NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Americans are on the verge of becoming the world's biggest consumers of wine. And it's the French who are saying so.
By 2008, U.S. consumers will account for 25 percent of all the wine drunk in the world, up from 19 percent today, according to a new study conducted for the Bordeaux-based trade group, VinExpo.
That would put the United States in the top spot among all countries for wine consumption by volume, leapfrogging ahead of France, Italy and Spain.
For producers, the news is both good and bad.
On the plus side, the VinExpo study projects a 14.7 percent worldwide increase in total industry revenues by 2008.
"That's difficult to find in any consumer product," said VinExpo chairman Jean Marie Chadronnier, who is also the owner of a Bordeaux chateau. "It's particularly noteworthy given that wine is already a $100 billion market."
Not only are Americans drinking more wine, but they tend to pay more for it than do Europeans.
The average U.S. retail price of a bottle of wine, according to VinExpo, is more than twice as expensive as the typical bottle sold in France, and more than three times the average in Italy.
"American importers and drinkers are often the ones who keep many a small French artisan in business," writes Lawrence Osborne in "The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverant Journey Through the Wine World" (North Point Press: 2004). "The French themselves are not necessarily liberal with their wine budgets. Americans have more disposable cash to spend."
But for all the allure that a bigger, richer U.S. market has to producers, there is also a downside. As Americans develop a taste for wine, they're changing the way wine tastes.
The international style
"The world is drinking more and more, and the world is drinking better," said Robert Beynat, president of Vinexpo.
It's not just the United States, he notes. Wine drinking is surging in a number of other countries where it is not the national beverage.
Growth is most notable in Great Britain, Australia and Canada, whose markets echo the American experience. But wine sales are also rising fast in Germany, Russia, Scandinavia and even Asia.
On an individual basis, French, Italians and Spaniards still drink more than Americans, but the gap is closing quickly. Per capita consumption by Americans is expected to rise by 28 percent over the next three years.
The country where consumption is declining fastest, meanwhile, is France. After falling off by nearly 40 percent over the last 35 years, it's projected to dip another 7.4 percent by 2008.
In all likelihood, America's emergence as the world's most significant marketplace means that the "internationalization" of wine styles -- the most important trend in the wine business since the early 1990s -- will intensify.
Put very simply, international wines are big, fruity types, often described by terms like "smooth" and "crowd-pleasing." They use familiar grapes and complement a wide variety of everyday foods.
They're not inherently ordinary. Indeed, some of the finest, most expensive wines from Italy, Spain and California can be lumped in the "international" category.
International wines are, however, inherently targeted at diverse markets.
Just as frog's legs and escargot can be tough to sell in middle America, so are wines whose tastes are too highly individualistic. Aiming at the mass market means identifying common denominators, not selling idiosyncratic styles that only a local could love.
That's one reason Australian wines -- often suited to the palates of wine-drinking newbies -- are soaring in popularity. At the same time, 10,000 vineyards in Bordeaux are said to be in serious financial straits. (See, "Can anything save French wine?")
The pros and cons of internationalization have been intensely debated in wine circles for at least a decade. Some fear the loss of distinctive vintages made of uncommon grapes. Others seek a bit of consumer-friendly conformity to help make sense of the endless array of choices.
Those arguments aside, it seems clear from the VinExpo report that the coming years will be boom times for some wineries.
"Many French producers are doing very well right now," said Chadronnier, responding to a question about the ailing health of France's winemakers. "But for those who are not doing so well, these new markets represent an opportunity."
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.