The United States is the largest wine consumer in the world, exceeding the wine-producing European countries such as Italy and France, which long dominated world markets. According to the Beverage Information Group, 52 percent of women prefer wine, as compared to 20 percent of men. Women make up 57 percent of wine buyers.
Women and Wine Culture
How did the wine industry reinvent itself from the image of wine as a cheap and very alcoholic beverage in the 1920’s and 1930’s to a sophisticated product? In particular, wine has also become a product that targets women through clever emotionally appealing marketing, with brands such as Skinny Girl, Mad Housewife, Happy Bitch and Mommy Juice.
By creating wine as a symbol of social status, the re-imagined wine industry has also become became a reinforcer of social and class divisions in the United States.
A Brief History of Women and Wine in the United States:
Since colonial times, settlers attempted to bring the craft of wine and beer making from Europe to the United States.
However, it was soon discovered that not all geographic regions in the United States were conducive to growing grapes. Land along coastal waters was most successful. They created a micro-climate similar to the coastal regions in Europe. Many settlers made wine, beer and other spirits. As gatherers, women participated in harvesting crops which led to the craft.
As the West was settled, some of the first buildings erected in towns were saloons.
In a town with several beer halls, each salon boasted its special amenities. They touted well-ventilated rooms, meals at all hours, choice whiskies, Havana cigars and even space for women. The Palace Beer Hall in Denison, Texas advertised in the May 18, 1877 Daily News that its “wine room, which has recently been fitted up, is nicely furnished.” Entrepreneurial proprietors fixed up wine rooms out back for female drinkers. Saloons with a second story were able to accommodate upstairs wine rooms. Likewise, that section of the establishment was accessible through a separate door. Often posted as the Family Entrance or Ladies’ Entrance, doors typically opened on an alley.
Prohibition and ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and the defiant flapper phenomenon of the 1920s put an end to wine rooms.
The law closed all legal saloons for 14 years. And when they reopened in 1933, women were standing alongside men at the bar, a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other.
The original purpose of the Wine Institute in 1934 was to open markets to California wine, reduce taxes, oppose prohibition and educate consumers.
In 1934, many consumers made their own wine at home. And early advertising focused on wine as a mealtime beverage. This helped to convert the industry from dessert to table wines. Wine was for older people, particularly older women.
In the nineteenth century, American wineries produced quality wines. But the era of Prohibition from 1922 to 1933 eradicated the domestic wine industry, and had long-lasting consequences.
During the decades between the 1930s and 1960s, a large percentage of American wine was cheap with a high-alcohol content. This was called “dessert wine” under the United States definition, in contrast to “table wine”. There was the huge demand for so-called fortified wines, such as muscatel, port, and sherry. Largely because of their high-alcohol content and relatively inexpensive price (50 to 75 cents per bottle). These “proof per penny wines” proved more popular than dry wines in the United States. Dessert wines outsold table wines three to one. Since they were cheaper to produce than quality table wines and seldom aged, the American wine industry was largely devoted to the production of these dessert wines in the 1940s and 1950s. These “fortified wines” were also often referred to as “skid row drink”.
After World War II, women were leaving their wartime factory jobs, getting married and returning to roles as housewife and mother.
At this same time, cocktail rituals were woven into the fabric of the dominant culture and drinking began to shift. No longer an occasional, often public act, alcohol was incorporated into daily life. And in the home as a marker and accompaniment of leisure. Advertising utilized Hollywood stars to market not only cigarettes but also wine. A Roma wine advertisement , featured such actresses as Jane Russell and Lucille Ball. In the largest wine producing state of the nation, California, grocery stores gave out samples of local wines to women shoppers to promote the industry.
In 1962, the First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, opened the White House to a televised tour, which was specifically designed to appeal to a female audience.
The tour focused on the restoration and redecoration of the president’s official residence. It featured a grandly set dining table, which included crystal wineglasses. It was later analyzed from a feminist film perspective that it appealed to “women’s fantasies about living a more public life.” And it set into motion a women’s buying spree for wineglasses and wine to serve to dinner guests.
From the 1960s there was spectacular wine growth. U.S. wine consumption grew from 163 million gallons in 1960 to 913 million gallons in 2015.
Although beer has remained the most popular alcoholic beverage in the United States, the growth rate of wine consumption has exceeded that of beer consumption over the last four decades. Through their marketing campaigns, wine companies promoted their products as a symbol of refined tastes.
During the 1970’s, advertisements targeted consumers.
Several market studies reported that primary wine consumers were relatively young, college-educated, and middle- to upper-middle class. And so, wine advertisements targeted these groups. For instance, magazines intended for a middle-class audience dominated the primary media. Especially for table wine advertisements throughout the late 1960s to 1970s.
Dessert wines, port, sherry and muscatel were the largest selling wines until 1967.
From 1968 to 1977, California wine acreage soared 144%, by 200.000 acres. And by the late 1970s, Gallo had accounted for more than 30 percent of the national wine market.
A varietal wine is a wine made from a single grape variety, such as Chardonnay and Merlot.
In the 1980”s, “Fighting Varietals” introduced American consumers to affordable California varietal wines. The emergence of varietal wines provided consumers with an understandable common language for wine, boosting consumption.
In 1991, the U.S. television program, “60 Minutes”, popularized the health benefits of drinking red wine in moderation. It led to an increase in red wine sales in the U.S. by almost one-third.
In the 21st century, wine marketing became focused on individuality. This meant creating unique products according to the customer’s needs and desires. Wines were marketed toward mothers and those with labels for feminine appeal. An article by USA Today found that 57 percent of all wine sales in the United States were to women. 42 percent were to millennials. The report found that millennials drank 159.6 million cases of wine in 2015—an average of two cases per person.
