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]."
"The average price of table wine is $3.35," says John DeLuca, president of the Wine Institute. "Sixty percent of all table wine is sold in the 1 1/2 - to 4-liter container size -- jugs. Most of the attention goes to the buyers of fancy wines, but this is middle-class, working-class consumption."
It's an argument that many buy. As House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich said on CNN recently, "Why would you say that drinking a beer -- and I happen to drink an occasional beer -- is a more working- or middle-class activity than drinking a glass of wine. I find this to be almost funny to try to distinguish between Joe Six-pack and Sally Gallo."
"Joe" and "Sally" are the right names to use: One survey, by Simmons Market Research, found that 65 percent of domestic )) beer drinkers are male while 56 percent of wine drinkers are female. But other demographic differences are smaller than you might imagine, with wine drinkers only a little more upscale. Nearly as many beer drinkers own their homes as wine drinkers, for example -- 66 percent compared to 68 percent. About 19 percent of beer drinkers were in professional or managerial jobs, compared to 24 percent of wine drinkers.
Wine advocates, however, are peeved that their drink is lumped in with all alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, guns and other "sins" thatmay be taxed to help fund health-care reforms. Wine, they argue, may actually have health benefits and thus shouldn't be taxed to discourage its use -- especially if the money is for health reform. They point to recent studies indicating that moderate wine-drinking may lower the risk of heart disease, perhaps helping prevent fats from accumulating and clogging up blood vessels.
Still, Americans apparently support these so-called "sin taxes." A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of adults favor an increase in the federal excise tax on alcoholic beverages and 73 percent favored a higher tax on cigarettes.
"I'm one of those few Americans who personally thinks we don't pay enough taxes for the kinds of services we demand," says Frank Rehak, a photography teacher at Loyola High School who has also worked as a bartender.
Mr. Rehak started out as a beer drinker -- "Like all kids in Baltimore, we always had beer with crabs" -- and has since
added wine to his repertoire. Mr. Rehak, who is headed to Czechoslovakia on a Fulbright scholarship, believes both wine and beer have their places. Literally.
"I travel every year to Europe, and when I'm in Germany and Czechoslovakia, I enjoy the beers there," he says. "But if I'm in Italy or France, I drink wine."