Julia Child is rightfully credited with making American cooking more than steak, baked potatoes, and a dinner salad of iceberg lettuce, rubber tomatoes, and bottled French salad dressing. What’s often overlooked is her role in helping us figure out this wine thing, and especially her advocacy for American wine, which was pretty much unknown 50 years ago.
Child was passionate about wine, and it’s worth watching the grainy black and white episodes of the original “French Chef” public television show to see just how passionate. In the second episode, aired in 1963, she prepares her classic Boeuf Bourguignon, and it includes a very intelligent discussion about wine to serve with the stew. You can see it at 25:58 of the linked item; she recommends mountain red, a California jug wine made with zinfandel, and explains why it’s not necessary to buy an expensive bottle of red Burgundy. No wonder, as Jacques Pepin once told me, “what you saw with Julia was what you got.”
Child did a wine and cheese episode in 1970, and the array of bottles — six French wines with their American counterparts — must have been as confusing as molecular biology to most of her audience. That’s because dessert wines were the best-selling wine in the U.S. until 1967 (part of the discussion in Chapter II of the Cheap Wine book), and the first U.S. wine boom was still five years off.
Some of the best wine advice ever written is in “The French Chef Cookbook,” published in 1968. Rose goes with anything, says Child, and she does not have kind words for retailers who offer less than helpful advice. There are also wine and food pairing suggestions, still relevant today, and she explains why there’s nothing wrong with cheap wine for everyday meals. My favorite part, though, is this: “The simplest way to start in on this pleasant hobby is to buy wines, start sampling, discussing, keeping notes, reading about wines, thinking about them, and enjoying them.”
Toward the end of last month’s $3 wine epic, I got very tired of cheap wine. Or at least it seemed that way. And the Wine Curmudgeon was embarrassed. How could one of the world’s foremost advocates of cheap wine be tired of it?
Which led to some serious reflection. Had I finally reached the cheap wine equivalent of the marathon runner’s wall, when he or she has gone as far as they can and can run no more? And, if true, what did that mean for the future — especially with the Cheap Wine Book on the way? Or was something else going on, something that I didn’t understand, caught up as I was in trying to evaluate wine most of my colleagues don’t think needs evaluating?
Fortunately, the latter turned out to be the case. The problem wasn’t that the wine was cheap; rather, it’s that it wasn’t very interesting — especially after five consecutive nights of the same thing. It might have taken longer to get bored if the wines had been $100 white Burgundy, but boredom would have come eventually.
Which made me wonder: Is that yet another reason why Americans drink so little wine (per capta consumpton has remained more or less the same for 30 years)? Do we stick to the same wine, even when we’re bored with it, because it’s too difficult to find something else?
Do those millions of women of a certain age buy the same undistinguished pinot grigio year after year because it’s easier than buying something else, even if they want something else? Do those millions of Millennials buy syruped-up malbec because the alternative is spending money on wine they don’t understand, even if they’re tired of malbec? Can it be that the devil that we know is easier than negotiating the wine purchasing process and its indecipherable labels, intimidating retailers, and unintelligible winespeak?
Which led me back to the only wine rule I have left after 20-some years of doing this: Drink what you want, but be willing to try something else. Yes, that can be terrifying — who wants to spend good money on something you may not like, even if it’s only $10? But the alternative is getting bored, and there is too much wonderful wine in the world to let that happen. So take a chance. Don’t let the wine business do to you what it has done to everyone else. You have nothing to lose but boring wine.
Wine and food pairings are wine ?s version of Greek mythology. It ?s the solution to all of the wine industry ?s problems, even though ? like Apollo ?s oracle ? pairings don ?t mean all that much to the vast majority of wine drinkers.
This has made such an impression on me that I ?ve pretty much given up on wine and food pairings (though I ?ll still suggest them). The cheap wine book goes into detail, but what it comes down to is this: If I tell people it ?s OK to drink what they want, then why I am telling them what to drink it with? All I ask is that wine drinkers be open to the concept of pairings and give them a try. If they don ?t like them, that ?s fine, too. As my brother says, ?I like big red wine. Why can ?t I drink it when I want
Nevertheless, many in the wine business see wine and food pairings as the key to increasing wine consumption in the U.S. (this being one of the most important exceptions). This approach shows up regularly in studies and white papers, and most recently in what was an otherwise outstanding effort to help the industry figure out how to get Hispanics to drink more wine.
