously? I must answer yes, and will admit it was refreshing on a hot summer evening, in place of my usual wine or sparkling.
Some restaurants and businesses have been quite creative during the pandemic. A Berkeley restaurant I mentioned in a previous email, now touts an award winning wine list to go along with their award winning take out menu. He makes as much from his wine list, as his soon to be James Beard quality food. A business in Seattle has packaged a case of a dozen bottles, red, white, or sparkling. Three different price points are offered, and hidden gems are found in each case. How creative!!!