“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





21 November 2011



The Full Case For Cheap Wine
Big Pow-wow On Wine Pricing
Who Does This Dill Think He Is?

Twas a perfect week for the angsty wino. The money canyons of the west were full of people rebelling against the way their wealth is stolen, and there sat fat Whitey, trying to justify the $1000 Penfolds is charging for a bottle of the new Bin 620.

If the facts be known I didn’t really attempt to justify it at all.

But I thought a lot about it.

The digital soup slopped out an interesting discussion about wine prices at the same time.

On Slate, the US writer Brian Palmer slated wine critics for encouraging price rises by presuming that $15 was an appropriate ask for what they call “everyday wine”.

By this I presume they mean something along the lines of what I used to call a “drinking wine”. Like a flagon of d’Arenberg was a “drinking wine” until the makers discovered it included stuff so good that it could be sold for $70 if you kept it out of the blend and sold it in a bottle. As drinkers quickly made clear, what then remained in the flagon ceased to be a “drinking wine”.

Palmer seems unaware of this phenomenon.


He reminded us that “Europeans seem perfectly comfortable cracking open a 1-euro tetra-pak of wine for guests. Germans, for example, pay just $1.79 on average for a bottle of wine … There are plenty of reasons to go back to our 1990s habits, and to start using 15 bucks to buy four or five bottles instead of just one.”

He goes on to praise Ernest and Julio Gallo, America’s biggest plonkmongers, and mentions various examples of the frailty of the human palate, which he thinks can’t tell expensive wine from cheap.

I can, but only if the wine is properly priced. I mean if you poured me a glass of the stuff that wasn’t worth $70 in the d’Arry flagon alongside a glass of the stuff that was, I suggest there’d be a fair chance you’d see me pick which was which.

But “So what?” is Palmer’s retort. “The only thing these ‘successes’ prove is that a small group of people have gotten very good at sniffing out the traits that the wine industry thinks entitle them to more money ... If hints of cassis, subtle earthiness, and jammy notes don’t interest you, you are not a lesser person. Wine is not art. There’s no reason to believe that aligning your tastes with those of a self-appointed elite will enrich your life, or make you more insightful or sensitive. If wine critics want to spend lavishly on the wine they like, that’s great. Leave them to their fun. Be grateful that you can gain just as much pleasure, if not more, without bankrupting yourself.”

This led to John Bonné, wine critic at Inside Scoop SF returning fire.

“Oh, please”, he writes. “Usually I ignore these screeds. But the reductivist logic in this piece, the notion that professionals are pulling a fast one on an unsuspecting public, is so extreme that I couldn’t resist — mostly because this is the sort of logic that discourages people from wanting to learn more about wine. I wasn’t alone. Mike Steinberger, who until recently was Slate’s wine critic, took the rare step of smacking down his former employer for ‘a really silly article—so silly, in fact, that I have trouble believing it was meant to be taken seriously’.”

He says the reason Americans buy less $3 wine these days is “we want to drink better wine and we are willing to pay for it.”


“But in the Slate view,” Bonné continues, “price is all that matters. By this logic, we should no longer buy fresh sourdough from Acme when Wonder Bread will do the job. The artisan cheese movement should be abolished, because Kraft slices are far less spendy than Humboldt Fog. Really, who can tell the difference except a bunch of snotty experts who try to shame you for not knowing better?”

Bonné says that at $12 you can find an honest product that reflects its roots with a true
sense of origin and craft, but it won’t be great wine. “Far more often at $12, or even $18, there’s no story to tell, no craft to extol. One of the industry’s truly cynical shortfalls has been to promote industrially made wine at $15 or $20 as being the product of artisan work. If I was forking over good money for wines like these — to go back to the bread analogy, these are the equivalent of supermarket par-baked loaves — I’d be pissed to find that I was funding the vino-industrial complex.”

He then goes on to mention the types of farming necessary to make $3 wines, or even the dreaded Two Buck Chuck.

“Typically, any wine like this is sourced from industrially farmed, inland vineyards that grow grapes worth just a few hundred dollars per ton, a price that’s barely breakeven for most farmers ... Whether that sort of farming is sustainable is a matter of debate, although the occasional hint appears about the unintended costs of growing cheap wine grapes, not the least of which is a potentially diminishing San Joaquin water supply. Seeing a similar trend, the Australian government encouraged growers to pull out their crops rather than continue draining water supplies to make cheap wines that, it’s now widely accepted, cost Australia much of its reputation as a producer of fine wine.

