Am I the only one who thinks this pairing looks silly?
The Wine Curmudgeon doesn’t like the Super Bowl. This is not just because I was once a sportswriter and soon tired of sports’ hypocrisy, and especially the NFL’s obsession with money. And more money. And even more money.
Or that, living in Dallas, more people attend Cowboys games than usually vote in mayoral elections. Which always seems to annoy them when I bring it up.
Or that I get pathetic pitches from hard-up marketing and public relations types, desperate to turn the Super Bowl into a wine event. This week, someone wanted me to write about the Sea Hawks, which is an Errol Flynn movie and not a football team. The Super Bowl is a beer event. And a pizza event. But it’s as much about wine as St. Patrick’s Day is, and who ever heard of green-colored wine?
But mostly I don’t like the Super Bowl because no one reads the blog over Super Bowl weekend. I get more visitors on Christmas Day than I do during the Super Bowl, which shocked me the first time it happened and still makes me pause. What this says about the United States in the 21st century is something that I will leave to others more versed in the study of that sort of thing.
So enjoy the Super Bowl, and I’ll see you next week. I will spend Sunday messing around the house — maybe baking some bread, trying to get a few posts ahead on the blog, or working on my notes for my next wine class at El Centro. But I won’t watch the game, which I haven’t done since 1986. And somehow, my life has gone on.
“So, Jeff,” the conversation begins, “Why don’t you like expensive wine?”
This isn’t the most common question I’ve been asked over the past eight years, but it’s common enough. These days, unfortunately, it’s not only more common, but there’s often an edge in the voice of the person asking it. As in, “So you’d rather drink crappy wine just to prove a point?”
Of course not. I love wine; why would I want to deprive myself of the pleasure it brings, regardless of price? How many times have I bored the cyber-ether with my odes to white Burgundy or Oregon pinot noir?
Because I don’t dislike expensive wine. I dislike poorly-made wine and overpriced wine, where profit is all that matters and quality is barely a consideration. I dislike dishonest wine from producers who use winemaking tricks or marketing sleight of hand to fool the consumer. I dislike pretentious wine, which we’re supposed to like because our betters tell us we should.
Cheap wine can be any of those things just as easily as expensive wine can, and I call out that kind of cheap wine all the time. Hasn’t anyone read my Cupcake reviews?
The difference, wine being wine, is that too many still assume that those qualities can’t possibly apply to the wine they bought for $24.99. After all, it came from a retailer who winked and nodded with them as if they were pals in on a big secret, and didn’t the wine get 93 points from this really smart guy who has the best palate in the world, and which we know because he tells us so?
Allow me to quote my friend Dave McIntyre, who has said many nice things about me over the years: “Siegel doesn’t equate cheap with bad, like so many others do. He sniffs out inexpensive wines that are well made and provide exceptional value, and his passion is sharing them with the world.”
The Wine Curmudgeon has the best job in the world — I get to drink wine and write about it for a worldwide audience that appreciates what I say and regularly tells me so. I’ve won awards and I’m respected in a way I never was in my previous writing careers, and it’s not like I didn’t have successes then. How about interviewing a talking dog?
The catch? That writing about wine on the Internet is as financially unrewarding as it was when I started, which is the lesson for the blog’s seventh annual birthday week. The Internet isn’t interested in wine writing; rather, it rewards selling and marketing wine.
Mostly, that’s the Winestream Media, which has always been as much cheerleader for the wine business as it has been consumer advocate. But it’s also the biggest wine-related sites, retailers like Amazon and aggregators like Snooth, who benefit. That’s because the Internet values quantity above all; witness this wine site acquisition by another site this week, which is just like the consolidation and “synergies” that go on in other businesses. That the biggest sites may not be impartial or objective doesn’t matter. My review of a wine, no matter how brilliant, will almost never out-Google the largest sites, which may do nothing more than list the wine for sale. In this sense, quality is irrelevant, and what matters is who has the biggest inventory.
In addition, too many wine drinkers who use the Internet want to be told what to drink, which has been as depressing to discover as it has been surprising. Every year, I get a disappointing number of entries when I give away the $50 Wine.com gift card during Birthday Week. It’s as if wine drinkers using the Internet don’t care about free money, because then they have to decide what to do with it, and wine is too complicated for that. These wine drinkers are a perfect fit for the Winestream Media, retailers, aggregators, and the like, and they help reinforce the rewards for sites that sell and market wine.
One of the smartest wine people I know, whose career has been a model of quality and professionalism, makes no pretense about how she writes for the Internet: She has a list of search terms that Google looks for, and she uses as many of them as possible. If her writing is awkward or repetitive, that’s better than not being read at all. Google’s algorithm even takes into account how long a post is, and it penalizes those (like this one) that are too long. Or too short, which is the case for most of my reviews.
