Ashamed of That Cheap Wine You’re Buying?

Maybe that's because wine writers don't take you or it seriously.

According to independent research, Wine Spectator has 2,298,000 affluent readers who love wine.

The number occasionally climbs a bit, but the message, which appears regularly on one of the venerable magazine’s heavy, oversize pages, is always the same: If you’re ready to pony up a minimum of $33,000 for a four-color, full-page ad, call Miriam Morgenstern, the magazine’s vice president and associate publisher. Despite the high price tag, plenty of advertisers — including some producers of the wines that receive Wine Spectator‘s highest ratings — heed the call.

Life is pretty good in the magazine’s pages. A naked woman makes snow angels in the French Alps; a twentysomething man smiles dreamily through the smoke of his Cuban cigar; an attractive couple is served fresh Hawaiian opakapaka al fresco by the sea in a thatched-roofed gazebo lit by torches. Yes, life is pretty good for these exotic creatures called wine drinkers, but do their lives bear much resemblance to ours? Probably not — unless one of you is in the market for a Lexus with sensor-controlled windshield wipers and headlamps, several hundred acres of vacation property on the Florida coast, or an Embraer Phenom 300 $6 million executive jet.

Due to forces beyond Wine Spectator‘s control, however, all those high-end advertisers may one day find that the wine-drinking public has evolved dramatically from the exclusive club it used to be. Recent trends in how wine is sold, who’s drinking it, and where they buy it are tilting the scales firmly toward the little guy. This is great news if your love of a daily glass of wine exceeds the size of your wallet. But if you’re Miriam Morgenstern? Maybe not so great.

One thing that’s long separated the United States from other major wine-producing nations is that wine has never been known in our popular consciousness as a drink of the people. In the United States, Everyman drinks beer — cheap beer, and lots of it. That’s why we call him Joe Six-Pack.

But last year, polling firm Gallup announced that for the first time since it began tracking alcohol consumption in the United States, more respondents chose wine than beer as their favorite alcoholic beverage. Middle-aged and nonwhite drinkers were a big force in this trend, with a considerable drop in the percentage of Americans between 30 and 49 who drank beer more often than other alcoholic beverages, and an increase of 77 percent in the number of nonwhite Americans who preferred wine to beer or liquor. And while the gender stereotypes of women favoring wine while men choose beer did bear out somewhat, the boys were catching on, too — the number of men citing wine as their drink of choice has risen nearly 10 percent since the early 1990s.

Although beer regained an edge over wine in the latest poll, released earlier this month, the ascendance of wine is in evidence everywhere you look. In a nod to competitive pricing, restaurants are holding no-corkage-fee nights, and many are doing away with corkage fees altogether — while wine shops are grouping together bargain wines and giving them prime placement. Corner stores have gotten in the game too. Forget Mickey’s Big Mouth: That little place down the street has tripled its inventory and now holds weekly tastings.

Just who is this new consumer whom retailers and restaurants are so eager to please? Maybe it’s you. You’re an antisnob with a lust for life and a desire to save both time and money when you shop. You may be intelligent and educated, health- and budget-conscious, and thirsty for knowledge about new varietals and grape-growing regions, what to look for in judging a wine, and how to pair wines with food. Then again, maybe you just think that nothing tastes more like grown-up soda pop than a nice oaky Chardonnay in the middle of a global-warming heat wave. If pressed, you could probably name three or four appellations, and you’re pretty sure that “varietal” means a type of grape.

Whatever your tastes are, I’ll call you and your kind Wineaux. It seems an apt moniker, capturing both your sophisticated palate and your lack of pretension. My informal survey suggests that you typically spend between $8 and $15 per bottle, but you won’t scoff at a $2 or $3 wine if it meets your standards for drinkability.

“I look at wine through the same lens I use for burritos,” says Danny Palmerlee, a bespectacled South Bay-dwelling tequila lover who used to live in Oakland — and whose work as a travel writer lets him expense good hooch in foreign lands. “A burrito is a staple, and you should be able to get a good one for under five dollars. Any more, and you’re either missing the point or you’re a sucker.” Palmerlee expects the same value from Zinfandel, his grape of choice.

