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01.08.2009

The Travesty of Wine and Social Class in America

There are a lot of things that I would like to change about wine in America. I'd love to lower the prices, reduce the influence of scores on buying patterns, increase consumption, broaden the varieties that we consume, and on and on. I've got a long list the next time any omnipotent being comes along and asks my opinion on the situation.

But if I had to choose one thing, above all else, that really needs changing when it comes to America and wine, I would choose to destroy the association between wine and the upper class. The fact that wine continues to be thought of as an elite beverage for special occasions does more damage to the future of the industry in this country than any other phenomenon, in my opinion.

America, it must be said, did not get off on the right foot when it comes to wine. This is a little surprising given that the country's initial immigrants, Europeans of all stripes and colors, often had a common familiarity with and appreciation for wine. Indeed, on the face of things, America could very easily have inherited their cultural predisposition for wine on the dinner table.

But it didn't for one primary reason. No one could get the damn grapes to grow right. Attempts were made for years with both imported vines as well as the many various native vines that got the early colonists so excited when they arrived. For a while, America was thought to have the potential to build a wine industry that would flourish by exporting wine back to continental Europe.

But even with the help of the many Huguenots and other wine savvy folks who arrived on American shores with no shortage of expertise in viticulture, very little progress was made. The climate was just all wrong.

Which meant that any real quantity of wine had to be imported, and that meant money. This ensured that for the most part, the upper classes had the means to drink wine, and the masses made do with the products of the bountiful grains and apples that actually did flourish on these shores. In short, most everyone drank a lot of beer, cider, bourbon, and whisky, while the Thomas Jeffersons, Ben Franklins, and other early statesmen of America nursed their imported collections. In the interest of science and the good of humanity, they did their best to encourage local efforts to make wine, but to no avail.

And so, if you'll forgive me distilling a lot of complex history into a few sound bites, after about 200 years of this sort of social division, it's no wonder that, for the most part things just stayed that way. The industrial revolution widened the gap between rich and poor, engineering an even greater difference between the consumption habits of the upper classes and the lower classes. There were upswings of interest in wine, especially when people actually started to figure out how and where to grow grapes properly, but by then it was too late. Prohibition (and the rapid recovery of beer and whisky production upon repeal) put the nail in the coffin of America's wine habit, and set the stage for people like Robert Mondavi to come along and make the valiant effort to remind ordinary Americans that wine belongs on the dinner table every day. Progress has been made, but not enough.

Meanwhile, to many people wine represents the intimidating, elitist, and snobbish rich. Sarah Palin's quips during the recent campaign about the wine and cocktail drinking elite perfectly illustrate the way that many people think about wine. So too do the many comments on a recent New York Times blog about the words that are used to describe wine. I can't tell you how sad it makes me to see how many people think that attempting to describe the flavors and aromas of wine is an exercise in pretension and snobbery.

But it gets even worse. It's bad enough that the average beer loving American (whoever that is) at best thinks that wine is really just for special occasions, and at worst believes that the people who drink it are rich, stuck-up, pedants. But unfortunately, a lot of wine lovers actually act that way.

In many ways the culture of wine appreciation in America encourages this sense that wine is a luxury for the knowledgeable few. We have the specialized stores; the pomp, ceremony, and mystery that surround wine in conjunction with fine dining; the astronomical prices of top wines in the market. And of course, we have the Big Boys. You know the ones I'm talking about, right? The wine assholes.

Men who feel like they own the province of wine are just the start of our problems. Worse are the ones who also like to reel off the great wines of the world they have drunk with the same gusto as they might bedroom conquests. These are the ones that recoil in horror at the thought of sharing a bottle of 1989 Lafite with their "know-nothing cousins from Des Moines" and instead prefer to save their best bottles for wine dinners that attempt to be the oenological equivalents of an evening with Annabel Chong. They believe that their knowledge of wine makes them cool, and the prices they pay for wines or the size of their collections make them even cooler.

But as much as I sometimes want to punch some of these people in the mouth, I don't see these wine snobs as a clear perpetrators of the problem. They're just as much another symptom of the basic travesty -- that somehow we've gotten to the point where wine is far too special. And just as with anything that has cachet, wine in America has become something that many Americans think is only for certain kinds of people. Those wine people.

