Somehow I missed this little tidbit in last Sunday’s paper — oh, yeah, I was out of town for Memorial weekend — but I feel compelled to address it now. The S.F. Chronicle quotes a statistic from a survey by Merrill Research of San Francisco that a “survey of 1,398 wine consumers shows that between 2000 and 2005, the U.S. wine drinking population increased by 31 percent among adults in households with income greater than $35,000.” This is cited to support the statement that “[w]ine continues to steal drinkers’ attention from beer and spirits.”
Okay, let’s break that down. It’s a survey of “wine drinkers,” that is people who already drink wine rather than other alcoholic beverages. Does that strike anyone else as odd to use in an article comparing the rate of consumption of different drinks? Essentially the way I read it people who already prefer wine drank more of it over a five year period. Hooray! So what? Not exactly ground breaking, is it? Am I missing something? Plus, it further narrows the study by restricting it to households that make more that $35K, which is almost twice the amount where the poverty line is drawn and falls somewhere in between the second and third fifths of median income nationwide. So basically the study further says that people in the middle-class or upper middle-class (depending on where you draw that line) and up to and including the über-rich are the only people whose opinions were counted in determining wine drinking was up. So what was everybody whose income was below $35,000 drinking? Apparently is doesn’t matter, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say perhaps beer might be involved.
Of course, this number manipulation skews the results and thus the conclusions being drawn therefrom. We all know statistics lie, so why bother? I think the reason is twofold. First, it may be simply that people only read headlines and maybe the first paragraph or so and they tend to look for support for their beliefs and so would be expected to read this much less critically than I would. After all, this article was part of the newspaper’s wine section. Where is the newspaper’s beer section? Don’t ask. Second, putting statistics out there in print, even false or misleading ones, gives them a kind of legitimacy. One thing I learned as a Billboard reporter in the 1980s when I ran a record store was that people are often sheep. They want to be seen doing whatever is popular which is why sales charts, popularity contests, etc. are so useful to business. There’s a kind of snowball effect when something is perceived to be popular, that very fact makes it more popular as people jump on the bandwagon to be “with it” or whatever. So just by saying something is more popular and saying it with statistics, even questionable ones, can go a long way to making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But the Chronicle article isn’t finished mangling things:
“Wine continues to steal drinkers’ attention from beer and spirits, according to a recent survey, with three varietals proving particularly enticing to novices. Consumers who are decreasing their beer and spirits consumption but increasing their wine consumption are drinking more Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz and Pinot Grigio than the rest of the wine-drinking population.”
I’m not sure what the point of this is, and the study mentioned is never cited but I don’t think it’s the same study that began the article. The article continues. ” At the same time, the percentage of U.S. adults who drink beer and spirits but not wine declined by 25 percent.” Again, where is this data coming from? It appears on the small amount of information and citations used that these conclusions are drawn from comparing two and possibly three different studies, a fool’s game if ever there was one.
But when you look at the dollars involved, the numbers paint a different picture. In 2004, for example, American consumers spent $82 billion on beer, $49 billion on spirits and only $23 billion on wine. And the price of many wine bottles exceeds, and in some cases greatly exceeds, that of the average six-pack. This suggests to me that the actual number of beer purchases vs. wine purchases is even greater than the disparity in total sales indicates. There are all sorts of reasons to suggest that people answer poll questions with a certain bias. As a result, sales figures seem far more accurate a measure to me.
Given wine’s incessant snob appeal, I’m not really sure why they’re trying to use statistics to turn it into the people’s drink. Perhaps the media is trying to justify its pathetic coverage of beer. And I guess stories that buck conventional wisdom, and indeed logic and the real unvarnished statistics, are deemed more interesting. After all, that’s why famously nobody wants to read a story about a dog biting a man but vice versa it’s front page news. Everyone already knows beer is the second most consumed manufactured (meaning not water) beverage in the world (tea is number one) so anything that throws that into question is likely to become news because it goes against conventional wisdom. Plus — and this may be a California thing — alcohol law differences between beer, wine and spirits make it very difficult for beer to spend money on advertising but frighteningly easy for wine and spirits. Thus, wine and spirits advertising spending greatly outnumbers beer and newspapers are keenly aware of who pays the bills. No matter how you slice it, beer seems to be perpetually on the losing end of of our media’s coverage.