Friday, February 7, 2014

We are the enlightened 5%

Earlier this week, I wrote an article for Wine Searcher about people who buy wines over $20. A big takeaway is that only 5% of American adults are willing to spend that much, occasionally, for a bottle of wine.

It's easy to read that and worry about a charge leveled on wine drinkers until recently: that we are elitist.

But there's a big difference between the enlightened 5% and "the 1%" of Americans in the highest income bracket. In the enlightened 5%, we are self-selecting, inclusive, and all about having a good time at nobody's expense but ours.

Anyone can join this group: all you have to do is buy a $20 bottle of wine once a month.

You can say there's an income below which people can't afford to do so, but I'm a freelance writer. I guarantee you I have been below whatever income level you draw, and I've never stopped enjoying a good bottle of wine now and then. You don't have to buy Bordeaux futures to join the 5%; you just have to splurge once in a while on an Oregon Pinot Noir.

The US differs from Europe in that we've always had a divide between the enlightened and everyone else. This was a whiskey-drinking country practically from its inception, with wine lovers like Thomas Jefferson in the minority.

What's changed as the US has become the world's largest wine market is the spread of enlightenment, not the popularization of wine for the masses.

 Don't let the advent of Duck Dynasty wines mislead you into thinking that wine is suddenly on the table all over the Bible Belt. The Wine Market Council reports that 35% of American adults don't drink any alcohol at all, and 21% don't drink wine. Wine consumption is growing every year, but the people driving this growth are those who drink wine more than once a week -- and that's only 1/3 of wine drinkers, or about 15% of American adults.

And 2/3 of that group of regular wine drinkers buys only wines below $20. Which leaves us with the enlightened 5%.

People who care about wine are quickly drawn into buying wine over $20 now and then. Millenials, for example: They spend less overall on wine than baby boomers, because they don't have any money, but 55% of millenial wine drinkers sometimes buy wines over $20, compared to 22% of boomers. Millenials understand that good wine is worth a splurge.

Millenials are not the trolls who comment on newspaper wine articles that nothing is better than Two Buck Chuck. Enlightened boomers are still the best consumers of wine, because they have perspective and some savings. But those other 78% of wine-drinking boomers are a lost cause for fine wines and for writing about them as well. I can write about freshness and minerality and originality until my fingers are sore, and they're still going to drink whatever's on sale at Safeway.

The 5% are my readers: 56% of them read wine blogs, compared to 11% of the only-under-$20 crowd.

I like writing for the enlightened 5% because I want to write for people who want to read what I have to say. Nobody in the 5% ever comments, "Who cares? Wine is all the same." Here in the 5%, we may disagree about things (like the World's Best 100 Types of Wine), but we care.

And 5% is not a small number.

* The Big Bang Theory draws less than 5% of Americans to watch it. It's the highest-rated comedy on television. American Idol regularly dominates its time slot. It draws about 4%.

* 5% of Americans are Asian-American

* 5% of American men are gay

* Of Americans who practice a religion, 5% are not Christian

* 5% of Americans wash their hands properly in public restrooms

I daresay nobody would accuse any of those groups as elitist. And I'm sure there's overlap in my readers with all five groups. I'll bet I have a number of gay, Asian-American, Buddhist readers who watch the Big Bang Theory. But there's a 95% chance I don't want to shake hands.

So be proud, wine blog reader and purchaser of $20 wines. Say it with me, "We are the enlightened 5%."

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Bob Henry said...


It has been suggested that around 80% of all wine consumed domestically is bought by about 13% of the adult populace.

And that 13 percent base of "heavy users" (marketing jargon) hasn't necessarily grown even in good economic times. (Say, prior to the 2007 financial markets meltdown or the 2008 housing market collapse.)

The "low hanging fruit" of domestic retail wine sales comprises Baby Boomers who embraced wine as a beverage of preference following college graduation and the launch of their careers.

A rising income middle-class income funded those wine drinking explorations. (And for a single digit few, the formation of wine collections.)

Rob McMillan over at the SVB on Wine blog has written extensively on the role that Boomers continue to play in leading domestic wine consumption:

"Are You Adjusting Your Marketing To Boomers?"

Excerpt: "We've been writing for years on the Millennial Myths, the most prevalent one being Millennials are driving fine wine sales. That's absolutely false. They aren't driving sales and there shouldn't even be a debate."


There is nothing elitist in recognizing a higher quality product when you experience it. And acting on that knowledge by "voting with your wallet" and buying it.

Some folks are satisfied drinking tap water.

Others prefer bottled spring or mineral water.

Some folks are satisfied with Velveeta cheese.

Others prefer small producer "artisanal" cheddar.

No one should be embarrassed by displaying "discernment."

That's an encouraging sign of a better educated, "enlightened," and evolving society.

"The best is always the enemy of the good."

~~ Bob

Bob Henry said...


If the enlightened 5% also wish to be the "entertained 5%," they should check out your 2006 San Francisco Chronicle article titled "Top 10 Wine Movies" (which I noted in the sidebar on your home page):

And they should look forward to the documentary on Rudy Kurniawan's counterfeit wines:

"Rudy Kurniawan Documentary Film Goes Into Production"

Summary: A documentary film charting the rise and fall of convicted wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan is in production and set to be complete by the end of 2014, according to producers


~~ Bob



Since you say no one comments, I will. Here a few facts about me...
I'm a 26 yr old female.
I have a part time job as a nutritionist.
Needless to say I don't make tons of money.
In the last 6 months I've spent more than $1k on wine.
I stopped counting. I don't want to think about it.
The most common question is "Why wine?"
Why am I willing to spend hundreds on a bottle of wine but I can't justify the cost of $10 mascara?
Nothing gives me a rush like wine.
I'll stop there. It's just a comment, not my life story.
Love your blog, btw!