I’ve had this conversation many times, and it happened again just recently, where I suggest something, and somebody makes a face and says “oh I don’t like that”. Sometimes it’s wine, sometimes beer, sometimes a seemingly boring and unromantic board game activity. And I ask further questions, only to find they’ve had it once or twice, but under less than ideal circumstances. Now, of course I don’t want people wasting time trying the same thing over and over again, just trying to like it. That’s the definition of madness. But I am advocating open-mindedness. If you’ve tried it many times, and it was always the worst, then sure, don’t try it again. But if it had good and bad aspects, and it’s possible it could be better with the right food or the right people, maybe try it one more time. Especially if it is free, or it offers to buy you lattes.
I tasted a group of cheap wines today. And I’m using the word cheap on purpose in an attempt to overcome the negative stigma that I feel is associated with that word, especially when it comes to wine. I’m so accustomed to people objecting to the word, that I autocorrect to ‘value’ or ‘affordable’ almost as a reflex. When I say cheap, I mean in the most objective sense, using the #1 definition listed on dictionary.com; “costing very little; relatively low in price; inexpensive”. A bottle of wine that retails for $6 is cheap. Not “shitty”. Not “you should be embarrassed if anybody sees you buying that”. Not “the wine steward is allowed to treat you like shit because you like it”. Not “just leave it in the bag and drink it in the park because by buying it you become a hobo in the eyes of society and the law”.
It’s just cheap. And that’s ok.
Now, whether any of those other things I said are true depends on what else happens between the time the grapevine flowered and the time the liquid hit your lips.
If an exceptionally long time has passed between those two moments (let’s say you’re shopping at a local…um…outlet…that sells…um…groceries…) and you find a bottle of wine that’s vintage says it’s 8 years old. Chances are that wine is past it’s prime. That means that either a winery, a wholesaler, or a retailer sat on inventory for too long, and is now trying to get at least a little bit of their money back. Now, let’s say the store is selling it for $3. I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s safe to try. It might not taste great, but worst case scenario it’s cooking wine, and $3 is a fine price for cooking wine.
Let’s say there’s a wine that’s inexpensive, and it’s a current vintage, but you’ve only seen it at one particular retailer. We’ll make up a name. We’ll call it Four Dollar Larry. So, you can only buy Four Dollar Larry at a store called Transaction John’s. A friend says it tastes ok for $4, and you’ve got to take something to the party. Fine, your friends are only worth $4, whatever, I’m not hanging out with you, but whatever. But is it really a good deal? I will argue no, and here’s why. Retailers want private label wines, wines that no other retailer can carry, because they’re able to make additional margin on those wines. If a wine is widely available, they know they have to be competitive with pricing. So, when Transaction John’s is picking the juice that’s going to go into Four Dollar Larry, literally their only concern is getting the juice in the bottle for the lowest price possible, in order to maximize their profit margins.
Now, there are other circumstances when a retailer may have an exclusive on what I’ll call a real wine. Real wine means it comes from an actual place, rather than being blended together from the cheapest juice available. You can’t take a vineyard tour or meet the winemaker of Four Dollar Larry.
When a retailer buys an exclusive of a real wine, however, that can be a good deal. That is because by buying the exclusive, they can often make a deal with a winery or importer that allows them to increase their own profits while still decreasing the price to the consumer. This is where knowing and trusting your local wine professional is suuuper important. Then again, I advocate doing business exclusively with people you trust, at least wherever possible.
I’ve gone well past what I meant to say on this subject, so this is gonna have to be a two-parter, so I’ll just say one more thing on cheap wine, then I’ll talk about when expensive wine is worth it in the next post.
If you enjoy cheap wine, good on you. Save the extra money. If you feel bad about the cheap wine you like, do me a favor. Start a savings account. Decide how much you think you ‘should’ be spending on wine, and then subtract what you’re actually paying for the cheap wine you like, and every time you buy your cheap wine, deposit that difference in your special savings account. And then, I don’t know, do whatever, buy something that will make you happy with it, because nobody should make you feel like you need to spend more money on wine if there’s something cheap that makes you perfectly happy.
Except chocolate wine. Stop fucking drinking chocolate wine. You make me sick.
Apologies to anybody reading this who doesn’t have a solid understanding of Burgundian geography, I tried writing this in super-explanatory terms for beginners, but it was way too long and it was annoying me, so I started over. If and when I get around to writing a related post about Burgundian geography, a link to that article will replace this sentence.
Beaujolais is like the Rodney Dangerfield of French wine; it gets no respect.
I really hate that sentence, but I stand by the comparison.
And sure, a substantial factor in the underrating of Beaujolais has to do with the fact that fully 50% of Beaujolais is Nouveau, and while you will just about always find a bottle of Nouveau on my family’s thanksgiving table, I’ve never had one that blew my skirt up.
But village Beaujolais is another story, and I had the opportunity to taste several last week that….I don’t want to use the skirt metaphor again…just let’s say they were good.
For many years I’ve heard, and participated in the discussion that the best wines of Beaujolais can compete with the generally more respected Pinot Noirs of the Cote d’Or. However, I’d like to humbly suggest that the conversation should be about the unique individuality of Beaujolais in its own right.
I tasted a lineup of 2013s from Stephane Aviron and Domaine Labruyere, and rather than feeling like the wines were doing a good job seeming like Pinot Noir, I was blown away with the uniqueness from village to village, as well as the distinctive terroir and varietal character. These weren’t Gamay doing it’s best to seem like Pinot Noir. They were Gamay just trying to be the best that Gamay can be.
Now, in terms of wine and food pairing, this doesn’t change the substantial functional overlap between Cote d’Or Burgundy at Village level and below, and top-tier offerings from Beaujolais. In terms of weight and fruit profile, they’re still going to be often interchangeable. But the discussion I’d like to foster is in the direction of letting Beaujolais, and Gamay have their own identity, rather than constantly assessing them in the light of their similarities to Pinot Noir and Burgundy.