Beer & wine Snobs sip and workers guzzle--or do they? A good-spirted look at the stereotypes

May 21, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

It's pitting Joe Six-pack vs. Jacques Corkscrew, salt of the earth vs. snob of the cellar, Bud vs. Margaux.

Or is it? This stereotype of beer drinkers vs. wine drinkers is behind the speculation that President Clinton's proposal to raise liquor taxes will exempt beer. He doesn't want to risk alienating the middle-America, working-class constituency that beer represents, or so the Beltway buzz has it.

Until any new liquor tax increases are announced, though, drinkers won't know how much more it will cost them to raise a stein or a stem. But in the meantime, we wondered: How accurate are the beer-guzzler-vs.-wine-sipper stereotypes?

"With beer, you think of a big ol' bowling guy. With wine, you think more of a sophisticated, academic type," says Heidi Lautenschlager, a grain trader enjoying a glass of wine recently at the Corner Bar at the Omni Hotel in downtown Baltimore.

"There are sophisticated beer drinkers," counters her colleague, Steven Mohr, an accountant. "See -- I'm drinking out of a glass."

"We don't sit around and sniff our bouquets, we just drink," notes another Corner Bar beer drinker, Louie Kirby, nonetheless swirling her Miller Lite bottle under her nose and inhaling its non-vintage aroma.

At this and most other bars, you're more likely to run into beer drinkers. There are simply more of them -- an estimated 80 million as opposed to 53 million wine drinkers. Additionally, 75 percent of wine is consumed at home, mostly at meals, according to the wine industry. Besides, beer drinkers say, their brew attracts more convivial types.

"We like the bubbly taste, the effervescence of beer. It's like our personality," says Jack Bell, a management consultant drinking a Miller Lite.

"The wine drinker tends to be more astute, intellectual, quieter -- maybe he'll quote Walt Whitman," says Ron Roberts, supervisor of the Corner Bar, where 60 beers and 20 wines are available. "The beer drinker tends to be more down-to-earth, possibly friendlier, less stressed, happier -- and probably rowdier, too."

"Beer drinkers are more likely to hit someone and make a mess of themselves," says Larry Armstrong, a bartender at McGarvey's Saloon in Annapolis. "Never in my life have I seen a wine drinker start a fight. They might get shoved if a fight breaks out near them."

But he and others in the drinking trade say the stereotypes only go so far: With the increased popularity of microbreweries, which produce small quantities of specialty beers, a beer is not a beer is not a beer.

"A lot of people cross over -- the boutique wines and beers have the same clientele. They're knowledgeable drinkers," says Janis Talbott of Morton's Fine Wine, Spirits and Gourmet Eats in Baltimore.

And wine isn't only drunk by the wealthy and the elite, she says. "We have a bathtub with three bottles for $9.99, and we sell more wine from there than anywhere else in the store," Ms. Talbott says.

Still, when Calvert Discount Liquors owner Geoffrey Connor talks about "a mildly aesthetic pursuit, like music," it's obvious he's talking wine. The microbrewery fans still have a long way to go before they catch up with the wine-tasting circles, he says.

"Only a small percentage of beer drinkers are as serious about this as wine consumers," Mr. Connor says.

"The wine drinker is better educated, because it takes effort to learn about wine. It's like learning a new language," says Phil Wallick of Columbia, an engineer by training who has worked in the wine business in the past. "My circle of wine-knowledgeable friends includes a lot of doctors, financial people, people in the professions."

While wine can draw the snob element, Mr. Wallick believes it's no more elitist to enjoy a good bottle of wine than a good steak or a good beer. "I have a motto: Life is too short for bad wine," says Mr. Wallick, whose cellar has about 2,000 bottles.

Joe Rosenberg, a wine enthusiast who lives in Catonsville, also believes he and his ilk don't deserve the snob-label.

"Wine has a more elitist cast to it, but I don't really think that is the case," says Mr. Rosenberg, an analyst at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn who works part-time for wine distributors. "We don't look down on the beer drinkers. If you're eating crabs, the best wine is beer."

Of course, both the wine and beer camps have one thing in common: Neither wants any new taxes. With talk of the Clinton administration trying to figure out which drinkers can best afford a tax increase, industry groups are falling all over themselves talking poor.

"Forty-three percent of beer purchases are made by families with less than $30,000 income," says Phil Katz, vice president for research for the Beer Institute, a trade group. "The image of the beer drinker is true, they are on the low end [of income]."

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