Wining and Dining America

Generating a nice buzz but leaving before the hangover, the world's largest international wine exposition came to the United States for the first time in its 20-year history.

And though Americans probably won't be giving up their Buds, Heinekens and Pabst Blue Ribbons, Vinexpo, in New York City last week, highlighted the fact that more and more Americans are reaching for the corkscrew when they want a drink.

"This is the biggest market in wine," said Hideharu Ohta, president of Daishiki Sake Brewery.

The Vinexpo usually meets in Bordeaux, France. But this year, in a grand departure, winemakers from 28 countries attended the New York show.

Pierre-Henry Gagey, president of Burgundy-based Maison Louis Jadot, said Americans are an important segment of the wine-buying population because they're dedicated and discerning consumers.

"America is a country that has loyalty to the brand," he said. "In America, people are willing to pay a little more for quality."

Ohta found America a more encouraging market than Europe and hoped Americans would seize onto sake as a drink of choice. "Sake drinking is good for your health," Ohta said through a translator.

"Healthy" is certainly a word to describe the wine market in the United States. Americans drank 23.2 percent more wine in 2000 than they did in 1994. They drank 2.43 gallons per person in 2000 and are expected to drink 2.9 gallons in 2006.

Terry Martin, of Rye, N.Y., found those numbers reflected in his own life. The 58-year-old TV producer said he and his wife have gone from being relative teetotalers to regular oenophiles in only a couple years. Now they travel to the Napa Valley in California three or four times a year to explore wineries.

"We recall meals we had by the wine we drank," Martin said. "It's turning ordinary eating experiences into daily celebrations."

British Petroleum risk manager Peter O'Neill said from Houston that he's shifted away from the taste for beer he developed in college to drinking wine with dinner.

"It's not like I'm drinking it straight out of the bottle, I'm just developing a taste for it, trying different things," the 29-year-old said.

Michaela Schlink, vice president of Schlink Haus in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, wasn't surprised by such anecdotes.

"Americans are very open to taste, they like to taste and try new things," she said.

But while Americans' tastes are shifting, the exposition's arrival in New York might also reflect the increasingly competitive nature of the wine industry. In 2001, 541 million cases of wine were left unconsumed. In 2005, it's estimated that 611 million cases will never touch human lips.

Even the average consumer has noticed the surplus.

"It seems like everybody and their brother is starting a winery these days," O'Neill said. "You're really getting there when you see wines made in Texas and Colorado."

The surplus has forced foreign winemakers to rethink their traditional strategies. That's especially true for French wines, whose popularity has declined in the face of competition from Australia, New Zealand and Spain. Italian wines remain Americans' top import choice.

"France wants to re-win its first place in the U.S. market, but first France has to be less arrogant to other countries and the consumers," Philip Guigal, of the Rhone Valley's E. Guigal, said.

Gagey didn't see the wine glut as a problem when it came to the U.S., however.

"The surplus tells us that we must be mindful that there is no room for anyone of average or mediocre wines," he said. "American people really understand quality. That's why all the great brands do well in America."

And the chairwoman of Vinexpo Americas, Dominique Heriard Dubreuil, said Americans realize they don't have to be afraid of wines anymore. Dubreuil is also chairman and CEO of Remy Cointreau.

"People thought it was too sophisticated or too expensive to have, but that hasn't been the case for a long time anymore," she said.

That was certainly the experience for Martin, who said he's seen more Americans trying wine.

"I do think Americans are intimidated by the wine experience, but the people we see out there -- holy smokes! -- some of them are extremely sophisticated," he said.