Monday, March 03, 2008

Going for the throat

A column that originally appeared in Meiningers Wine Business International magazine

"Wine is part of civilization". "Wine offers a consumer an unequalled link with a specific piece of soil or region". "Wine is a necessary accompaniment to food…" These are comments almost guaranteed to get a small nod of appreciation from most readers of this magazine – and most members of the wine industry. But how about this? "Wine is an alcoholic beverage which has to compete with vodka, beer, Coca Cola and coffee for its 'share of throat'". In other words, wine is just another beverage competing for consumer attention. I'll admit that ‘share of throat’ is not an attractive expression. But it's one that is common at Starbucks and Coca Cola.

According to research conducted in 2006 by NPD Group, a New York consumer research firm, "consumers eating breakfast outside the home order soda pop with 15.1% of their breakfasts, compared with 7.9% in 1990". Coke and other soft drinks appear less often at the home breakfast table in America, but the trend is still striking. In 1985, only one morning meal in every 200 would have been washed down with a carbonated soft drink. Today the figure is just under one in 40. And, over the last 15 years, coffee consumption with breakfasts outside the home plummeted from 49 to 38%.

For many of us, this statistic – like the one that says 17% of US meals are now eaten in cars (where they are presumably not accompanied by wine) – is yet another example of the increasing barbarism of North American life. But, in the case of at least one carbonated drink, there's a kind of logic. A standard 12oz serving of Diet Coke contains 46 milligrams of caffeine. That's 30mg less than a similar serving of Starbucks’ cappuccino or latte, and 34mg less than Red Bull, but is probably still enough caffeine for some people to kick start their day.

The ‘share of throat’ issue is just as important for tea manufacturers who saw their total British tea market plummet by around 12% over five years, from £707m in 1999 to just £623m in 2004. This helps to explain why the tea industry has increasingly shifted its focus to Ready-to-Drink – RTD - bottled and canned iced tea. Sales of iced tea in Hong Kong now account to over 15 litres per head and sales in China grew by 29% in 2005, boosted, as Just Drinks reported, by leading brands such as Tingyi, Uni-President, Wahaha and Coca-Cola.

Now, just pause for a moment and consider what you have just read. Coca Cola is helping to convert the Chinese from a traditional hot, unsweetened beverage to a cold sweet one that, apart from the absence of bubbles, bears more than a passing resemblance to some of its other products.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I haven't so much as mentioned wine since the opening paragraph, but I make absolutely no apology for its absence. The wine industry globally spends far, far too much time analyzing its own navel. The interminable discussions over screwcaps and other alternatives versus corks, the use or abuse of oak chips and the European legality or otherwise of designations like Vin de Pays des Vignobles de France all remind me of the discussion had by orchestral players on the Titanic about which songs they would play as they sank beneath the waves.

As a member of the wine industry, just ask yourself how much time you have devoted to watching trends in the rest of the drinks industry over the last year. Did you notice, for example, the way that heavy promotion by one brand – Magners – about serving cider on the rocks (anathema to traditional cider drinkers) contributed to a growth in the previously dormant UK cider market of 23% in 2006? Maybe you didn't, but I'll bet the trend didn't go unnoticed by E&J Gallo, the South African brand Stormhoek and Piper Heidsieck, all of whom launched wines specifically intended to be drunk on ice. Wine may indeed be part of civilization, but civilization itself is evolving at a frightening rate.

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