If you enjoy drinking a glass of wine now and then, you’re probably familiar with the numerous choices of brands and types to be found in many local grocery and drug stores. The rows and rows of creatively labeled bottles — like Cupcake, Barefoot, Red Truck or Fat Bastard — seem to represent a whole world of wineries. But labels can be deceiving.

A year ago in this column I mentioned a Michigan State University course scheduled to run last spring by Professor Phil Howard that was to look at the business of beverages. Howard has done numerous studies over the years on the ownership within food and agriculture industries. This graduate course introduced those methodologies to the students while they investigated the beverage industry.

Howard chose to let the students determine what portion of the beverage industry to research, and the winner was wine.

“Students have a lot more enthusiasm for real-world projects than for a term paper that no one but the instructor will ever read,” Howard said. The students spent the semester doing the on-the-ground research to understand how the players in the wine industry were related. 

The findings are indeed interesting and surprising to this casual wine drinker. Howard’s students examined the wine varieties sold in 20 southern Michigan retail outlets and identified over 3,600 unique varieties, more than any other grocery or beverage category.

But, as Howard has found in other food and agricultural sectors, there is a surprising concentration of ownership. The top six firms by national product sales (E&J Gallo, the Wine Group, Constellation Brands, Trinchero Family Estates, Treasury Wine Estates and Bronco Wine Co.) account for 63 percent of wine sales in the U.S. They also had more than 21 percent of the varieties — 794 — on the shelves of the stores surveyed.

Perhaps more interesting yet is that while two national chains, CVS and Rite Aid, stock about 100 varieties each, more than half of those varieties are from just two firms and only 20 firms are represented on their shelves. The flip side is a local wine shop that carries wines from 446 firms. 

Howard’s team of five students added more information on wine labeling, the Michigan wine industry, a map and data concerning wine-producing origins to round out our understanding of the business of a beverage so many adults enjoy. Interested readers can see all of the reports and a wonderful set of images, tables and maps at Howard’s website

If one wants to buy wine from an independent small producer, one has to do a lot of legwork to find out if they are really just a brand of the industry giants. Howard and his class have helped us immensely with that task. When asked what new questions emerged for this project, Howard offered, “We didnt look at wine distributors,” which have had to be distinct from wine producers since the end of Prohibition, “but consolidation is occurring in this part of the system as well, and it would be interesting to see how this impacts consumer choices.”

Student research goes on in many courses at MSU, but most don’t have much impact beyond student learning and the grade attached to it. When I was director at the Greater Lansing Food Bank, a team of engineering students analyzed the routes of our deliveries. A business class analyzed the entire operation for efficiency. 

The Lansing area offers a wealth of opportunities to test and apply what is learned in the classroom to the real world. It’s one of the strongest linkages between the university and the community, a parallel action to “service learning” exemplified by MSU’s annual “Into the Streets” work each year in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. 

Besides looking more critically at where our food and beverages come from, student researcher Terra Bogart found this course nudged her to “help consumers more easily identify the owners of the brands they buy” so we make more informed purchasing decisions.

Many faculty encourage — and some require — students to connect their studies with the community. Faculty who build courses around that pedagogical approach are always looking for opportunities for projects that benefit the community, whether it’s through businesses, local government or non-profit organizations. 

Building those connections benefits all of us. 

(Consultant Terry Link was the founding director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability. He can be reached at