But the report, issued by Rabobank, has this line: ?What support will be given for pairing wine with Hispanic food?” Forget the practicalities ? what exactly is Hispanic food, given that Hispanics come from dozens of countries and they even eat non-Hispanic food? More importantly, it also ignores the point that most consumers don ?t care about pairings and that pairings are especially intimidating to new wine drinkers. So how will that help lure Hispanics into wine?
Sometimes I wonder if anyone is really paying attention when they write these things.
The good news is that the five $3 wines that I drank with dinner last week were mostly OK, and the horror stories that I heard proved to be — for me, anyway — unfounded.
Which is also the bad news. Most wine, even $10 wine, is going to taste reasonably consistent from vintage to vintage. Yes, these wines were OK — and a couple were more than that — but that’s no guarantee they’ll taste that way again if I do this again next year. And, unfortunately, none of them made me jump in the air and fall back down with excitement, ready to re-do the $10 Hall of Fame. Dull is probably a better adjective.
First, the challenge. Each night last week, I drank a $3 wine with dinner to attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? I tasted five chardonnays sold at leading retailers in the United States:
• Two-buck Chuck ($2.99), the Trader Joe ?s private label. This was the weirdest tasting of the five, with lots of tropical fruit (banana even) and very little chardonnay character. It wasn ?t bad, in the sense I had to pour it down the drain, but it wasn’t enjoyable, either. My guess is that there was a lot of very ripe fruit in this.
• Three Wishes ($2.99), the Whole Foods private label. I expected most of the wines to be burdened with badly done oak (chips, probably). In fact, three of them didn’t taste of oak at all, and the oak in the Three Wishes was quite well done, assuming you like that style of wine. I don’t, so it wasn’t my favorite.
• Winking Owl ($2.89) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). My favorite — a straight-forward, 1990s-style jug chardonnay with apple and pear fruit and varietal character for those who remember Glen Ellen. It’s not as well done as something like Bogle, but it does the job for $3 and I would it buy again.
• Oak Leaf ($2.97), the Walmart private label. This was the sweet one, probably a couple of percentage points over the line that separates sweet from dry. Again, not awful, but nothing I would want to drink again.
Worth noting: I didn’t list alcohol levels for the wines, most of which were around 13 percent, since several of the labels seemed inaccurate. The Winking Owl, for instance, was listed as 11.5% and sweet (the back label had a sweetness chart), but it wasn’t sweet. Not even Aldi is sure, apparently: the wine on its website is not the current vintage. The Oak Leaf, which was most definitely sweet, had one of the highest alcohol percentages, so it probably wasn’t accurate either.
Incredibly frustrating: None of the wines had a screwcap. Why did these need a cork, even an artificial one? A quality corkscrew is going to cost more than the wine, and I defy anyone who markets these brands to tell me that they need a cork to preserve some sort of romantic wine image. It’s just $3 wine.
In the end, the quality of the wines didn’t bother me as much as how boring they were, and this quickly turned into a school assignment and not wine drinking. By the fourth night, I was not looking forward to tasting another wine, something that almost never happens.
In addition, most of the wines did not taste like they did the last time I drank them. I had the Cul-de-Sac about a year ago, and had to pour it down the drain — bitter and unripe. The Two-buck Chuck, two years ago in Santa Fe, was much more chardonnay like than this version. This, more than actual quality, is the biggest problem with $3 wine — the consumer doesn’t know what they’re getting from bottle to bottle, and buying wine should not be like playing roulette.
Hence this suggestion: Why make varietal wines? Why not make the best $3 wine possible, using whatever grapes are available, be it French colombard or a blend? This would require a change in marketing, given that consumers have been trained to buy the best known varietal wines like chardonnay and merlot, but it would almost certainly produce more consistent and better quality wine.
