In other words, why most of us don’t learn more about wine — because it’s too much trouble, even if doing so would help us buy better wine for less money.
That’s one of the key points in an intriguing new book by an Eastern Michigan economist, James Thornton, called “American Wine Economics: An Exploration of the U.S. Wine Industry.” The book looks at the economic side of the wine business — something that’s rarely seen given the Winestream Media’s emphasis on toasty and oaky.
“I didn’t really see any systematic examination of wine the way an economist would do it,” says Thornton, who started his academic career studying the economics of medical care. “So, as I was becoming interested in wine, it became a fascinating field of study.”
Hence opportunity cost. Everyone understands the money cost of a good or service, but economists argue that’s not the only cost that determines whether we buy something. There is also opportunity cost — how much it costs us in time, aggravation, and the like, to make a purchase.
In wine, that means not just what we pay for a bottle, but also how much time we want to invest so we can learn more and make better decisions about what we buy. It’s something that happens all the time in other areas, like buying a car. Almost everyone does some research, whether it’s clicking an Internet link or asking a friend about a certain model or a local dealership. And everyone test drives cars, which is about as aggravating and time consuming an experience as possible.
In this, it’s part of what Thornton describes as the theory of rational consumer behavior, which says we want to make the best possible decision. Except when it comes to wine.
“I’d have to speculate here, because I don’t know that there are any studies on this,” says Thornton, a beer drinker who married a wine drinker and came over from the dark side. “But it’s sort of intimidating. You hear all that garbage growing up, that it’s a mortal sin to drink sweet wine, or that you can only have certain wines with friends. And you don’t want to learn, because it is so intimidating. So everyone believes you have to be either an idiot or Robert Parker.”
In other words, academic support for something the Wine Curmudgeon has argued for as long as I have been arguing: The wine business, given the constitutionally protected three-tier distribution system and aided by its allies in the Winestream Media, has no incentive to lower the opportunity cost for wine. The money comes in anyway. Hence wine labels that don’t inform, wine education that is almost non-existent, winespeak, and even scores. And it’s why people buy crappy cheap wine and don’t care, because the opportunity cost is probably higher than the money cost.
The good news, says Thornton, is that the Internet is reducing the opportunity cost of wine. It’s easier than ever to find reviews, ratings, and information about wine, and especially from a crowd-sourced site like CellarTracker. Over time, that should make it easier for consumers to pay opportunity costs, and should help all of us drink better wine.
Few things make the Wine Curmudgeon happier than to find quality cheap wine that earns big awardsl at wine competitions, and especially at the best known. That was the case this year, when the McManis ($11, sample, 13.5%) won a double gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, perhaps the most prestigious of them all. The McManis was in fine company — double golds also went to a $40 California pinot noir, a $125 Napa cabernet sauvignon, and a $50 Paso Robles red blend.
And why not? McManis, as my old pal Dave Falchek regularly reminds me, is at least the equal of Bogle, one of my cheap wine favorites and a fixture in the $10 Hall of Fame. The petite sirah shows why: a little earthiness and lots of dark fruit, not too overdone, and, most importantly, varietally correct, This is petite sirah that tastes like petite sirah, something that too many producers no longer bother with. Drink this with dinner as the weather gets cooler and don’t be afraid to open a bottle or two at Thanksgiving. A candidate for the 2014 Hall of Fame, since it retails for $10 in much of the country.
? So much for the experts: Last week’s report that the world was facing an imminent grape shortage and a corresponding leap in prices sent the wine world into a minor fluff. Eventually, common sense prevailed and the news was discounted for what it was — at the very least odd and at the very most suspicious. There is no grape shortage, and the best reporting on the subject was done, as usual, by Lew Perdue at Wine Industry Insight. Stacy Finz at the Chronicle in San Francisco contributed a very sensible piece as well. Most telling was this bit in Finz’s article: “The report’s authors, Tom Kierath and Crystal Wang of Morgan Stanley’s Australian consumer and beverage branch, declined to be interviewed.” My experience, after some 30 years as a reporter, is that when someone doesn’t want to defend what they wrote or said, then there isn’t much reason to pay attention to it.