Wine and Women at Risk
Rates of drinking and alcohol addiction are on the rise among women. A 2017 study put high-risk drinking among women at over a fifty percent increase in the last decade alone. A public health crisis was born.
A possible reason for an increase in alcohol addiction among young women could simply be the fact that they are not considered “at risk” for alcoholism, so it is not often caught early. There can be a fine line between having fun as a college student and developing an alcohol dependence. From 2001 to 2013, alcohol use among women in the U.S. rose nearly 16 percent. And during the same time frame, the percentage of women who have four or more drinks on a given day shot up 58 percent.
Young women are not alone
However, young women are not alone. In the year 2016, heavy drinking put more than one million American women into emergency rooms. Middle-aged women were hardest hit. Alcohol-related deaths in women ages 35 to 54 more than doubled since 1999, accounting for 8 percent of the deaths in this age range. Put in more graphic terms, “drinking is killing twice as many middle-aged white women as it did 18 years ago,” The Washington Post reported.
The main problem with women drinking like men is that they don’t have the same physiology as men. Women are more susceptible to alcohol’s effects. Similarly, they have lower body mass, and less water to disperse the alcohol through their bodies.
A woman’s brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol and to more of the toxic byproducts that result when the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol… NIAAA, part of the National Institutes of Health
Women and Wine to Cope with Stress
Alcohol is increasingly marketed as a way to relax. Also to cope with the demands of a stressful life. This messaging could bear some of the blame for the increase in alcohol use among women. Cultural and social attitudes around alcohol have evolved. The Journal of the Medical Association also theorized that as more women enter the paid workforce, their level of alcohol consumption may rise. This could be due to work-related stress or feeling a need to keep up with the social drinking of others in the workplace.
Why has drinking become more fatal among women?
- Women suffer from higher rates of common mental illnesses like depression. Depression disproportionately affects women (at a rate of roughly one in four). Depression is heavily linked to drinking in women, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control.
- Among the demographic of white, educated, upper middle-class women—many of whom are raising children as stay-at-home parents while working — a drinking habit can develop as an effort to cope with feelings of boredom, loneliness or anxiety. In this context, alcohol serves as a “socially acceptable balm”. Alcohol is the most common, readily available form of self-medication. Naturally, the pandemic has exacerbated the use of alcohol.
- Finally, advertising targets women. Because of this, heavy drinking among women is increasingly normalized.
Women’s Unique Social Pressures
Women also face unique social pressures and influences. The marketing of alcohol to women and the “mommy needs wine” mentality of social media may have contributed to addiction problems. Popular Facebook groups like “Moms Who Need Wine” and Twitter “Wine Moms” have tens of thousands of fans. Drinking is celebrated as a way to cope with the stress of motherhood.
Does Marketing Contribute to Risk?
Some of those cute social media memes originated with the alcohol industry. Boxed wine is just a juice box for mom. They should make lunchables for mothers—wine, cheese and chocolate. The alcohol industry is playing women in a very cynical way.
Here are other examples:
- The 30-second “Wine Work-Out” video features two young and enviably fit women performing twists, lunges and arm-stretches, perfectly in sync. But the duo’s physical prowess isn’t the reason the Facebook post has been viewed more than 14 million times .Its viral popularity is due to the “hand weight” they pass back and forth — a wine bottle. And their “cool-down” consists of push-ups, face-first, into goblets of wine they inhale through straws.
- Gift shops sell “Wine-Thirty” clocks. Wine clubs, book clubs and Facebook pages with names like “OMG I so need a glass of wine or I’m gonna sell the kids” celebrate wine’s sophistication and fun.
Why Do Women Drink?
To understand the public health impact of women and wine culture, one must understand why women drink. And particularly why moms drink. Obviously, wine mommy culture isn’t making moms drink. It’s a pop-culture reflection of real, unaddressed issues in society and the lives of women. These are deep-seated, complex underlying troubles, and they can’t easily be solved. They range from professional and personal pressures to fundamental ideas about the role of women and mothers in society. Again, the pandemic has added to the complexity of the problem.
Many women who develop drinking problems see their issues start with social drinking. Mom’s nights out, Sunday mimosa brunches, weddings and anniversary parties, and other occasions when alcohol is expected and plentiful can be dangerous. It’s important to note, that most women who binge drink will not become alcoholics. Only around 10% actually reach a dependence level of drinking. (However, some experts estimate as high as 1 in 7. This is due to the cultural taboo against women acknowledging and reporting their problem.) Even 10%, however, indicates a significant problem for millions of women.
It would be easy to dismiss worries about the wine and women culture as fear-mongering if it weren’t backed up by so many experts. The Journal of American Medicine, the National Institute on Addiction and the Centers for Disease Control have documented evidence of women and alcohol use disorders.
There is also beginning to be some push back. Op-eds in sources like the New York Times and the New York Post have taken the wine mommy culture to task. Forcing people to give some thought to why “Mommy Juice” should be funny in the first place.
Alcohol dependence among women is usually very well hidden, until it becomes a crisis. And women drink because they are too busy, feeling unnoticed, or struggling to cope emotionally with family responsibilities. Overcoming the shame and bias that American culture has created against women with addictions is not easy to do, but millions of women have found recovery through treatment and supportive help.
The Washington Post, “For Women Heavy Drinking has been Normalized and Dangerous”, 12/23/2016
CDC Fact Sheet, Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health
https://www.mphonline.org/wine-mom-culture/ “Wine, Mom Interrupted: A Public Health Perspective” Sam MacArthur