Michael Thomas is another Wineau, and a Berkeley alumnus who now lives in San Francisco. While he’s willing to spend $40 on a bottle for a special occasion, once a month without fail he buys a case of Charles Shaw Cabernet — known to most of us as “Two-Buck Chuck.”

Kay Keppler, a case-a-month gal living in Oakland, adds that while Chuck’s Cab is her beverage of choice for drinking, she’s thinking of replacing the chicken broth she uses for cooking with a case of Charles Shaw Chardonnay — “for reasons having to do with both economics and sodium intake.”

It’s no coincidence that when Wineaux talk about wine, Two-Buck Chuck gets a frequent mention. Produced by the Bronco Wine Company of Ceres in the Central Valley and sold only through Trader Joe’s, Chuck became wildly popular soon after it hit the shelves. This was mainly a California thing, because while it’s legal for California producers to sell directly to retailers within the state, other states require producers and retailers to work through a distributor. So thanks to these distribution laws, as well as taxes and transportation costs, Three- or Four-Buck Chuck is the best you can do in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Indiana.

What makes Chuck so special? The obvious answer is its winning combination of widely-agreed-upon drinkability and a laughably low price. Then there’s also its standard bottle size, and the fact that said bottle contains a varietal. This isn’t a generic table wine sold in a jug or a box — this is Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, or Shiraz in a respectable 750-milliliter bottle. A drinkable $2 Cab in a bottle the same size and shape as Opus One? Back in 2002, that was big news.

The importance of packaging is nothing to scoff at. Consumption of jug and boxed wine is declining, in contrast to phenomenal growth in the sale of wines bottled with screw caps, a method wine producers agree ensures quality far better than cork closures. As Mary-Colleen Tinney wrote recently in the respected trade magazine Wine Business Monthly, such converging trends in wine sales and consumption point to the emergence of “a new category of consumers seeking ultravalue varietal wines priced between $2 and $5 per bottle.” You know, Wineaux.

Seekers of such low-priced wines got another boost soon after Two-Buck Chuck’s debut. In February 2004, the warehouse club chain Costco, which happens to be the nation’s largest wine retailer, filed a lawsuit accusing the Washington State Liquor Control Board of anticompetitive regulation of the sale and distribution of wine and beer. Costco said the state was violating a federal antitrust law by requiring retailers to purchase wine and beer through distributors. The original intention of this Prohibition-era law — some version of which exists in almost every state in the country — was to inflate prices in order to encourage temperance.

In April 2006, a US district court ordered Washington to stop enforcing major aspects of its regulatory system. Two months later, the state’s attorney general appealed the ruling, as did the Washington Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association. The appeals could take up to two years to be heard, and in the meantime, retailers in every state with a similar three-tiered distribution system have an added incentive to mount legal challenges to those systems. There are a lot of variables affecting how this will play out, but one thing is clear: If the three-tiered system of alcohol distribution loses its middle tier, consumers will pay even less for wine.

But if they’re looking for information about the kinds of wines they typically buy, where can they turn? The easier question to answer is where they can’t.

The State of the Wine Press

Robert Parker is the world’s most influential wine journalist, and a highly controversial figure within the wine industry. The conventional rap on Parker and his Bordeaux-focused newsletter The Wine Advocate, which The New York Times recently scrutinized in an above-the-fold story in its Sunday business section, is that the tyranny of his hundred-point rating system is forcing the world’s wineries to abandon their regional differences for an oppressive American style of overoaked, ultraripe, high-alcohol wines made from the same few varieties of grapes.

To be sure, winemakers gunning for good ratings customize their offerings to appeal to Parker’s rather narrow tastes. But the bigger problem, for Wineaux at least, is that his $65-a-year bimonthly newsletter is written for the Wineau’s antithesis: an affluent consumer who wants to be told what to drink and collect in order to impress. Accessible reviews would be useful to a Wineau; Byzantine ratings systems and imperious tasting notes are not.

