Cheap wine? Or snake oil?

Someone has declared war on wine. I think it’s the Tea Party. Or maybe it’s the “99 Percent.” I’m not sure who’s who these days.

One salvo came from Slate, which was known for intelligent wine writing until a few months ago when it fired its wine writer, Michael Steinberger. Early this month, Slate published an essay by Brian Palmer called “Drink Cheap Wine.” (Palmer has probed other searing questions for Slate such as why Americans don’t eat horse meat and why some people pee themselves and others don’t.) Palmer quotes a lot of silliness, such as the “piles of studies showing that you can’t reliably pick out expensive wines in a blind taste test” and that “laymen actually prefer cheaper wines.” Ya think? Everyone likes cheaper wines – as long as they’re good.

Palmer doesn’t understand that the love of wine is the love of its diversity, not the overwhelming sameness of the cheap wines he extolls. This sentence alone proves that he doesn’t get it:

Do we really need tiny winemaking estates up and down the West Coast, not to mention Long Island, Michigan, Virginia, and Missouri?

Of course we do, because we love the variety and diversity of wine. We’re not all in it just to get drunk.

Palmer’s article sparked a flurry of rebuttals in the blogosphere, beginning with hundreds of comments on the Slate piece itself. (“Stirring the pot” seems to be the formula for Internet success, after all.) Wine Curmudgeon Jeff Siegel chimed in as did the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné and Steinberger himself, who seemed rather bemused by it all.

But Palmer’s argument is not new. It’s the same nonsense perpetrated by Robin Goldstein in his book The Wine Trials (Fearless Critic Media, 2008) with his surprising revelation that people like inexpensive wines. Duh!

Now the eminent George M. Taber joins this nihilistic celebration of the least common denominator in his new book, A Toast to Bargain Wines (Simon and Schuster, 2011). Taber is shocked – shocked! – to discover that all people don’t experience the same taste sensations. (Well, at least that explains why I love chocolate and you don’t). Terroir, in Taber’s world, is nothing more than a marketing ploy conjured up by winemakers to explain why their wines are worth your arm and leg. So-called “experts” are only interested in making you feel compelled, obligated or intimidated into spending too much on wine, he argues. He spends half his book urging us to drink industrial plonk such as Yellow Tail, Barefoot Cellars and Crane Lake. His book costs $15 dollars – you could buy three bottles of his favorite wines instead, and you’d be better off.

Taber cites the Red Bicyclette scandal, in which E&J Gallo bought tons of cheap “pinot noir” from southern France without realizing it was actually merlot, as evidence that experts are charlatans. But isn’t it also evidence that cheap wine is often fraudulent, undistinguished plonk?

This tear-down-the-house-in-spite-of-itself argument reminds me of the Tea Party’s antipathy toward anything to do with Washington and the federal government. Yet its populist tinge has an Occupy Vine Street air to it as well. Most Americans do drink cheap wine – the average price paid for 750 ml, the standard bottle size, is $6.22. And yes, cheap wine today is eminently drinkable, thanks to the wonders of winemaking technology.  But this technology also promotes a sameness in the wines, and many would argue, mediocrity. Once you have the wine bug (and maybe most people never catch it), you want something more, and you’re willing to pay a buck or two extra to get it. The EVZ – Extra Value Zone – today lies between $12-$20, a range in which an extra dollar or two can pay dividends in quality. The trick is finding the wines that deliver this extra quality, and that’s where a conscientious wine writer – or “expert,” if you will – can do service. Taber, Palmer and Goldstein are preaching the wrong type of wine populism – not that good cheap wines are out there to be discovered, but that cheap wine is inherently good, so we don’t need to try.

This argument seems designed to make people feel secure in their insecurities. You like Two-Buck Chuck? Nothing wrong with that! There isn’t, of course, and you shouldn’t need to waste $15 on a book to reassure yourself. But when you want to branch out and spend a little more on something different, wouldn’t you seek advice from someone who’s already sacrificed his or her liver?

Taber, Goldstein and Palmer are also criticizing the critics such as Robert M. Parker Jr. who allegedly determine our taste in wine – and, by extension, wine columnists such as myself who try to sort through the chaff to find a few gems worth your hard-earned money. The fun and adventure lies in finding the cheap wines that are really good, not in some parlor trick designed to make the mundane seem astonishing.

Taber has serious credibility in arguing that the experts are idiots. He was the only journalist present at the famous Paris tasting of 1976, where some of France’s most eminent wine gurus preferred American wines in a blind tasting. Taber chronicled this tasting and its effect on the world of wine in his (highly recommended) 2006 book, Judgment of Paris. But the lesson of Paris was that America can produce wines to rival the best of France, not that we should all be drinking Barefoot. To argue that these are the wines Americans drink and therefore the wines writers should write about, is akin to sending a restaurant critic around to compare the cuisine at various IHOPs.

