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, compared to 20 percent of men. Women make up 59 percent of wine buyers. It bears mentioning that 9% of women and 17% of women aged 18 to 25 have an alcohol use disorder (CDC 2020).
Women and Wine Culture
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 because it created a micro-climate similar to the coastal areas of Europe. As a result, 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.
Each saloon boasted its special amenities in towns with several beer halls. They touted well-ventilated rooms, meals at all hours, a choice of whiskies, Havana cigars, and even space for women. For example, 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 open on an alley.
The Roaring 20s and 30s
Prohibition and ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and the defiant flapper phenomenon of the 1920s ended 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 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.
The 30s to 60s
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.” As a result, there was a huge demand for so-called fortified wines, such as muscatel, port, and sherry. Mainly 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 making these dessert wines in the 1940s and 1950s. These fortified wines were also often called “skid row drink.”
After World War II, women left their wartime factory jobs, married, and returned to roles as housewives and mothers. 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. For example, 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 samples of local wines to women shoppers to promote the industry.
The 60s and 70s
In 1962, the First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, opened the White House to a televised tour 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 wine glasses. 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 wine glasses 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 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 over the last four decades. Through their marketing campaigns, wine companies promoted their products as a symbol of refined tastes. During the 1970s, advertisements targeted consumers, especially for table wine advertisements, throughout the late 1960s to 1970s. Dessert wines, port, sherry, and muscatel were the most notable selling wines until 1967. From 1968 to 1977, California wine acreage soared 144%. And by the late 1970s, Gallo, a winery based in California, had accounted for more than 30 percent of the national wine market.
The 80s and 90s
In the 1980s, “Fighting Varietals” introduced American consumers to affordable California varietal wines. A varietal wine is made from a single grape variety, such as Chardonnay and Merlot. 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 (since debunked). It led to an increase in red wine sales in the U.S. by almost one-third.
The 21st Century
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 female appeal. An article by USA Today found that 57 percent of all wine sales in the United States were to women. Additionally, forty-two percent were sold 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 be 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 by 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. In a 2020 CDC survey, nearly half of all women in the U.S. reported drinking alcohol within “the last 30 days.”
For nearly a century, women have been closing the gender gap in drinking alcohol, binge drinking, and alcohol addiction. What was previously a 3-1 ratio for risky drinking habits in men versus women is now closer to 1-to-1 worldwide. This trend parallels the rise in mental health conditions among women, and the long-term effects of the pandemic could amplify both patterns. The main problem with women drinking like men is that they don’t have the same physiology as men. As a result, women are more susceptible to alcohol’s effects. Similarly, they have lower body mass and less water to disperse the alcohol through their bodies.
Women and Wine to Cope with Stress
Alcohol is often used to relax or cope with the demands of a stressful life. In addition, 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 needing to keep up with the social drinking of others in the workplace. So 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, drinking is normalized socially and in media. Women also face unique social pressures and influences. Of course, the pandemic was especially hard on working mothers, The NY Times wrote a series on the impact of the pandemic on women called “The Primal Scream,” which chronicles the special pressures women in the work force face.
Why Do Women Drink?
To understand the public health impact of women and wine culture, one must understand why women drink. And specifically why moms drink. Wine mommy culture isn’t making moms drink. Instead, it’s a pop-culture reflection of real, unaddressed issues in society and the lives of women. These are deep-seated, complex underlying troubles that can’t easily be solved. They range from professional and personal pressures to fundamental ideas about the role of women and mothers in society. Of course, 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% reach a dependence level of drinking. Nevertheless, even 10% indicates a significant problem for millions of women.
It would be easy to dismiss worries about the wine and women’s culture as fear-mongering if so many experts didn’t back it up. However, 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.
Stigma is also at issue: 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. Still, millions of women have found recovery through treatment and supportive help. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or need information, please call Sanford Behavioral Health.
NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Women and Alcohol 2022
CDC Fact Sheet, Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health
Women’s Addiction – Pink Flags for Moms Who Need Wine
https://www.mphonline.org/wine-mom-culture/ “Wine, Mom Interrupted: A Public Health Perspective” Sam MacArthur