? Wine drinkers know a good thing: Bogle, the $10 wine that has been in the cheap wine Hall of Fame as long as there has been a Hall of Fame, continues to sell lots and lots and lots of wine. Shanken News Daily, the web news service (and part of the Wine Specator empire — oh delicious irony), reports that the company’s sales rose nearly 16 percent in 2012 to 1.75 million cases. That makes Bogle one of the biggest dozen or so producers in the country, and it has almost doubled its sales in the past 18 months since I interviewed Ryan Bogle. The Shanken article credits the quality of the Bogle wines for the label’s success, though in a very Winestream Media way, citing points — “more than 30 scores of 87 points or higher from Wine Spectator” — as proof of quality. Though, to be honest, as annoying as that is, I don’t know why I would expect anything different.
? An easier to read wine label, please: Lou Marmon, one of the best wine writers that not enough people know about, has a fine take on the foolishness that passes for wine labels these days. “Clearly front labels are critical to wine marketing,” he writes, “but is there any reason why they cannot be more accurate and informative?” Marmon details all the agonies involved in reading a wine label, whether misleading terms like “old vines,” cute labels, and variation in alcohol content. And, he points out, that doesn’t include the difference between European and U.S. labels, which take the subject in another, albeit equally confusing, direction.
The holidays are fraught with peril for wine drinkers, and especially for anyone who is intimidated by all the wine drinking going on. Which, truth to tell, is more of us than most of us care to admit. Or, as one 20-something woman asked me during a Cheap Wine book signing (shamless plug alert!), “Is it OK if I bring this $5 wine to a party? Will people make fun of me?”
Hence this guide, because we don’t want to embarrass any of our fellow wine drinkers. Because there but for the grace of the wine gods. …
1. “I can’t believe you’re drinking sweet wine.” Some of the best wine in the world is sweet — rieslings, whether from Germany, New York or elsewhere, and dessert wines, including the $550 French Chateau d’Yquem. Yes, pink moscato or red raspberry is not highly rated by the Winestream Media, but who are they to judge? After all, don’t they believe in the magical gateway wine?
2. “I used to buy that, and then I learned more about wine.” This actually happened to me. A guy I knew saw I was buying an ordinary French red, and said I should buy his French red. Which I did, and it was a waste of money — more expensive and not any better. I learned an important lesson that day about wine and peer pressure. Which is to ignore it.
3. “I just bought a bunch of 92-point wines, and they were only $30 each — such a deal.” Any wine that costs more than $15, given the foolishness of points, should score 92 points. At least. In fact, given the rampant score inflation that has apparently going on over the past couple of years, anyone who spends $30 a bottle for a 92-point wine shouldn’t be bragging about it. They should be consulting the $10 Hall of Fame.
4. “Texas wine? Haven’t they given up on that yet?” You can substitute your local wine region here, but the sentiment is the same. Despite all of the progress we have made, too many wine drinkers, wine critics, and wine snobs still insist they know best about regional wine because they didn’t enjoy the glass they had when Jimmy Carter was president.
5. “The last time I was in Napa, I had the most amazing wine. … ” Wine travel snobbery is among the worst, implying that the only amazing wines can be found by people rich or lucky enough to go where the wine is made. This is obviously not true; the Wine Curmudgeon has found some amazing wines digging around the closeout bin at his local Italian wine specialist. Which is 10 minutes from my house with free parking.
Last January, when I waxed reminisicent about the original 1999 $10 Hall of Fame, I promised to tell the story behind several of the wines that made that list. Now, as I’m starting to put together the 2014 Hall of Fame (which will appear on Jan. 6, 2014), it’s a good time to share those stories — they’re after the jump.
“My dear, did you know scores are the best way to learn about wine?”
The days were always shorter this time of year, thought Van Helsing, but they seemed to be getting even shorter — and darker. He shivered.
“It’s the damnedest thing,” said Jonathan Harker. “About Lucy, my fiancee?” Van Helsing nodded, took a sip of his brandy. “Lately, she has been drinking 15 percent, overoaked California chardonnays. And even some of those wretched zinfandels,” and he shuddered as he said it.