Of course, this rant of mine paints a rather stark, divided world, which belies the true reality of the marketplace. America is not just a collection of beer drinkers vs. wine drinkers any more than it is a collection of red states vs. blue states. And the country is slowly coming around to wine, thanks to many different factors, not the least of which are the backlash against carbohydrates and the media hype about resveratrol.

But we've got a long way to go to get to an American wine scene that I'll be satisfied with. There are a lot of myths to shatter, a lot of attitudes to adjust, and a lot of evil distribution monopolies to crush before Americans get used to having good wine on their tables every day. But perhaps most importantly, there's a lot of wine that needs to be shared among friends -- a lot of wine that needs to be enjoyed without the trappings of ceremony or status, but instead with the simple appreciation for the fact that we are all so very lucky for what we have.

Go forth and drink without fear, and spread the wine love.

Comments (48)

Rajiv wrote:
01.09.09 at 1:41 AM

Great post, Alder!

As more of my family and friends learn I'm interested in wine, I often get joking questions like "So how's this wine? Good enough for you? Does it meet your standards?" It can be a constant battle to impress upon people that just because you're into wine doesn't mean you're a snob, or rich.

Related to that culture is the aversion to spitting that is so prevalent in CA tasting rooms. (I won't elaborate as I already ranted here: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2005/06/how_to_spit_wine_like_a_pro.html)

01.09.09 at 4:15 AM

That was awesome. Thank you for posting that.

1WineDude wrote:
01.09.09 at 7:17 AM

Well, you've summed up a large part of why I write about wine, Alder!

01.09.09 at 8:25 AM

Alder, don't forget the role of advertising in perpetuating the elitist myth. The wine industry shot itself in the foot with decades of print ads and TV commercials suggesting that you could only enjoy wine if you're dressed in a tuxedo or gown. Contrast that with Miller Lite and Bud commercials that depict everyday guys having fun.

Alder wrote:
01.09.09 at 8:29 AM

Thanks. Excellent point. I'm sure there are a lot of other cultural factors playing into this situation, and marketing certainly is one.

michael wrote:
01.09.09 at 8:32 AM

I totally echo Rajiv's experience on one hand, but on the other I would just like to say that wine in America is really still more populist than not, and the vast majority (read: VAST) of wine drank is inexpensive bulk wine. (though I do wonder at times how the gradual melting pot effect that takes each successive generation further from its roots, which were often soaking in wine, will effect consumption on the whole)
Certainly the world of fine wine is associated with wealth and its attendant pomp, but that is just the same as with all luxury items, and particularly luxury food items, a divide going back over all those hundreds of years. But just as with other food items, wine is becoming more demystified to the population as a whole, and ideas about drinking and dining are being stood on their head. What was once considered poor food is now often recognized as fine food requiring only time and attention. So the low is made high, and yes the high is also made low, for who could afford Salmon twenty years ago and who can now? (although this like all globalization comes at some great costs, but that is another discussion). I think that wine at the least expensive end still has a strong hold in the American public, I think that more quality wine is also being consumed at more levels of the economic stratum. This is the biggest influence on price, however much wine lovers want to blame scores, commoditization, hoarding, or the influence of a rising Asia. These may all be factors, but at the end of the day demand drives hardest.
So I think America is eating better, drinking better, and thinking more about what they eat and drink. I think this is leading to a gradual sea change in perception of wine. What may still be thought of as quirkily scholastic, or as you said pedantic, was once seen as extreme of hubris.
I do believe that the times they are a' changin'

In the meantime I do hope that my family and friends don't feel the need to put themselves out in some sort of attempt to please me, and I try to make that clear, but then, for some of them at least, I find that they actually like having an excuse to indulge a bit more and to learn a bit more about wine, so maybe its a push.

Arthur wrote:
01.09.09 at 9:02 AM

"I don't see these wine snobs as a clear perpetrators of the problem"

I appreciate you pointing that out. A divide has two sides and those that don't like, understand or enjoy wine contribute to the "wine=snobbish" mentality as well. It makes for a nice self-propagating system.

