It’s been said that the people of the world are divided by
water but brought together by wine. But in America, it is the wine that divides people. Here,
wine is a marketing triumph of image over substance. Here, ignorance and pretentiousness find their greatest expression in
They say you get what you pay for in this life, but that’s
not exactly true for wine, which is hyped like soft drinks and cosmetics. Many years ago, I lived in a working class neighborhood
in Madrid above a bodega, where people would bring empty wine bottles to be refilled from a huge oaken barrel. The price for
refills was about one-fifth the price of a packaged, bottled wine of similar quality- which demonstrated to me the added value
of packaging and advertising.
There probably isn’t a bottle of wine in the world that costs
more than $10 to produce. But in restaurants nowadays, a wine list can include selections that cost $500 a bottle or more.
So just what does one pay for beyond the cost of production? Is it flattering imagery, status enhancement, product driven
identity reinforcement? Whatever its psychological dynamics, it is the same ephemeral essence that is infused into Pepsi and
Coke; without which, these beverages are mere sugared water with some coloring and flavoring. This is not to say that all
wines are the same. But I would say that in a blindfolded taste test, most people,
including some self-styled wine aficionados, could not pick out a $2000 bottle of Screaming
Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon from a half dozen decent wines in the $15-$25 range.
But even at $15 or $25, wine is too costly for a growing number of
people. Europeans drink decent table wines at affordable prices because they have discriminating taste and recognize value.
They certainly don’t pay 25 Euros every time they want a bottle of wine. We Americans, however, are too easily taken
in by packaging and advertising, and marketers know this. My neighborhood liquor store, for example, offers hundreds of exotic
looking wines in the $4 to $8 dollar range. The presentation of these wines is brilliant- with labeling that suggests the
heights of the vintner’s craft. But when you get these wines home, they invariably taste like vinegar and are practically
undrinkable. Years ago, these would have been sold in supermarkets as cooking wines.
Fortunately there are angles to obtaining drinkable wine on a beer
budget. One of these is to buy wine by the gallon in a supermarket for around twelve dollars, which comes to less than three
dollars per bottle. More importantly, these wines are noticeably better than the $4 to $8 wines at the package store. True,
the uninspired labeling holds no esthetic appeal, but do you want to pay for packaging and advertising or for contents?
If serving supermarket wine by the gallon bothers you, transfer the
wine into a cut glass decanter. Not only does decantering improve the taste, it also conceals the humble origin of the wine.
Trust me, you will receive compliments on your wine selection- provided nobody
spots the empty gallon bottle. If this seems draconian, another low budget alternative is vermouth; wine infused with herbs.
I like Martini and Rossi red vermouth, which costs under ten dollars.
For Americans, much of what we “know” about wine is wrong.
A good example is the old saw that white wine must be taken with fish and red
wine with meat- as if the colors should match. I never met a Spaniard who didn’t think this “rule” was totally
weird and evidence of our ignorance of wine.
I stumbled across another “rule” while taking a writing
course in Boston a few years ago. The class was critiquing a story I had written where one of my characters orders a chilled
burgundy in a restaurant. A woman pointed out that burgundy is never to be taken chilled.
Didn’t my character know that? The others agreed, with a mixture of pity and thinly veiled contempt for my Philistine
tastes. Another student added, as if to rescue me from my offense to haute cuisine, “Maybe he means white burgundy; it’s acceptable to chill white burgundy…”
No… I meant red burgundy… The stuff my grandfather made in oak barrels in the basement of his triple decker in
Lawrence. .. and drank chilled on his front porch. I meant the full bodied chilled red wines I saw my neighbors in Madrid drinking in summer. All of which makes me wonder: Who dictates
My humble advice is this: Don’t fixate on labels. Forget vintages.
Ignore packaging. Choose the wine that tastes the best for you, even if your selection is unacceptable to the cognoscenti.
Embrace honest ignorance. And if a $2000 bottle of Screaming Eagle falls into your hands, open it… because wine is not
for bragging or hoarding; wine is for drinking.