Americans drank more wine than the French for the first time in history last year — a milestone many veterans once thought unreachable.
"It's stunning," said winemaker Richard Arrowood, who worked his first Sonoma County grape harvest in 1965. "If someone had said we'd get here, I'd have asked them what they were smoking."
Americans drank 3.96 billion bottles of wine in 2010, compared to 3.85 billion bottles of wine consumed by the French, according to Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a wine industry consulting firm in Woodside. Americans are now the world's top wine consumer by volume.
"It's a heck of a benchmark," said Jon Fredrikson, author of the annual report released Tuesday. "I don't see anyone overtaking us in the foreseeable future."
The milestone has long been in the making — perhaps dating as far back as the famed 1976 Paris Wine Tasting when California wines outscored their better-known European rivals and drew national attention. But Tuesday's announcement still impressed industry veterans.
"I'm not sure anyone would have anticipated this day back then," said veteran winemaker Patrick Campbell, who began farming Sonoma County wine grapes in 1974. "I think everyone back then thought it was a localized California thing."
Americans have gradually been adding more bottles of wine to their shopping carts over the years. The trend is especially pronounced among the millennial generation, people aged 21 to about 32, according to Tuesday's report.
"I was drinking wine in college, and I was something of an anomaly," Campbell said. "Now my kids drink wine in college and that is nothing unusual."
Yet Tuesday's news does not alleviate the economic woes still battering high-end wine producers on the North Coast.
Americans have become the world's largest consumer of wine by turning to lower-priced wines often produced in the Central Valley, and increasingly even overseas, according to Tuesday's report.
California produced 60.5 percent of the wine drank by Americans in 2010, down from 61 percent in 2009.
Overall, Americans spent $30billion on wine last year, up 4 percent from 2009. About 66 percent of that was spent on wines costing more than $7, according to Tuesday's report. But the majority of wine — about 61 percent — costs under $7 a bottle.
Last year's milestone doesn't mean the U.S. wine market is fully developed, Fredrikson said. The average Frenchmen drinks 12.2 gallons a year, while his American counterpart is only drinking 2.6 gallons annually.
"The real milestone will come when we drink more wine on a per capita basis," Campbell said. "But I'm not sure I'll be alive to see that moment."
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