It’s not enough to advocate cheap wine; consumers need to know how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply. The Wine Curmudgeon was reminded of this yet again when I struggled through the 2014 five-day, $3 wine challenge, where the producers cared more about price than they did about quality.
The knock against cheap wine used to be that it couldn’t be made well. That hasn’t been true for at least two decades, but the argument has remained the same. Much of the blame for this rests with producers, who have been content to use improvements in winemaking and grape growing to make palatable wine, but not much more.
Call it, as one retailer told me, the wine equivalent of fast food. It fills the hole, and that’s all the consumer thinks it’s supposed to do. Ironically, this means value isn’t as important as it should be. Two Jack in the Box tacos for 99 cents are both cheap and a value, but why would you eat them unless it’s 2 a.m. and you’ve been drinking all night?
Wine should be more than that. Otherwise, we might as well drink light beer — same buzz, fewer calories, and just as cheap. Hence, how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply:
• Is the wine varietally correct? Does the cabernet sauvignon taste like cabernet sauvignon, the merlot like merlot, and so forth? Or have all the varietal differences been taken out, in favor of making a smooth wine?
• Is it interesting? Most boring cheap wine tastes the same. The reds have lots of sweet fruit, some fake oak, and a minimum of tannins and acidity — another way to get to smooth. Chardonnay made this way tastes of vanilla and apple sauce, riesling is sweet and nothing more, and pinot grigio has a dollop of sweet white fruit and a vaguely turpentine flavor. An interesting wine is the opposite: You’re eager for the second sip, and you taste things that you make you smile.
• Does the label seem like it got more attention from the producer than the wine? After you’ve tasted the wine, does the it taste as cute or clever or hip as the label implied it would taste? Or is it just ordinary grocery store merlot?
? Do you want to buy it again? Not, “I’ll buy it again because it’s cheap and tasted OK,” but “Wow, that was really good. I want to share this with all my friends.” This is not an easy concept for most wine drinkers, who are so happy to find a wine that doesn’t offend them that they convince themselves that the wine is better than it is.
• Did the winemaker make an effort, or just go through the motions? And no, you don’t have to be a wine geek to figure this out. Crappy writing is crappy writing, and you don’t need a PhD in English to see the difference. Shoddy clothing is shoddy clothing, and you don’t need Vera Wang to tell you why. All you need to do is to pay attention to what you’re drinking, something else we’re afraid to do because it’s wine, and we’ve been told we don’t know enough to have an opinion.
Image courtesy of The Wandering Palate, using a Creative Commons license