Wo;; wrote:
01.09.09 at 9:02 AM

Great post. Couldn't agree more.

Phil wrote:
01.09.09 at 9:03 AM

Steve's got a great point, so much of this is marketing driven and it all becomes a self-perpetuating cycle--wine marketed as a luxury status item leads to assholes, ahem, people only consuming it for status reasons which leads to more luxury marketing etc.

There's a new Budweiser commercial that almost perfectly captures this, there's a guy at a bar waxing about a glass of red wine to his companion (about where the grapes are grown, a foreign location by the way) and the beautiful blond bartender interrupts to say, surely he wanted to talk about Idaho and the grain that Bud grows there, while pouring a Budweiser. Of course the wine guy is embarrassed and everyone enjoys a nice glass of Budweiser, including our wine hero. I say they almost captured this dynamic because the first thing my wife and I agreed upon after watching this was that the wine guy looked way too cool, he either needed to look like a total asshole or a total dweeb.

But the mere fact that Budweiser even needs to air a commercial like this tells you that times are changing. When did Pepsi know that they were a legit competitor to Coke? When Coke started responding to Pepsi's ads and mentioning them by name. So I'll take the Bud ad as a positive sign that the beer companies are worried.

Hank wrote:
01.09.09 at 9:05 AM

Onr bright spot is that many recent wine surveys are showing a huge uptick of Twentysomethings drinking wine, and I can see it at the bars here in Sacramento. Wines marketed to that demographic tend to be consciously un-stuffy and fun, rather than showing off their 1,000-year pedigree with coats of arms and all that. There is an awful lot of passable wine drunk in nightclubs and at Happy Hours all over the country -- even in Des Moines.

Just as no one really cares what a newspaper editorial says anymore, so to will the powers of the real-life Anton Egos crumble. This blog and the rest of the "series of tubes" we call the internet have much to do with it...

Greg Dyer wrote:
01.09.09 at 9:50 AM

A huge part of this perception problem comes from the producers themselves, unfortunately. At the top there are cult wine producers who buy land in a trendy appellation, raze and plant it, then hire a top winemaker (who has the ear of a Parker or Laube) to craft the wine. It doesn't get more elitist than new money buying status by selling an expensive wine with their name on it. But even larger scale producers that nonetheless charge extreme prices ($50-$100 per bottle) often market wine as a lifestyle product. I saw a Rutherford Hills (Terlato group) ad on TV showing a yuppy-looking couple enjoying their wine in Napa. They're not selling the wine, they're selling the label on the bottle.

The only way to shift this perception is to ignore or expose image-driven wine for what it is. Critics who aren't part of the establishment as well as social media writers should focus on small producers and growers. It would take a grass-roots effort to shift consciousness. Cult wines should be treated as ego-driven exercises in self gratification (no matter how good they are). Wines from corporate wineries should include a disclaimer (no matter how good they are), especially if the corporation markets image, not wine.

The idea is to get new drinkers to understand that the Big Boys are a marginalized group. Let them drink their Cakebread. But give outsiders the understanding that wine as a lifestyle product is the pursuit of the few. The many simply appreciate the juice in the bottle.

Arthur wrote:
01.09.09 at 10:13 AM

Greg,

I would say that they are not selling a wine but a feeling and an idea.

Blake Gray wrote:
01.09.09 at 10:45 AM

Great post, Alder, and a very good point by Steve Heimoff. Whenever I think of wine ads, I remember the dulcet tones of the "the wine cellars of Ernest & Julio Gallo." The master marketers sold wine to the masses as a way of cheaply acquiring class. The only major wine company that I'm aware of that has NOT used "class" in a big campaign to sell wine is Yellow Tail. No wonder that wine sells so well.

01.09.09 at 11:18 AM

Nice post. One of my goals is to numb the elitism in wine when I do wine reviews and write articles. Time to take the fear out of wine drinking for everyone.

Jeff wrote:
01.09.09 at 12:00 PM

Could be worse. It could be beer which can't shake its lower-class roots.