And that’s why I’d like to toss Taber’s book out the window and curl up with Natalie MacLean’s Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines (Penguin, 2011).  MacLean, Canada’s leading wine writer, pens a rollicking travelogue of her journey around the world meeting with winemakers and tasting their wines in search of the best vino that won’t break the bank. She knows there’s a lot of crap out there – she’s tasted it – and she wants to clue us in to wines that over-deliver for their price. I would much rather join MacLean on her treasure hunt than go to the supermarket and pull a bottle off the shelf simply because it’s cheap.

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About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of DrinkLocalWine.com, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (dmwineline.com).
This entry was posted in Bargain Wines, Books, Cheap Wine, Rants, Weblogs, Wine, writers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Cheap wine? Or snake oil?

  1. As an advocate for regional wine, the comment about not needing small wineries on Long Island, Michigan, Missouri and Virginia really pissed me off. Some of my favorite wines come from those exact spots.

    Maybe I have a warped view of what is cheap, but you can drink very well and not spend more than $20 per bottle.

  2. George Christo says:

    Bam! I may be an almost-Tea Party type and cringe at that observation, but pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Hey! Isn’t that the point? This is a fantastic post, Dave! Score one for the wine adventurer mantra – cheap wine isn’t bad, it’s finding the good wines, some of which happen to be cheap(er), that matters. I love my killer wines and cult wines, expensive or not, but the ones that I brag about the most are the ones that deliver at a less-than-mortgaging-the-house price. (Many of those you recommended to me, Dave… well, perhaps not personally, but you know what I mean.) That EVZ observation is exactly right – the extra couple of bucks pays huge dividends. @Michael Kaiser is speaking for me, even though we don’t know each other, on the regional wines. Love my Virginia wines and love finding the wines made in “other” regions when I go.

    • Dave McIntyre says:

      Thanks, George. That’s another thing I dislike about the Cheap Wine argument: they lump anyone who likes expensive wines into a homogenous group of clueless idiots who are too infatuated with their “wealth” to realize that Barefoot is every bit as good as Harlan. But I’ve never known a lover of cult wines who didn’t also seek out and relish the $10 stunner that tastes like it should cost a lot more.

      Value is relative, and depends at least to some degree on what we can afford and what we are willing to pay for a bottle of wine. Someone whose budget tolerance is only $5 will never be able to understand why someone might pay $50 for a bottle and not feel ripped off.

      Dave

    • Happy to speak for you! ha

  3. Jim Dolphin says:

    Right on, Dave. I read Palmer’s article maybe two weeks ago and it irritated me so much that I sent him an email in which I opined that if he really believed what he had written then, in addition to being a complete and total moron, he had no business posing as a wine writer. He really ought to be ashamed of himself!
    Best, Jim.

  4. Peter Slate says:

    For wine values, just subscribe to WineBlueBook. They list wines by score and price to show you the wines value.

  5. Les Hubbard says:

    Dave all your points are well made. Without the other 47 where would we be? I truly cannot understand Tabor who does have some wine writing cred falling into the cheap wine trap.

    Finally to Robert Parker our fellow Marylander. People in the blogosphere and elswhere are heaping far too much criticism on him. No, my tastes don’t run to the high alcohol fruit bombs he has seemed to favor in recent years as his palate apparently has aged and changed. I don’t particularly like the 100-point scoring system but recognize from a retailer’s viewpoint the high school scoring system makes some consumers comfortable in their selections. That being said, let’s look at what Parker has historically contributed to the growth of wine popularity in America. First, when he first published the Wine Advocate in 1978 it was consumer friendly and he represented the Ralph Nader of that day in exposing some of the fraud in the wine world of that era. Second, as he explored the world of wines by visiting European vineyards, he put many unknown and/or undervalued wineries on the map offering consumers more choices. Later he would become the “kingmaker” through his ratings which I suspect many resented or at least were jealous of his influence. So on balance, similar to wine writers before him and those who followed in his footsteps, he contributed to bringing the joys of wine to an ever increasing number of people. Now I for one don’t understand his recent remarks in Hong Kong and don’t know what he meant by “heavy.” But if there were a single wine world hall of fame, he deserves a place in it for his contributions to the industry.

  6. Gretchen says:

    Oy! I saw the headline on Salon and read a sentence or two and moved on because it seemed like the kind of anti-snobbery piece that you usually see. I am sorry that I did now. Thanks for sharing!

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