“That is damned odd,” said Van Helsing. He had known Lucy for years, and she had rarely spent more than $10 a bottle, and always for Old World wines, lighter and with character instead of alcohol. She had even introduced him to Gascon wine. Suddenly, Van Helsing understood why Harker was so worried. “How can I help, old chap?”
Lucy was in the library, a bottle of 15.2 percent California pinot noir open on the table. A pile of wine magazines was on the floor. Her face was pale.
“My dear, you don’t look well,” said Van Helsing. Lucy ignored him, all her attention focused on the glass of wine, dark and brooding. “Is everything all right?”
“I don’t know,” she said, fighting back tears. “Lately, I’ve felt so strange. I don’t sleep. I dream about Parker 98s — and I don’t even know what that is. I have this urge, all the time, to buy the most expensive wine I can find, even if I don’t like it.” She broke down, started sobbing. Van Helsing sat next to her, took her hands in his. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked.
“It’s serious, I know that,” he said, trying to fit the pieces together in his mind. “When did this start, my dear?”
“I’m not sure. I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, and one of the guests was a Count Cabacula, from Napa Valley. All my friends were impressed. He knew so much about wine.”
A chill went through Van Helsing, and the pieces started falling into place. “Count Cabacula, you say?”
“Yes, a very charming man. He’s new to this country, and was saying how much he liked it. So many young women who didn’t know about California wine. He’s even coming here tonight. He wanted to meet Jonathan’s sister, Mina.”
Van Helsing stood up quickly, trying to hold back the terror sweeping over him. “Lucy, did Count Cabacula mention something called scores?”
“Yes he did. How did you know? He said they were the best way to learn about wine.”
“Lucy, I want you to find Jonathan and Mina and get as far away from the estate as possible. Go to France. Cabacula still has enemies there. But please, for God’s sake, hurry. We don’t have much time.”
“What about Count Cabacula?”
“I’ll give him your regrets. He and I have unfinished business.”
There was a full moon. Van Helsing was in the drawing room, waiting, when he heard a voice cackling behind him. “So we meet again, my old friend.”
Van Helsing turned. Cabacula was standing in the window, holding a copy of the Wine Spectator’s buying guide. “A present for Lucy and Mina,” he said, and then laughed, and the sound filled the room. Van Helsing choked back a scream, fought to keep his composure.
“No more, Cabacula,” he said. “Your evil and twisted ways end here.”
“And how will you stop me, Van Helsing? Your puny weapons, those reviews that describe wines but don’t judge them, those critics who aren’t part of the Winestream Media? All are useless against me.”
“Not anymore,” said Van Helsing, pulling a book out of his overcoat. The book’s cover, with the brown hat and green bottle, glistened in the moonlight. Cabacula saw it, shrieked, drew back. “No, not that. Not that accursed thing.”
Van Helsing held the book in his right hand, arm outstretched, cover facing the count, moving toward Cabacula. “And this isn’t the only weapon we have now,” he said as the count kept backing away, fear spreading across his face, until he was trapped against the wall. “We have wine drinkers, lots of them, who drink what they want — sweet red wine, even — and don’t care about the other.”
“No, I don’t believe it,” said Cabacula, and he howled, such a dreadful wail that Van Helsing hesitated for a moment and Cabacula almost got to the window and freedom. But Van Helsing wasn’t going to miss his chance, not after the years of wasted opportunities. He blocked the count, pushed the book closer to his face, and Cabacula howled again, slumping against the floor.
Van Helsing worked quickly, taking a bottle out of another pocket. He unscrewed it and put the bottle, a $10 Sicilian nero d’avola, to Cabacula’s mouth and forced the liquid down his throat. The count gagged, tried to spit it out, but Van Helsing was the stronger one now, and the count swallowed the wine.
“You know something? That’s nice,” said Cabacula, “kind of earthy and interesting. Guess that shows what I know about wine.” And then he died, his body shriveling into nothing, and the wine poured onto the floor where the body had been.
Van Helsing took a deep breath, closed his eyes. “I just hope you stay dead, you damned fiend,” he said, and wondered: Could his quest finally be over?