I take some umbrage with that "beer loving American (whoever that is)" that you see fit to stereotype. Many of the "beer lovers" (as distinguished from "beer drinkers") I know are also "wine lovers." I think it's a sadder stereotype of "wine lovers" who hate on beer because they don't understand it.

Do you drink wine for a special occasion? So do I? Do you drink beer for a special occasion? I do. Why do wine loving Americans (whoever they are) only see beer as something to be consumed through a funnel and plastic tube while inhaling potato chips in front of a television?

Oh. Right. Marketing. Because the powerful in the industry see fit to promulgate a damaging stereotype that happens to benefit them. Much like the wine producers that happily perpetuate the myth of the sweatshirt over-the-shoulders, clunky watch wearing, well-coifed silver-fox as the ladies man of the wine industry.

Look, it's not a competition. Some people like wine. Some people like beer. A lot of people like both. I don't understand why either group think that they are mutually exclusive.

Instead of limiting your comment to "beer loving Americans (whoever that is)" that think that people "who drink [wine] are rich, stuck-up, pedants", maybe you should have just cut to the chase - "a lot of wine lovers actually act that way."

There are a lot wine drinkers and others who think wine drinkers are "rich, stuck up, pedants" too. Maybe because they use words like "pedants" ;)

Alder wrote:
01.09.09 at 12:07 PM

Jeff,

That parenthetical of "whoever that is" was supposed to point out that the phrase was indeed a meaningless stereotype. See the sentence that follows regarding the fact that there is no such thing as the Beer Drinker vs. The Wine Drinker, which your comments illustrate well.

Jeff wrote:
01.09.09 at 12:22 PM

Fair enough. I guess my point was - if it's a meaningless stereotype why put "beer loving" in the middle of "average" and "American" at all?

Unless you meant "average beer" loving American. In which case, yeah, I agree - you can hate them, they're a bunch self-righteous bastards.

Dirty wrote:
01.09.09 at 12:40 PM

"and instead prefer to save their best bottles for wine dinners that attempt to be the oenological equivalents of an evening with Annabel Chong."--- Funniest line of the year so far!!!!

I've sat through some of these fine wine gang-bangs.... and have always left wondering- Why couldn't we just enjoy 2-3 of those?

Tom wrote:
01.09.09 at 12:43 PM

Come on now Alder, why do you have to bash the Puritans? They drank both beer and, if it was available, wine in moderation as one of God's good gifts. Certainly you would oppose drunkeness as they. If you want to throw darts, aim for the 19th century and the WCTU who wanted to replace wine with grape juice, not the Puritans who used wine!

Plus, GOOD wine is usually twice as expensive as GREAT beer - sad economics.

Signed, Religious Guy who really enjoys both beer and wine - usually in moderation ;)

el jefe wrote:
01.09.09 at 12:59 PM

hi Alder - very well put! However, I have noticed when I get away from the population centers of California, the attitude is surprisingly different. There are bunches of folks in places like Reno and even Modesto that are enjoying wine and enjoying discovering new wines. They bring no snobbery to the table and are simply interested in having a delicious wine experience.

The points of Steve and others regarding wine marketing are also well-taken. Ergo, our rubber chickens.

Alder wrote:
01.09.09 at 2:31 PM

Michael,

Yes, the majority of wine consumed in America is in the sub $8 price point, but that is a very tiny amount of wine compared, to say, the amount of beer that gets drunk in the US. Americans consume more than 8 times as much beer as they do wine. I believe I have also seen studies that show that most people consider wine to be for more special occasions and beer and spirits to be more for everyday drinking.

Certainly the ever expanding grocery store wine aisles can give us some hope that progress is being made, but calling wine a populist drink in America is not something I'm able to do (yet).

Morton Leslie wrote:
01.09.09 at 11:17 PM

I'm sure it'll be good to get to Aspen this summer and talk wine with the common folks.