“Below a seventy is a D or F, depending on where you went to school,” Parker patiently explains in a section appearing at the beginning of each issue — and pity the winemaker who has not attended the school of Robert Parker. One white Chateauneuf du Pape earning a 62 on Parker’s scale “can hardly be called a wine,” he writes, adding, “Why put something this abysmal in a bottle?”

In fact, Parker’s tasting notes frequently stray from descriptions of texture, flavor, and aroma into what sounds an awful lot like management consulting. He suggests that the producer of a wine earning a 64 might perhaps “have second thoughts” about bringing his product to market, and calls the decision to bottle another 64-pointer “a mistake,” while noting magnanimously that “not all properties can afford to completely declassify their production in a disastrous vintage.” Wines getting a C are hardly spared the Parker tongue-lashing — “standard plonk” is a recent favorite. “If inexpensive,” he condescends, “they may be ideal for uncritical quaffing.”

The leading American wine magazine is marginally more accessible and truth be told, the award-winning, thirty-year-old Wine Spectator does what it aims to do extremely well. Its writing and editing, photography, illustrations, and art direction are inarguably impressive, and its methods for judging wines are thoughtful and well intentioned, with entire issues devoted to explaining and defending its ratings system. But Wine Spectator‘s obvious priorities — quality first, price a distant second, and availability an even more distant third — simply don’t match those of the average Wineau.

With Wine Spectator, it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it. A “highly recommended” cuvée is described as “dense and muscular, but also luxurious”; Two-Buck Chuck is dismissed as a “bulk-brand” success; a $6 blend is “rather simple.” The magazine only wrote about Two-Buck Chuck in the first place because of the cultural phenomenon it became; $2 wines usually don’t get the time of the day from Wine Spectator.

The Spectator‘s last issue of the year is typically devoted to its “Top 100” list — in 2005 these were tasters’ favorites from a pool of 12,400. The criteria for inclusion are high scores (the Spectator relies on a hundred-point system comparable to Parker’s), large production, value pricing, and “an X-factor we call excitement.” The least expensive wine among the top ten on that list runs at $29 (and just happens to be Alameda-based Rosenblum Cellars’ Zinfandel Rockpile Road Vineyard 2003). And the cheapest wine on the entire list? St. Urbans-Hof, an $11 Riesling that’s one of only eight wines on the list under $15. If you want to buy all the top ten wines, you’ll spend roughly $1,500. For the price of the top hundred, you could buy five laptops.

There’s another list in that same year-end issue — Great Values in 2005 — which features 51 recommended wines under $15. But with only one of these wines priced under $10 (it’s a $9 Australian Riesling of which only three thousand cases were made), even this list isn’t very user-friendly for Wineaux looking for something to bring home for Tuesday night dinner. A supplement to the magazine, A Connoisseur’s Guide to Wine Collecting, advocates taking up the hobby if you want to avoid those pesky market fluctuations that plague collectors of Impressionist paintings, gold coins, and vintage racing cars. One of the guide’s suggestions for the self-education of newbie collectors is to buy what’s known as a vertical collection: In this case, seven straight years of Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet (excluding the disagreeable 1998 vintage). Educational, yes — but this nifty little exercise will run you upward of $600.

Truth be told, the magazine’s most eager and receptive readers probably aren’t even the anti-Wineaux looking to learn how to collect. More likely, they’re employees of specialty wine PR firms, like Port Richmond-based Paige Poulos Communications. Poulos is the reigning queen of this scene, and a first step for many wineries wishing to improve their wines’ scores is to hire a firm like hers to arrange meet-and-greets with — or otherwise get on the radar of — the heavy hitters from the most influential publications and columns.

An aristocratic tone and pillow talk with a posh PR firm probably aren’t surprising coming from a $50-a-year magazine so proudly aimed at affluent consumers. But can’t our local dailies be relied on to shrug off such pretensions? Certainly not in the East Bay, because even the Oakland Tribune and its sister ANG publications in Alameda, Hayward, Fremont, and the Tri-Valley have expressed disdain for Two-Buck Chuck. “Why not two-dollar wine?” was the rhetorical question posed by Trib staff writer Elizabeth Jardina in a year-end essay on the big trends of 2003. “Here’s why,” she continued: “You shouldn’t be drinking so much that buying slightly higher-end booze will break the bank. Really. Sober up. Put down the wineglass and have a cup of coffee.” Equally sobering is the paper’s theoretically budget-conscious Wine of the Week (typically a bottle between $10 and $20), which is lifted directly from the Baltimore Sun with no indication of where — or whether — these wines are available locally.

