November 10, 2010 § 1 Comment
From Portland Press Herald, November 10, 2010
When I first started writing this column, an industry buddy who’d previously written about wine gave me a few guidelines, one of which was never to slam any wines. There’s little point in harsh criticism, the thinking goes, since the purpose of a wine column is to get people to consume wines, and there are plenty of good ones to praise.
I agree. Wine is a harmless enough sphere of existence that it’s not as if there are evil bottles out there waiting to attack and it’s my duty to protect you from them. Bad wines ought to slink into ignominy through the disdain of omission rather than public assault.
But the game changes when a bad wine comes attached to a hype machine so smiley-faced, so graced by universal acquiescence to its imperial clothes-lessness, that someone’s gotta stand up and launch a pebble from his slingshot.
Two-buck Chuck costs closer to three dollars these days. Trader Joe’s legendary house wine, the Charles Shaw line, is $2.59 plus tax and deposit. I picked up six bottles (one of each putative varietal), and walked out five minutes later with a $17.22 credit card receipt. Not a lot of money — but not a bargain either. (Summary of the wines themselves: blandly fine, no finish whatsoever; the whites significantly less pleasant than the reds.) But of course, discussing the nuances of these wines would be ridiculous. They’re for drinking not thinking and the price is right. Right?
The price is, but not the cost. That might sound needlessly complicated, since the issue of cost is whether it’s low enough for a given consumer to afford a given product. And it’s easy for me to complicate this issue given the primary perk of my job: copious sample bottles. (I really do still buy wine for myself, but I get to drink plenty of wine without paying for it.)
Yeah, the fact is that a lot of people want to enjoy a glass with dinner without having to pay a lot for it. Shaw wines are helpful in such situations.
Yet. Yet there are hidden costs. The biggest one is a general dumbing down of the wine market. I know everyone’s shopping Trader Joe’s exclusively right now, but next time you feel the need for an edible vegetable, head over to any other Portland-area supermarket and note the changes in the wine departments. See?
Everyone’s racing to the bottom, all desperate to offer an alternative to $3 Chuck. The interesting bottles lose their shelf space, taken over by more and more case stacks of faceless, automaton wine engineered to move. (Trader Joe’s sells Shaw wine for nine cents above cost, and the few other wines they sell are significantly higher-priced than at other stores; it’s all about volume, baby.)
Wine is an agricultural product. It comes from the ground, the rain, the sun. It is midwifed into existence by human beings using tools. It is then put in bottles, packaged and shipped all over the world as an expression of that particular grape, place and time.
There simply is no honest way to charge a customer $2.59 for all that work and raw material. Too much has to be sacrificed — labor conditions, ecological viability, market diversity — and too much has to be shuffled around via point-of-sale loss-leaders. It’s wine as Ponzi Scheme. If the culture is shifting toward more transparency and sustainability in food and commerce, Shaw is out of step.
Still, you should try the wines. What’s to lose? And you might like them. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are refreshingly medium-bodied and low-alcohol, with bright red fruit — and, in the latter’s case, a nice spice at the end. I wanted to dislike the wines themselves, but I can’t. (Actually, the Sauvignon Blanc is wretched.)
You can’t dislike something laboratory-bred to be inoffensive. You can’t dislike something with no soul. But you can feel swindled by the process. You can feel anxious and impotent in the face of market forces darker and more underground than you can grasp calling the plays.
You can well, you can just end up so sad that it’s all come to this: all the potential mystery, craft, romance, spirit and ecstasy of the thing (purchasable at true low cost, as I try to show in other columns), whittled down to a marketing concept.