"I was once a wine snob. I drank what other people told me to drink, I thought what other people told me to think, and I knew — without having to taste it — if a wine was any good. I was 23, though, and had tasted maybe a dozen glasses in my life. So at least I had an excuse.
Which is more than too many of the country’s wine drinkers have. We can argue about the popularity of wine in the United States. We can argue about whether wine is part of the French paradox and boosts heart health. We can even argue about whether wine should have corks or screwcaps (though you can probably guess where I stand).
But the one thing that’s as indisputable as it is depressing is that there are only two kinds of wine drinkers in this country — the snobs and everyone else. And, since the snobs run the wine business, the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves. What makes a good wine? How much should wine cost? What’s the difference between cabernet sauvignon and merlot? Who knows? Why should we know?
It’s certainly not easy to find by consulting what I call the Winestream Media — the wine magazines, websites, and blogs whose writers and columnists dominate wine coverage in the U.S. and whose goal is more often to reinforce wine’s stereotypes than to educate wine drinkers. They’ll tell you about wine as an investment, as if it was real estate, wax poetic about cult wines from producers who make so little that it’s impossible to buy, even if you could afford it; and categorize every wine they review on the infamous 100-point scale, which reduces wine to dollar signs and decimal points so you can try to decide if an 89-point wine that costs $40 is a better value than 90-point wine that costs $50.
This helps explain why, in the second decade of the 21st century, despite every single advance wine has made in this country since the 1970s — the French paradox, improved wine quality, better availability, six times the number of wineries as in 1975, and even the aforementioned screwcaps — Americans, on a per capita basis, still drank three times as much beer as wine and twice as much hard liquor as wine, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Consumption per person has been the same for almost three decades, says the Wine Institute trade group — about one bottle of wine per adult each month. And, as the Wine Market Council has noted, just 20 percent or so of adult Americans drink 9 out of every 10 bottles of wine sold in the U.S. That’s why I was anointed the Wine Curmudgeon more than a decade ago by the food editor at the Star-Telegram newspaper in Forth Worth, Texas. My job, then as now — to speak for the ordinary wine drinker, to stand up for everyone who is overwhelmed by wine’s confusion, and to be as curmudgeonly as possible in defense of cheap wine and the value and enjoyment it brings.
Why me? First, because I brought a consumer sensibility to wine writing that was then missing (and still isn’t as common as it should be). I was trained as a newspaperman, which meant I wrote for readers and not to prove I was smarter than they were. That meant using clear language, avoiding jargon, and offering practical advice that they could use to buy wine that was available and affordable. It didn’t mean waxing poetic, dropping names, cadging free samples, and writing about wine that was too expensive or that they couldn’t buy. Second, I learned to love wine without any other training than drinking it, paying attention, and drinking some more. I was a Chicago beer drinker who didn’t grow up with wine, save for my father’s Bolla Valpolicella, a staple in certain types of 1970s suburban homes. I knew what consumers wanted because I was one of them.
And that’s fun, the way the very fine Southern novelist Clyde Edgerton described it in “Raney,” a book about the marriage of an Atlanta Episcopalian, Charles, and a rural Baptist, Raney. Toward the end of the book, Raney, who doesn’t drink, discovers wine.
And her discovery rings true:
. . . Charles has got me to sip his white wine at the Ramada a few times — to show me how much better it makes the food taste. One night I tried a whole glass. Just to make the food taste better, because it can make the food taste some better, depending on what you’re eating. Thursday night, when we stopped by the store I’d had two glasses. For the first time. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again, and I shouldn’t have then. I can’t decide what I think about it exactly. It does make the food taste some better.
Raney opens her mind, and wine starts to make sense to her. Wine is fun. Wine is enjoyable. Wine isn’t complicated. Wine is sharing a glass at the Ramada, and it almost doesn’t matter what kind of wine it is or who makes it and it certainly doesn’t matter what its score is. The late wine writer Darryl Beeson always insisted that the best wines weren’t necessarily the “best” wines, but wines that were part of an important experience — first date, birth of child, long-awaited vacation. In this, the wine depended as much on who you were with and where you were when you drank it as to what it tasted like. In which case, a $3 bottle of wine from a 7-Eleven bought on the spur of the moment on the way to a watch movies on the sofa could be as much fun as the 99-point, $300 wine served in a high-end restaurant by a corps of fawning waiters. Or even more fun, if the truth be known.
This is a distinctly European approach to wine, where wine is not about special occasions and people don’t wait for a wine critic to approve of what they drink. Wine is on the table every night at dinner, as much a part of the meal as plates and silverware. Even today, when wine drinking has declined across Europe and a variety of commentators have written long and questioning pieces about the end of the European wine tradition, the world’s biggest consumers of wine, on a per capita basis, include the French, Italians and Portuguese, each of whom drink about five times as much as Americans.
To be fair, the Europeans have a bit of a head start on us. They’ve been drinking wine for 4,000 years; in the 12th century, one reason Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine was because her dowry included Bordeaux — then as now, one of the most important wine-producing regions in the world. That head start has mostly to do with two things: agriculture and dysentery.
First, continental Europe south of Germany is ideal for growing the grapes that are easiest to turn into the best quality wines — vitis vinifera, for those who are inclined toward Latin and which most people know as the genus and species of the best-known grape varieties like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. Second, wine was safer to drink than water for 3,800 years, and remained so until the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 19th century brought with it modern sanitation. Wine, which is fermented, is disease-free. So why not drink it at every meal?
In the U.S., on the other hand, the modern wine business dates only to the end of World War II. Americans drank beer and rum, and later whiskey; in 1860, the typical American adult drank 2 gallons of spirits a year (the equivalent of some 200 cocktails), or about 20 times the amount of wine they drank. The fledgling U.S. wine industry that was destroyed by Prohibition never really grabbed hold of the U.S. drinking public. For one thing, vinifera was difficult to grow in the U.S. outside of California before the last decades of the 20th century, and the centers of the U.S. wine industry in the 19th century were Ohio, near Cincinnati, and Missouri, not California.
The grains used to make beer and spirits, on the other hand, are the corn and wheat that thrive almost anywhere in the U.S. So, in those days before modern supply chains and high-speed transport, when it was almost as difficult to ship Missouri wine in New York City as French wine, people drank local, and local meant beer and spirits. In this, the American attitude toward wine didn’t start to change until the end of World War II, when GIs who had fought in Europe and had seen wine first-hand became the first group of Americans to appreciate wine.
But not enough. See if you can guess when this was written:
And in the past five years we have hardly seen any real vin ordinaire (by which I mean a common, inexpensive table wine) sold in America. The humble gallon jug virtually disappeared . . . from our wine merchants’ shelves; instead, the undistinguished reds and whites from the mass production areas of California appeared in fancy dress at a fancy price, and elaborate advertising campaigns were launched to convince us that bottles which we used to buy reluctantly . . . were suddenly worth [2 ½ times as much and] being sold us as a special favor.
That’s not a 21st century Wine Curmudgeon rant. It was written in 1947 by Frank Schoonmaker, one of the first great U.S. wine critics. Isn’t it time we finally changed this attitude? Haven’t we been waiting too long? The answer to both questions is yes, and the time is now."
© Vintage Noir Media
* "The Wine Curmudgeon's Guide to Cheap Wine," by Jeff Siegel, is published by Vintage Noir Media at $12.95. E-book editions are priced at $9.99.