The Trib‘s original coverage consists mainly of a regular article on food-and-wine pairings and the Connoisseur’s Corner column written by Charles Olken, author of the monthly Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wines. Both articles consistently recommend wines in the $30 to $70 range, with no mention of availability. Helpful when you’re looking for a nice gift for a special occasion, maybe, but again, not so helpful for Tuesday dinner.

Even the Contra Costa Times and Valley Times, hometown papers of the East Bay’s two bona fide winegrowing regions, can’t be bothered to do that much for us on a regular basis. Aside from occasional features and a low-key blog, Wine of the Week seems to be its only recurring coverage.

In contrast, the San Francisco Chronicle provides decidedly populist coverage in a weekly wine section that wins praise from local Wineaux. A recent Chron editorial pushed for Chuck as the official state wine, in response to state Senator Carole Migden’s bill to give Zinfandel that designation, and the paper has also recommended boxed wines. But price is not the wine section’s primary concern — a recent Chronicle Wine Selections column on Riojas mentioned a range of wines between $10 (just a couple) and $205. The weekly Bargain Wines column does offer ten wines under $14, but most of these actually cost $10 or more. And for every few paragraphs we get about sub-$10 wines, there’s usually a counterbalancing story such as the August 3 feature on the recent $1,500 three-pack of Cabernet Sauvignon from cult winery Screaming Eagle. Where’s the feature on the Wineau-friendly Oregon producer who did a small bottling of his own Screaming Ego label?

Just when it looks as if the world of wine journalism is conspiring to keep you clean and sober, we offer proof that the wineglass is half-full. Wineau, our new biweekly review column, will champion wines for the people, abandoning traditional wine speak for straight talk about what to drink without breaking the bank. We will invert the typical wine review process, eschewing ratings systems, turning a blind eye to PR pitches, and sparing you our thoughts on how that Chateau Nouveau Riche smells like essence of raindrops. That winery that made just two hundred cases of a wine that everyone’s raving about? Not our thing, because availability is our first concern. To find the wines that we’ll review, we’ll shop where you shop — at East Bay corner stores or select specialty shops; supermarkets like Safeway, Albertsons, or Andronico’s; or a branch of a discount retail chain like Beverages & More, Cost Plus, Costco, Grocery Outlet, or Trader Joe’s.

Our second concern will be price. During those shopping trips, we’ll ask the manager to point us toward the cheapest wine in the store — that’s our starting point. From there, we’ll find two other budget wines of the same varietal from the same region.

Then comes the fun part. Those three wines will be tasted in biweekly blind tastings, with a minimum of two tasters, usually more. For every token winemaker in our group, we’ll include a lover of rotgut. For every erudite comment about a petulant nose or flabby texture, we’ll include a layperson’s loud but uneducated opinion. We’ll describe a wine’s taste in language that’s accessible even to those who don’t have a special interest in wine beyond drinking it.

In addition to rants and raves about taste and the facts you need about price and availability, we’ll offer up the basics and backstories on the varietals we cover and the regions we visit. That way you can visit them too, in case that private jet is in the shop. Some weeks we’ll go retro: Blue Nun, anyone? Some weeks we’ll share a scandal, a favorite memory, a raucous anecdote — that X-factor we call excitement. Because it’s never just about the wine. It’s about the romance all of us like to associate with a good bottle, no matter what its price. Even the cheapest wine has value in how it makes you feel, what it makes you think of, and whom you choose to share it with.

So read our column and take it shopping. Then find some compelling company, unscrew the cap, and enjoy. Luxurious, but also rather simple.

Wineau drinks Merlot: Click here to read Wineau’s first column.

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