“Keep moving. We have dozens more to unload after this.”
?So tell me where this wine is from. ?
My friend swished, took a sip, moved the wine around in her mouth. ?Malbec from Argentina, ? she said.
?That ?s really good, ? I said. ?I couldn ?t place it, but that ?s exactly what it tastes like. ?
The catch? That the wine was neither malbec nor from Argentina, but a $10 red blend, mostly syrah, from Ch teau La Tour De Beraud in the southern Rhone in France. That it tasted like it was made with a different grape from the other side of the world speaks to the increasing use of winemaking tools that make wine taste the same no matter where it ?s from ? the insidious International Style of Winemaking.
In one respect, this has been an extraordinary advance in winemaking, because it has tremendously improved wine quality over the past decade. It ?s almost impossible to find a poorly made wine these days, no matter where it comes from. I don ?t miss those green, unbalanced wines that tasted like battery acid.
The cost, though, has been high ? wine without terroir or personality or individuality, something that was common even for cheap wine in the 20-plus years I ?ve been doing this. After the jump, what this means to consumers and how to identify these wines.
Because the customers always write, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers every month or so. Ask a wine-related question by clicking here.
WC: I just returned to the U.S. from a three-year stint in the UK where cheap Bordeaux is a plenty at Sainsbury or Tesco. Before we left, we spent a week in Sicily and I stumbled into the Cusumano wines. Amazing stuff. What is the best way to purchase in the U.S.? We now live in Tennessee where you have to go to a package store to buy wine! Insane. Please advise. Baffled by the three-tier system
Dear Baffled: You aren ?t the only one. I get more availability questions than anything else; hence this post and this one, which should answer all your questions. Basically, first ask your retailer, and if that doesn ?t work, start Googling. You ?re spot on with the Cusumano, by the way. Love those wines. And I ?m jealous about the Bordeaux.
Dear Wine Guy: You write a lot about how Americans buy cheap wine, but that no one pays enough attention. But maybe there ?s something you ?re missing. Do we buy cheap wine everywhere that sells wine, or only at certain places? Like do fine wine shops sell more expensive wine? Wondering about prices
Dear Prices: That ?s one of the best questions I ?ve ever received, and I don ?t know there ?s an exact answer. I consulted a bunch of really smart wine people, and we came up with these proportions, but there ?s no guarantee to their accuracy: About two-thirds of the wine sold at a mass market retailer like Walmart costs $12 or less and 80 to 90 percent of the wine sold at a grocery store costs $12 or less. At a fine wine shop, the numbers for a mass market retailer are likely reversed, so two-thirds of the wine sold there costs $12 or more.
Hey Wine Curmudgeon: I have a friend who says she can drink beer OK, but wine, white or red, gives her migraine headaches ? and fast. Any clue as to what is the culprit? My head hurts
Dear Head: I have written about headaches, perhaps the great urban myth of wine. About one percent of the U.S. population is allergic to sulfites, which can cause the headaches. The rest of it, says one of the leading researchers in the field, is auto-suggestion. So there is a chance it is sulfites, though a small one ? and one she can test with dried apricots, which have 10 times the sulfites of wine. The other culprit might be histamines, common in wine and which can cause allergic reactions. But beer has histamines, too. So this is where I say I ?m not a doctor, and suggest asking one.
The reader didn ?t mince any words: ?This is the third time I have attempted to purchase a wine you recommended in your column only to find that one or more of the locations you identified as carrying the wine was listed erroneously. … As for me, I will ignore your reviews in future since the prospect of actually obtaining the wine is remote. ?
Fortunately, this wasn ?t a blog reader; rather, it was someone castigating Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post. But it could have been someone here ? or anywhere in the wine world, for that matter. Availability is the bane of the wine writer ?s existence, and there is very little we can do about it.
Did Dave ?s reader have a right to expect the wine to be in that particular store? He did. But it wasn ?t Dave ?s fault that it wasn ?t there, because wine doesn ?t work that way. After the jump: Why that ?s the case, and why not much can be done about it.