Birthday Week essay 2020: Wine as expensive shiny baubles instead of something to savor and enjoy

cheap wine

“Ha! Just try and keep me from writing about cheap wine.”

How did we end up in a Peloton wine universe, when all we want is something to drink with dinner?

How does one keep cheap wine in perspective, given this year of living depressingly – the pandemic, the Trump wine tariff, the presidential election, the sommelier sex scandal? In fact, why even bother? Why not just load up on Winking Owl at Aldi, get hammered, and leave it at that?

And who would blame us if we did? Has cheap wine ever been worse off in the blog’s 13-year history? Yes, I know I seem to write that in each of the blog’s annual Birthday Week essays, and I am writing it again for the blog’s 13th birthday. But that’s because, sadly, it always seems to be true.

We’ve been dumped into some sort of bizarre Peloton wine universe, where everything is sold to us as an expensive, shiny bauble – even when it is neither expensive, shiny, nor a bauble. And, most infuriatingly, even if we don’t need it. I got a $17 sample this fall, and the tasting notes were past snotty (let alone indecipherable): “Polished fore palate with ample fine grain tannins on a generous mid palate.”

We want quality and value, and the wine business gives us $15 supermarket plonk because surveys say that’s the hot price point. The cost of the wine in that $17 sample, allowing for some crude math, was probably less than $4; does that mean the tasting notes cost more than grapes? We aren’t customers anymore, but lines on a spreadsheet, metrics to be parsed, trends to be analyzed, and preferences to be focus grouped.

How did we get to this point?

It starts with the state of the world, and is not exclusive to wine. It’s what one observer has called late-period capitalism, which is based on “taking beloved institutions and destroying everything that made them great so that a few billionaires can get even richer.”

Wine’s contribution is consolidation. Today, most of the world’s wine production is in the hands of maybe a couple of hundred companies, and the U.S. business is even more top-heavy. The top five producers account for about three-quarters of U.S. sales, even though there are some 10,000 wineries, while the two biggest distributors control half the wholesale business.

The result? An almost surreal wine market:

• Cheap wine that tastes cheap — poorly made, stemmy, and bitter, and produced for no other reason than to cost $3 or $4 a bottle.

• $15 wine made for a mass audience — sold in supermarkets and the biggest retailers, slightly sweet and “smooooth,” and where more money may be spent on label copy than on the grapes.

• Expensive wine that exists for no reason other than that it’s expensive, and which commands the fawning supplication of the Winestream Media.

The idea that wine should taste like wine, and that it is something that most of us can afford to drink with dinner – which was the idea of wine for much of the past 200 years – is a quaint, old-fashioned notion. Which only cranks like me still believe – because, of course, late-period capitalism.

So is it time for the Winking Owl?

Hardly. Wine is a pleasure, something to be enjoyed, and something that makes life more enjoyable. A glass of wine after a day of good writing is something to be savored and appreciated, not scored and cataloged and trophy-ized. Why should I let people whose idea of success is as offensive as it is self-defeating spoil it for me?

Yes, cheap wine is in a bad place – we’ve lost much quality cheap wine over the past couple of years thanks to producer and distributor consolidation, and consolidation has wreaked havoc with availability. And it’s not like availability was easy even in the good old days.

But there is still great cheap wine out there, it’s still worth looking for, and I’m going to keep looking for it. Call it the cheap wine version of grace under pressure – if something is worth doing, then we should do it, even when it may not be easy. No, finding great cheap wine won’t solve the world’s problems, but it may help us endure until we can figure out a way to solve them. That’s a fine job in and of itself, and one I am happy to do –because we must solve them.

More Birthday Week perspective on the wine business:
How do you write about quality cheap wine when the system is rigged against it?
Have we reached the end of wine criticism?
• 10 years writing about cheap wine on the Internet

2 thoughts on “Birthday Week essay 2020: Wine as expensive shiny baubles instead of something to savor and enjoy

  • By Mel - Reply

    Happy (blog) birthday! Excellent write-up. In my area (Alberta) I have to spend at least $25 to get something drinkable. I know there are decent bottles to be had under that price point, but the $20ish category is so full of duds that I just spend the extra five bucks to get something that’s (probably) alright.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ve heard the same thing from other Canadians, who have higher taxes and exchange rate problems that we don’t have in the U.S.

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