In fact, a consultant who parses Google for a living has told me that I may have to face facts: I may never be able to compete with the biggest sites and may have to find something else to do for a living. The best explanation of how this works, and why Google gets away with it, is from computer blogger Dedoimedo (the language gets a little rough): “If you believe in your work, your passion, your words, then I beg you, do not let the corporate morons out there reduce you to the lowest common denominator.”
Unfortunately for my financial future, I have no interest in selling or marketing wine, which is different from carrying advertising on a website. And the day I take writing lessons from a search engine algorithm is the day Robert Parker and I have a sleepover to giggle about inky 98-point shirazes. I’m a writer, not a salesman. And, with no false modesty, I’m one of only a handful of quality, legitimate wine writers on the Internet. You’ll read stuff here that you not only won’t get anywhere else, but that no one else thinks there’s a need for wine drinkers to know. Because, after all, their job is to sell wine.
My goal is just the opposite of what the algorithm says it should be. I don’t want to tell anyone what to drink. I want to teach you how to make up your own mind, so you can drink what you want and pay as much — or as little — as you want. That’s called journalism, and if it makes me quaint and old-fashioned, so be it. I’m not here to become famous or win awards. I’m here to perform a service. There’s no point in doing this, in writing five posts a week, 52 weeks a year, unless I care about the people I’m writing for. And that’s each of you, whether you come here for a Barefoot review, to laugh at one of my rants, or to try to figure out what punk rock has to do with wine.
Hence giving you the best I can — the best writing, the best-informed opinion, the best information about how the wine business works — regardless of what the algorithm wants. Anything less is hypocrisy, and there is already enough of that in the world. And especially in the wine business and wine writing.
So I’m here for the long run, even if I never make enough money to retire to Burgundy. Or if I have to write arcane trade magazine pieces, be polite to annoying editors, or do book signings for people who are too smart to read books. It still beats working for a living.
Whatever you do, don’t help me make an informed decision about what to buy.
It was bad enough that the woman, standing in the Texas winery tasting room, proclaimed that Texas wine wasn’t any good, and that she suspected the Texas wine she was drinking came from California. What was worse was when she told the tasting room employee that she only drank cabernet sauvignon and malbec, and that she wasn’t going to drink this red blend because she wouldn’t like it.
What struck me, as I watched this scene unfold over Labor Day weekend, was that it was so wine ? the woman’s dead certainty she was correct, despite knowing nothing about what she was talking about; the refusal to try something different, because it was different; and the sense that the winery was trying to put something over on her.
And this doesn’t include the other foolishness I’ve seen this fall, like the woman at a Kroger Great Wall of Wine with $50 worth of beef in her cart who was agonizing over $10 cabernet sauvigon and who couldn’t have been more confused if she had been trying to read the Iliad in the original Greek. Or the bartender at a chi chi Dallas wine bar who treated me like I was an idiot because I wanted to talk about Texas wine and cheap wine.
Does that happen with any other consumer good? Only wine, and for that we have the wine business to thank. More, after the jump: Continue reading →
I wanted to find a wine among the six — five $3 merlots and a $4 red blend — that I could enjoy without reservation and use as another example in my campaign to help wine drinkers understand that price is not the most important thing about wine quality. One was OK, one was undrinkable, and the rest were as brainless as bottled ice tea. With so much quality cheap wine in the world, and sometimes for just a dollar or two more, why do so many people buy these, often making a special trip to do so?
When that analysis comes from someone who has spent 20 years trying to say nice things about cheap wine, it means there’s very little reason to drink them.
I drank a bottle of wine with dinner five nights last week to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? I tasted five merlots and a red blend from leading retailers in the United States. Each wine but one was non-vintage with an American appellation:
• Two-buck Chuck ($2.99, 12.5%), the Trader Joe ?s private label, 2012 vintage and California appellation. Call this the Miller Lite of the tasting; drinkable, with some berry fruit, but thin and not very memorable. It’s probably $3 worth of wine, but it raises the question of why you’d go to Trader Joe’s just to buy it. It’s not that much more of a value than most $6 or $7 grocery store merlots.
• Three Wishes ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. Not offensive, but nothing more than that. Some dark fruit, but thin and the poor quality of the fake oak showed through. Not much in the way of tannins, either, and this wine needed tannins to balance the oak.
• Winking Owl ($2.89, 12.5%) from Aldi but may be available elsewhere. Real wine that mostly tasted the way it was supposed to taste — some berry fruit, fake oak that wasn’t annoying, and proper tannins. This is not top-quality merlot or even $10 merlot, but compared to the rest, it was right bank Bordeaux.
