WE ARE WHAT WE DRINK

12.07.14 11:45 PM ET

Beer Countries vs. Wine Countries

Across the globe and inside nations, tastes are changing. Beer-swilling Britain and Spain now boast impressive varietals while America is challenging France with how much wine is consumed.

How much of a nation’s sophistication can be defined by what kind of booze it pours into a glass? Strange as it may seem, I first pondered this question in the airport concourse at Seattle.

Given that most U.S. airports seem to be staging a full dress rehearsal for mankind’s dystopian future, such a civilized conjecture might seem surprising in such a place. It was actually surprising to me.

Having just crossed the country in coach, I needed instant spiritual repair.

I found it beckoning, almost like a mirage, in the form of the Vino Volo wine bar. Lest it was a mirage, I moved toward it tentatively, worried that I was in some kind of post-flight meltdown and that it might dematerialize on touch.

A wine list and a short bar menu sitting on each table seemed tangible enough. Without taking a seat, I scanned the wine list. There was a logic to it – many of the wines were from the Pacific Northwest, principally from Oregon and Washington state. So I was happy to see that the European theory of terroir was in action, promoting with pride the qualities of a specific region.

I sat down. Things were beginning to feel right. I picked out a pinot noir from  Oregon’s Willamette Valley, one of the first regions in the U.S. to long ago prove itself able to make pinots as good as those from Burgundy. It was a 2012 vintage from the Trisaetum vineyard, and it was everything a pinot should be, needing no winespeak from a waiter to elaborate on the reasons for its excellence.

I ordered a plate of charcuterie to go with it, a well balanced and presented selection of hams and salumi with some cheese and fig jam. I was able quickly to forget that I was still in the airport. My spine began slowly to resume its normal contours.

I’ve been in many airports in France and Italy where you wouldn’t find anything as stylish as Vino Volo – in fact, these days European airports are as packed with American crap fast food franchises as are our own, and often with far worse service. Europeans seem to find them exotic, an odd case of culture-envy in reverse.

So something was happening here. While I know that one small miracle does not indicate a cultural shift any larger than itself, this experience did turn out to be part of a pattern. The cities of Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have been established foodie meccas for a while, but their rising standards seem to be lifting all boats around them. Even my budget hotel had a cabernet from California’s Central Coast, a 2012 Estancia, well matched to a decent steak frites. Not so long ago the best you could hope for in an Interstate exit ramp overnighter like this would have been an execrable pink zinfandel.

As it happened, shortly after this experience I saw a map of Europe in the Financial Times where countries were divided according to whether their populations were predominantly beer or wine drinkers.

Three were predictable: The Italians and French were, of course, wine imbibers and the Germans were deep in the beer cellar. But there were two designations that seemed anachronisms to me: -- Spain and the United Kingdom among the beer swillers.

In fact, what this map really showed was the fallacy of aggregates – and how statistics can mask real cultural shifts. The map had no explanation of its methodology, but it was clearly based on total volumes of booze sold and consumed rather than on what might be happening to public tastes not reflected in those numbers -- and this story is really all about changing tastes.

To start with, if you believed the map, you wouldn’t guess that among all Europe’s wine producing countries, Spain is the most transformed.

The country’s winemakers have spent a lot of time and money learning how to take advantage of the Iberian peninsular’s extremes of climate and terroir. For those who know Spain only from its high volume wines like Rioja, there is a whole world of tastes beyond the familiar waiting to be savored.

Galicia, in the northwest, exposed to Atlantic weather, looks as green as Ireland but has hundreds of micro-climates producing everything from delightful young and sappy white wines to surprisingly intense and complex reds.

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In spartan, landlocked, and little-traveled Extramadura, in the south (, where acorn-munching blackfoot pigs in the foothills deliver the finest Iberico hams), I was introduced to a powerhouse red, Real Provision, made by a rare woman winemaker, Dolores Morenas, that could humble a similar but far more expensive Italian barolo.

And in the far south, almost in view of North Africa, the tiny port of Sanlucar de Barrameda produces the finest of fino sherries.

Sure, the Spanish still drink a lot of beer. But in virtually every region of the  peninsular the winemaking has been on a thirty30-year voyage of self-discovery to the point where Spain can compete at every level of quality with France and Italy – and, because the Spaniards are less hidebound by tradition, they offer more accomplished quality, innovation, variety and value. (No surprise that few wine lists in either France or Italy show any interest in or knowledge of Spanish wines.)

The revolution in taste is just as great in the United Kingdom, but it’s a revolution in consumption rather than production. Sure, more wine, particularly with bubbles, is now produced in southern England, thanks largely to climate change bringing warmer summers, but the quality is spotty and, for what they are, the wines are expensive.

But for wine lovers the country’s greatest asset has always been that its tastes have never been dominated and restricted by a nativist industry, as is the case in France. As a result these days in any major British city you’ll find restaurants and wine bars with wine lists drawn from the whole world’s best regions to a degree not equaled even in New York, where there are many outstanding cellars drawing from global sources.

In his days of early exuberance in the 1990s, Pprime Mminister Tony Blair envisioned Britain becoming a “wine bar society,” – a fatuous thought that reflected Blair’s residence in the aspirant London enclave of Islington – and his distance from reality. In doing so, he implied the obsolescence of that most embedded of British watering holes, the pub. And it is true that since Blair was in power the pub culture has taken a beating. In 1980 there were 69,000 pubs. Today there are 48,000 – and the number of pints of beer swigged per year has fallen by two thirds, from 29 million to just over 10 million.

