Wine and the Dry January Syndrome


It is easy to dismiss Dry January (going alcohol-free for the first month of the year) along with Veganuary as typical well-intended New Year resolutions on lists that might also include pledges to quit smoking, keep a daily diary, make better use of that gym membership, and spend less time fiddling with your phone.

Resolutions are an optimistic impulse. They signal that we think we still have the ability to improve, which is important. There is also an element of penance in some resolutions. Had too much food, drink, fun, etc. over the holidays (and maybe spent too much money, too). Time to settle up.

A Toast to Your Health?

But there is more to Dry January and similar impulses these days. Health has risen in the hierarchy of needs for a growing segment of the population especially, we are told, younger people, and reducing consumption of beverage alcohol (wine, beer, spirits) is part of that movement.  Young people in many countries now start drinking later than previous generations and then choose to drink less once they begin.

Slavea Chankova, health-care correspondent for the Economist newspaper, recently identified the health-driven pivot away from alcohol consumption as one of the key trends for 2020 and beyond. Drinking is going out of style, she argues. She notes that …

Big alcohol companies can see the writing on the keg. They are expanding their low- and no-alcohol offerings of beer, wine and spirits. Innovation in such drinks is booming. Many are now indistinguishable in taste from the real thing. Nearly 50 of Heineken’s brands, for example, have an alcohol-free version. In most Western countries such alternatives are still a novelty, but sales are growing fast. In Germany and the Netherlands, both early adopters, they make up about 10% of beer sales.

It’s Complicated

baxterWine’s relationship to health is complicated and can be confusing. It seems like there are new studies every week, often with contradictory conclusions. A new book, Wine and Health: making sense of the new science and what it means for wine lovers by Richard Baxter M.D. surveys and analyzes the scientific data and makes the case for moderate wine consumption as part of a healthy, happy life. It’s an interesting and useful book that I recommend highly.

If you accept the premise that wine can be part of a healthy life, there is still the question whether people actually behave this way.  An article in the Economist newspaper’s October 19, 2019 edition argues that “Alcohol firms promote moderate drinking, but it would ruin them.” The article cites research based on a study (see reference below) of British consumers in 2013 and concludes that the beverage alcohol industry in Britain is heavily dependent on unhealthy behaviors by their customers.

Drink, Drank, Drunk?

The study found that 25% of the British population consume hazardous (average 24 drink units per week) or dangerous (average 73 units per week) levels of alcohol. Together they drink 78% of total alcohol and account for 68% of revenues. Moderate drinkers (average 4 units per week within a range of 1 to 14) are 59% of the adult population, but drink just 23% of alcohol and generate 32% of revenues. (Non drinkers make up 16% of the British population according to the report.)

If all alcohol drinkers consumed at healthy moderate levels, the study concludes, the demand for beverage alcohol would fall dramatically. The data reported by the Economist does not break out wine from beer and spirits. I could be wrong, but I doubt that wine is as dependent on binge drinking and excessive consumption as beer or spirits, at least in the U.S.

Studies of the U.S. wine market, however, show that consumption is similarly concentrated in a relatively small proportion of the population. These frequent wine drinkers (who consume wine several times a month or more) are key to wine market success.

No Wine = 56% in U.S.

Wine drinkers are a minority in the U.S. A 2014 Wine Market Council study found that 35% of U.S. adults drank no alcohol and another 21% consumed alcohol, but not wine. High-frequency wine drinkers made up just 15% of the adult population. An even smaller group — 30% of the 15% of high-frequency wine drinkers — accounted for 90% of spending on $20+ wine and 40% of all purchases of $10-$20 wine.

Dry January and related health concerns are something that the U.S. wine industry needs to take seriously since its consumer base is so relatively narrow. If the small group of high-frequency wine drinkers reduces consumption for reasons of health, it will make a difference.

Obviously the point is not to promote high levels of alcohol consumption like those found in the British study, but to encourage healthy consumption patterns of wine as an element of a sustainable lifestyle, much as Wine in Moderation has done is many countries. Health is important and wine needs to address the concerns.

This isn’t the answer to the problems facing wine today, but it might be part of a strategy to make wine more relevant and appealing to today’s evolving consumer base.


Sources for the Economist article: “Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis” by D. Nutt et al., The Lancet; “How dependent is the alcohol industry on heavy drinking in England?” by A. Bhattacharya et al., Addiction; Centre for Responsive Politics; NHS.

4 responses

  1. When we have (or we drink) little, we want more. When we have (or we drink) much, we want more yet. This is the evil of the human being. How would it be good if everything “really” were “moderate” !!!

  2. Another really good column – and another book to read – thank you. I go through a bottle of wine in 3 days – sometimes less – always red. I’m on a quest (“I quest for the Grail”) for the wonderful $10 wine and am usually successful. I’m always open to recommendations.

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