The Cabinet

of Dr. Callegari

How to object to bad wine

In light of the contentious but successful confirmation of our new Supreme Court justice, it seems like a good time to talk about how one might go about aligning one's politics with one's drinking. While many people who peer down from their throne made of recycled kefir containers and fair trade coffee tins at the filthy masses who unknowingly consume "industrial chicken," ruining themselves and taking the environment down with them, those same people are often found swigging from bottles that have bulldozed their way into production and been genetically altered to taste and smell like wine without actually being wine in any legitimate sense. Apart from bragging rights and the ability to judge the tastes of others as unconscionable, learning a little bit about production and pricing schemes can help you interpret for yourself what makes a wine good or bad, and then lord it over your neighbors and friends.

The first question to answer is, what is "bad" wine? Most people think bad = cheap, but this is a woefully misleading equation. In the US, wine pricing is affected strongly by an unbalanced tariff structure, significant overhead costs, high local alcohol taxation, and a growing but until recently small market share of the overall alcohol consumption per capita. At the same time, some of the oldest wine producing areas in the world, particularly in France and Italy, simply make a lot of tasty, drinkable wine and have an efficient model for getting that wine to market, meaning that you can easily get a very decent bottle for $10 or even less. Bias against packaging and labelling (especially screw tops and boxes) lead many buyers away from good values and environmentally sustainable options, despite plenty of evidence that it's what inside that counts. The money saved on packaging is passed on to the consumer not only in the form of lower price points, but also in the quality of the wine, since the price now reflects investment in the actual product as opposed to its container.  The same buyers might help themselves to a fancy, label-conscious $25 bottle of Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or an $18 bottle of Simi Chardonnay without realizing that they're both owned by the same giant conglomerate that is primarily concerned with their shareholders' returns.

It's also worth noting that taste can be deceiving. Many wines can show well immediately upon opening but fizzle out after a little oxygenation because they lack complexity and/or are based on an inferior must (i.e. juice from pressing), but winemakers have intervened to improve the taste with extraordinary means. Indeed, the comically loose labeling laws for wine--that demand all bottles have the words "Contains sulfites" and a Surgeon General's warning pasted on them, but require no ingredients list--allow a clever enologist to take very poor quality wine and jazz it up with sugar, tartaric acid, copper sulfate, and all manner of other additives to make a drink that is essentially the oenphilic equivalent of a Twinkie. Now there's nothing wrong with a good Twinkie, but if you're in the mood to consume a product withOUT ingredients that have been used to defend murder, you may want some pointers on making sure you're picking up a good bottle of wine, with no need for scare quotes.

A few ways to make sure you're getting morally righteous bang for your buck, along with something you'll actually enjoy drinking include: buying Old World (aka France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal) where sustainable farming practices--including dry farming--and worker protections are standard on the production end; buying at a curated, local wine shop where the owner(s) pride themselves on knowing not just about the wines but also about where they came from; buying online so you can quickly Google to compare price points and learn some background info; or buying from a local producer directly if you're lucky enough to live near a winery/in a wine producing region or have visited and made a relationship with one. If none of these things works, just pull out a bottle and remind everyone that Drake drinks Martini & Rossi Moscato and he's the Champagne Papi so who are we to judge? 

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