Part of this is due to the move from beer to wine. But as in the U.S. it also reflects the move from industrial-scale brewing to micro-brewings. The Wall Street Journal reported that in the U.S. 44 per cent of drinkers aged between 21 and 27 had never even tried Budweiser. The output of craft beers has more than doubled since 2010. In Britain the craft beer movement began much earlier, under the slogan “Real Ale.” Connoisseurship in beer now matches connoisseurship in wine, breaking the market down into small-scale markets that the big brewers can’t reach.

Thus beer and wine do not become antithetic choices that define either a nation or what kind of society it is. Tastes in both have a learning curve and the more there are distinctive varieties of each, the more discerning consumption becomes.

Discernment in other pleasures follows, particularly in food, so that the sympathetic pairing of both beer and wine with food can drive a country’s epicurean sophistication. A lot of British pubs have been smart enough to understand this and respond. In the form of the gastropub, many of them serving locally- sourced fish and meat, they have given Britain something of an update on the traditional local grazing network that is provided in France by the bistro and brasserie.

It’s therefore a nonsense to persist with the idea, promoted by that Financial Times map, that there is an arbitrary cultural divide defined by the consumption statistics for beer and wine. Clearly, the numbers conceal significant changes in habits and taste going on within national borders that have only thing in common: an ever more demanding sophistication.

In the U.S. this extends beyond wine and beer. American whiskies are on a bender. In Kentucky the bourbon distillers have had to increase their payrolls by 77 per cent in two years to meet the demand. (A lot of that demand is coming from Europe and China.) There are also charlatans at work, making so-called “small -batch” whiskies whose only distinction is their bottle and label, rather than authentic ageing and improved quality. But real American artisanal whiskies are now satisfying the tastes of the same people who appreciate fine Scotch and cognac.

Asking whether increased sophistication is learned from the glass or whether it really begins with a steady rise in living standards (and expectations) is like asking which end of a telescope you should view from -- my experience at Seattle airport was the narrowest of close-ups but it was not a reliable guide to the big picture. No generalization could be drawn from it.

The new headline number for American wine drinking is, for example, easily turned into another misleading statistic. This year, for the first time, the United States became the world’s largest market for wine. Americans bought the equivalent of 329 million cases of wine, while the French, the previous top consumers, bought the equivalent of 313 million cases. But we have a long way to go before we can match the French in individual consumption. In the U.S. the average per person is 10.5 liters a year, in France more than 44 liters.

What is much more important than these numbers is an internal dynamic for which there are no statistics. For example, in France or Italy having dinner without wine is still, for many families, an affront to the cook and a cultural blasphemy. In the U.S. having wine with food is far more common in a restaurant than at home. Even then, it’s predominantly an urban habit, and a relatively new one, not something familiar for generations. We know Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin loved wine but that was the habit of a worldly ruling class, not something written into the Constitution that was intended to trickle down.

A wine consumption map of the U.S. is as fallible as that wine map of Europe. It shows what the experience of any frequent flyer already demonstrates. Wine drinking is still predominantly bicoastal. The wine producing west coast states – California, Oregon and Washington – are now mature and replete wine cultures where the cuisines have risen with the vintages. That is also the case in the north eastern states, where some are flourishing wine producers and some are not but the effect has been the same, a spreading knowledge of wine. Florida, with its large seasonal migrations of northeasterners, is also now a wine-wise state.

But the “fly-over” states have yet to join the trend. There is an extreme demonstration of this divide in the nation. The highest per capita wine consumption in the U.S. is in Washington – that’s Washington D.C., not Washington state, at 26 liters a year—five times as much as in Tennessee, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Nebraska.

It would seem that in splurging on wine our political class is way out ahead of many of their constituents. Not hard to imagine what drives this number – money, the ever swelling lubricant of elective office. All those influence peddlers are building a European-style epicurean culture in the nation’s capital, where the high volume of wine drinking is matched by the price of the bottles – and restaurant meals. Only the finest vintages and producers will clinch the deal.

If this seems a little prejudicial, a bit too much like the complaint of the outsider whose face is pressed enviously at the window, consider this. The highest per capita wine consumption in the world is in the Vatican. All those cardinals and clerics get through an average of 73.7 liters each a year.

We should remember that holy men have always possessed good noses for wine. Benedictine monks in southern France invented the sparkling blanquette de Limoux, long before their idea was appropriated in the north by Champagne. You can bet that very little of the wine in the Vatican is of the sacramental variety and that most of it is expertly selected and cellared as a matter of course. However reform-minded the new Pope pope may be, he’s not going to break a habit as entrenched as that. And why should he? He comes from Argentina, one of the new world’s finest wine producing countries.

Where, however, will be the wine producing countries of the future?  The world map of viniculture is no longer settled. Traditionally it has been determined globally by two bands of latitude – between 30 and 50 degrees in the northern and southern hemispheres. With 2014 now measured as the world’s hottest year everon record, climate change is already, as in England, making some northern regions warmer. At the same time, extended droughts in places like southern Spain and increasingly violent storms in temperate zones like Burgundy and Bordeaux have ravaged vineyards.

As southern California turns to desert western Canada could follow Oregon and Washington states as a contender in top class wines. A Chateau Vancouver 2020 cabernet might well make the earth move.