“If the farming can be done sustainably,” he concludes, “there is nothing wrong with cheap wine. But ultimately the wine industry has hurt itself by portraying cheap wine as fancier than it is. It has created the illusion that $5 wine is fancy enough that you don’t need to spend a cent more.”

This flushed out Evan Dawson, managing editor of the New York Cork Report, who wrote that the most important advantage that the artisans have over the bulk producers is their the source material. “When a high-end restaurant makes a great burger, they tend to use excellent quality meat. McDonald's, on the other hand, uses CAFO-sourced meat, or aging dairy cows. So what does the fast food chain do? They load up the meat with salt, which is a flavor most people like and allows them to cover up the fact that their source material isn't very good … And what does a bulk wine producer do with overcropped, mediocre-at-best fruit? He buries it in oak. Oak is the salt of the wine world.”

Dawson goes on to explain that in using expensive new barrels to flavour their wine, premium winemakers not only hide some of their most valuable asset, their fruit, but in fact they make their wines look more like cheaper wines, which can be oaked by sawdust, shavings, sticks, chips or tank planks.

Which is NOT the case with Bin 620: one reason for the adoration it draws is its seamless consolidation of new oak, French and American, with its priceless and indeed freakish Coonawarra fruit. It is nothing like the obsessively-wooded Bin 707 Cabernets of the past, which were whacked rotten with new raw sappy American oak from the start, and kept it forever.


Which is one of the miracles of modern Penfolds: a business with such weight of history, which depended for decades upon its brash application of American Quercus alba oak coopered in Tanunda by A. P. John, has managed to modernize its style, give much more stage to the fruit by exiling the coarsest lumberjacks, and yet it still tastes and smells like Penfolds.

I’m sure God could see all this coming when he wrote his book. Before promoting him to the world’s most famous winemaker, he had his only son study carpentry for thirty years, then make nouveau wine without barrels.

At least he used clay, not plastic. And then I suppose that as the scribe failed to mention the raisins and currants that Our Lord threw in the big waterpots as they were brought out into the sun, he may also have chosen to overlook the added sawdust. He'd obviously learned the amarone technique from the occupying forces, but the oak business? Only God would have thought of that.

Or the Greeks.

As if to put a bloody big plug in a week of such interminable navel-gazing, The Austin Chronicle finished it with Sipping From The Spigot, Wes Marshall’s report of a blind tasting of bladder pack wines versus bottled stuff.

“We were hoping to find a wine that played way above its class, one that could compete with much more expensive bottled wines,” Marshall wrote. “Admittedly, it's a bit like panning for gold, but one can always hope ... The worst wines we tasted were also the oldest wines. Some Australian wines had been packed as far back as 2008, and they were uniformly undrinkable.”

So, in seeking a good wine at a true price, generally avoid plastic, and avoid forestry unless you know and trust the lumberjack. Avoid what was left in the d’Arry flagon after they removed all the good stuff. Avoid sophistry, and avoid vacuous critics. And avoid me, for Bacchus’ sake, or I’ll have you drinking the $1000 dollar 620, although you knew all along that I didn’t pay for my glass, and the wine didn’t cost anything like $1000 per bottle to make.

Oh hang on, you’re safe. They’re telling me it’s almost sold out.



Vineyard Paul said...

I love the difference between the pictures of the "Good Wine" and the "Exceptionally Good Wine".

It is all in the colour of the stalks.

Teddy said...

Speaking of prices and such, the sooner WET is abolished - and prices 'rationalise' a bit - the better. It's hard to discuss wine prices in Australia without acknowledging first dealing with a tax policy that distorts wine (and health outcomes) so much.

Great post, incidentally.


Sal said...

Good piece. And love the pics.

tubby justice said...

Nothing between Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker or even my fav Omar Khayyam could give me a decent quote about wine. So much moralising I had to slam the book shut in disgust. Was wine once the equivalent of today's pokies? The only other explanation being ....who ever compiles the quote books must get to the Wine section and say "Drink not the third glass,which thou canst not tame..."
Yes that's the way to go. Lets stick with that.
God only knows what happens when they reach the Sex section. I might just look that up right now. The great thing about grapes is that they are easy to grow pretty much anywhere. That's why most of the world has wine in one form or another. And even if it does go wrong we still manage to make it right, The Noble Mud Pie being one of my favs.
Now I read today that the Australian dollar is still too strong which affects our export markets and we can't flog our grog to the people that gave it to us in the first place. Back to the quote books but I'm not holding my breath for any explanations, let alone any historical insight.
Tubby Trouble MacJustice.