• Yosemite Road ($3.99, 12%), a private label for 7-Eleven. This red blend is one of the best sweet reds I’ve ever tasted, and a terrific value if that’s what you’re looking for. It wasn’t as sweet as a poorly-made white zinfandel, and there was fruit flavor (red berries?) to go with the sweetness. The catch, of course, is that the wine does not say anywhere on the label that it’s sweet, and the alcohol percentage indicates a dry wine. As noted before, this is dishonest and cheats consumers. Producers have an obligation to say if it’s sweet, and putting the words jammy, velvety, and soft on the label is not good enough. In other words, I wasted my money.
• Oak Leaf ($2.97, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Almost a carbon copy of the Three Wishes, but with enough unripe fruit to give the wine an old-fashioned, this is what we used to drink from France in the 1970s feel. However, since this is the 21st century and there is no reason for that kind of wine to exist, it’s not a selling point.
• Southern Point ($2.39, 12.5%), the Walgreen’s private label. I had high hopes for this wine, given how well the drug store chain’s chardonnay did in a tasting several years ago. However, it was one of the worst wines I’ve drunk in a decade, combining poor winemaking and poor quality fruit. It didn’t taste like merlot, but like a cheap, alcoholic wine cooler without any fizz. This is the kind of wine that I have been fighting against for 20 years, but somehow still seems to get made.
Rather, this is a critique (based on a story I wrote for the Wine Business International trade magazine) of the shoddy and slipshod reporting done by most of the media, wine and otherwise, when the study was released. That is something I am qualified to do after 35 years as a journalist.
Journalism, something that I love and have spent my professional life trying to do well, is in a sorry state. How the study was covered demonstrates this all too well. Too many news organizations, regardless of size or reputation, are lazy, sloppy, and willing to accept what someone says — be it the CDC, the government, or big business — without asking questions. And journalism is about asking questions. These days, though, it’s cheaper and easier and less offensive to advertisers if you re-write a news release, throw some hyperlinks in it, and call it reporting. Or rewrite what another news organization has already rewritten.
My reason for being, even in wine, is to try not to do that. Here are the questions the media didn’t ask when the CDC study was released:
• Where did the excessive drinking standard come from? Why is the standard eight drinks a week for women and 15 for men? In fact, these come from a 2006 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and are based on the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines: “drink alcoholic beverages… in moderation, which is defined as no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men.” Which is not exactly the same thing as excessive drinking.
• Why does this study contradict what one eminent cardiologist told me “is a reasonable certainty, based on hundreds of studies over the past decade, that moderate drinking as part of the Mediterranean diet that includes fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and wine, will benefit cardiac health. It’s the difference between partying and wine with a meal.”
• Why these solutions — higher taxes, fewer liquor licenses for stores and restaurants, and an end to wet-dry elections and state deregulation? Will these prevent alcoholism, or will they penalize responsible drinkers?
Cheap wine, despite the tremendous advances over the past couple years (like this guy and this guy), still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Google, for whatever reasons, still seems to have a cheap wine chip on its cyber shoulder — and just not because of what it did to my search numbers. Put the phrase “Can cheap wine…” in a search box, and almost all the suggestions are negative. Can cheap wine make you sick, indeed. You don’t see that for ketchup, do you?
Fortunately, the Wine Curmudgeon is here to answer five of the most suggested cheap wine questions on Google:
? Can cheap wine make you sick? Of course it can. So can expensive wine. It’s called a hangover, and it doesn’t matter how much it costs if you drink too much of it.
? Can cheap wine go bad? Of course it can. So can expensive wine. Going bad is not a function of price, but of quality control at the winery and how it’s stored there, how it’s stored at the distributor and retailer, and where you keep it at home. Put a bottle of wine in the sunlight in 90-degree heat, and it will go bad regardless of how much you paid for it.
? Can cheap wine give you a headache? Of course it can. See question 1. It’s also a myth that cheap wine contains more headache-inducing sulfites than expensive wine, and it’s another myth that wine in sulfites causes headaches.
? Cheap cheap wine be aged? No, but neither can most expensive wine. Almost all of the wine made in the world today is not made for aging, but to drink when you buy it. Its shelf life isn’t much different from many canned goods, and some boxed wines even have an expiration date.
? Can cheap wine be good? No. I’ve been wasting my time for the past 20 years. Of course it can be good. So can cheap cars, cheap blue jeans, cheap airfare, and so on and so forth. Quality in wine is not a function of price, but of the effort the producer makes — no matter how much the rest of the world wants it to be about price.
A tip o’ the Wine Curmudgeon’s fedora to the OMG! Ubuntu! website, which did a similar post for the Ubuntu computer operating system and which I borrowed.