At the beginning of this month, Slate magazine published an article by Brian Palmer called “Drink Cheap Wine: I mean, really cheap.” I was in Spain at the time it was published, and while I was there I was drinking cheap wine, which meant bottles that are 5 to 10 euros that are FAR superior in quality to American wine at the same price range (due to families owning vineyards for decades, no high turnover in the industry and more relaxed distribution and shipping laws). At the time, I was in such a haze of tapas, cordero, cochinito, and of course, Tempranillo, that I did not really pay attention to this incredulous article. Returning back to the prohibition state known as the United States, I re-read the article, trying to understand his point, if any, and whether or not he had any valid backing.
Brushing past the inconsistencies and just flat-out misunderstanding of the wine industry and economics behind it, there was a phrase, that when read, caused me to forget what I was doing like Rick Perry in every GOP debate. “Wine is not art.” “WINE IS NOT ART.” Are you absolutely kidding me? That statement in a nutshell demonstrates that the author is lacking insight into what wine is, what it can be (good or bad), or even how it is made. Now I know this will make me sound like a snob, and to a certain extent I can understand, but wine is an art and an art form. If you are going to consider post-modern blue canvases art, then you sure as hell need to consider wine as an art. Wine is a living and changing product. From the moment it is on the vine, soaking in golden-yellow rays through its canopy or vines, to the moment it’s placed in a cellar behind a fake wall in France to be protected from Nazis, wine breathes history, country, and life. Each bottle has a story and an expression that it is trying to tell. To say otherwise is to miss the point of half of your meal or evening.
Now that the homage is over, one must realize that the problem, in terms of price/quality, in the American wine world is not because people are refusing to make $3 to $4 dollar bottles, but that it is almost infeasible to make any drinkable wine at this price with our current laws and structure in place. Brian’s main point seems to be that price is no indication of quality and thus, we should drink cheaper wine. He cites studies about not being able to perceive the difference, and how even the same bottle within different states can have huge differences in price. What he does not tell you is that the majority of these price differences are because of a third-party shipping law that requires wine makers to work with distributors and middle men rather than directly dealing with consumers. To make matters worse, each state has its own laws as to how to deal with middlemen and what can and cannot be imported into the state. So, yes he is right, bottles cost differently in different places, but that is because of different laws around the country that make getting the consumer what it wants very difficult, and not because the evil wine merchant wants to screw consumers. Not to mention, would anyone think that a bottle of wine in a Manhattan store would be the same price as one in Houston, Texas. There are so many factors that affect price in the US because of our complex system, it may be enough to say that a bottle that is 3 dollars (like Mad Dog 20/20 [which is 3.99 for red grape wine]) may be a good indication that it is not actually wine.
While all of this is easily brushed aside, the assertion he makes that we should all drink cheap wine and we will all benefit from it is undermined by the first point in his article that no wine and palate meeting is the same. Some people are better tasters than others. Some grew up in a cooking family and can pick out the subtleties between fresh plum, under ripe plum, and stewed plum. Others did not and enjoy a good diner burger. But you know what, it should not matter; each person had their own background that influences their palates. While some people enjoy cheaper bottles than others, the fact that we should all drink 3-dollar bottles is ridiculous. 3-dollar bottles of wine, many times, contain god knows how many chemicals since the FDA allows over 100 in some bottles. His constant repetition that the wine was drinkable gives me no condolence for his reasoning that we should drink it. PBR, Milwaukee’s Best, and Natural Ice are all quaffable, but do you regularly go out and want these palatable beverages with your dinner, especially at the usual nicer meals that you usually drink wine at? No, most of the time you do not want just something fit for consumption, you want something good that makes the entire experience better.
There are many bottles under 15 and even 10 dollars that are fantastic. (I live on a student budget so most of my bottles are under 15 dollars). I will not lie. It takes time and research to find these bottles. Learning producers, areas, weather patterns of years, and maybe even the wine makers name, but in the end all of these factors will help you find a good bottle of wine under 15 dollars. It is easy to go into the store and pick out a 1996 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard for 160 dollars (price can be an indication in the upper levels of wine, >50 dollars), but it is near impossible to go to the store and pick out a 2004 Bodegas Lan Rioja Crianza or Reserva (9.99 and 12.99, both excellent) without knowing a little about the region or producer. So take the time, find a country you enjoy and start exploring. It is a great way to learn not only about wine but also about the history that goes into the country.
In the end, the more you drink, the more you know what you will like. Brian seems to miss the fact that drinking wine is more than just an attempt at inebriation. While I always support drinking cheap, I do not support drinking Welch’s grape juice with alcohol. If you find a good 4-dollar bottle, more power to you, but do not let that be an indication of all you should drink. As you drink more wine, your tastes evolve and your palate gets better (as Freakanomics blog has already stated). As your palate gets better, that 150-dollar bottle you first tasted and stated “ taste just like wine” all of a sudden has a hint of cassis and a nice earthiness to it.
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