Anonymous wrote:
01.10.09 at 5:31 AM

I think you nailed it on this one. Wine is a thing of beauty and a thing everyone should enjoy regardless of status. The mentality that wine is somehow related to riches is total nonsense and everyone should be able to enjoy the greatness that is wine. I do however believe that wine is becoming more approachable because the blogesphere and people that spread the good word online in a friendly and non-condesending fashion. Wine is of course just grape juice~! But to us in the wine industry it's so much more, but we need to spread the word with humility and love and never let our knowledge of the product become a barrier between ourselves and the people just getting into it. Peace Brotha and keep spreadin the good word!

mike wrote:
01.10.09 at 8:44 AM

I love this. It is so true. Particularly of late, we've decided that each day we're alive with healthy kids and a happy marriage is a special occasion worth celebrating over and over again. There are no longer special occasion bottles. All the bottles are fair game. One more thing that makes me sad which you didn't mention is the fact that so many of the "beer people" have no interest in learning a thing. I love nothing more than opening great bottles for people who think they don't like wine and seeing their eyes light up. Nothing is more sad though than when a great bottle is opened and people just don't take a single second to open their minds to just what a treat it is. Kind of like the people who "hate the grateful dead". The pure joy that comes from a great wine just like the pure joy of a 6 person ensemble improvising an amazing jam are things I truly wish every human could and would take the time to appreciate.

now let "the dead suck" comments commence...

Hank wrote:
01.10.09 at 9:26 AM

I live and work in a winegrowing area of California, and whenever someone throws a party, I find myself drinking beer. Even though everyone brings a bottle of wine or two to share. Most of them are boring and some are just plain bad. While others wax on about that special "reserve" zin with all that new oak and 2% residual sugar ("its so fruity!") and 16.5% alcohol, I'll drink my nice glass of micro-brew and go home without a headache.
Oh no! I'm sounding rather snobbish!

BTW, Mike, the dead do kinda suck...Ha!

Alder wrote:
01.10.09 at 10:33 AM

Morton, thanks for the jab - er - the comment. I'm in this world like everyone else -- just trying my best not to be an asshole and to encourage others not to be as well.

Aaron wrote:
01.10.09 at 7:29 PM

Great post. I think we spend so much time of when and how wine should be drunk, and what it should be drunk with, that many find it intimidating. It is more important to drink what you like and worry less about whether it is the perfect match.

One minor note. The problems faced by Jefferson and Penn were not merely related to climate. They attributed their problems to climate but the primary issue was phylloxera, something they knew nothing about. That is why European varietals are grown in Virginia and other areas in the eastern US now but Jefferson and Penn failed time and time again.

Morton Leslie wrote:
01.10.09 at 9:25 PM

Not so much a dig than an illustration. (I am guilty of speaking at several of the Aspen events, including the first.) The point is that for the last 100 years we ALL have been saying one thing and doing another. We do this because it puts bread on the table. We need to convince people to pay $50 for a $5 bottle of wine.

We look for rich, stuck up pedants (wine assholes) - Aspen being a great place to find them. (I wouldn't point that out to them, however.)

What they want to hear is why it will make them a better, more respected or happier person to discern and understand the difference between a $50 bottle of wine and one that costs $5. Of course, it will be nice for them when they can explain what they learned to their friends. And we have a lot of stories especially tailored to accomplish this end.

This, in turn, will keep the whole thing going...with luck for another 100 years.

rs wrote:
01.11.09 at 9:37 PM

I think the best answer to all of this is the answer to the time immortal question:
What do winemakers drink while making wine? Beer of course.

Alder wrote:
01.11.09 at 9:58 PM

Morton,

Thanks for the additional context. We'll never be able to get around the fact that wine costs money, and that really good wine will always cost more than most people can afford (i.e. more than $20). Just like the Aspen Food and Wine Classic will always cost more than most people can afford for a weekend.

Call me naive if you like, but I think despite that, it's possible to speak about wine and have a relationship to wine that is not predicated upon it being a luxury, or something special that requires special knowledge to enjoy. I'm very much trying to help people understand that the price they pay for wine doesn't have any reflection on whether they are a "better, more respected or happier person" as you say. Count me as one of the wine writers who is an unabashed fan of YellowTail and Two Buck Chuck. Not because I like drinking them (I don't) but because they've got a lot of people drinking wine that might otherwise not be doing so.

Although, I do have to say that I am also trying to get people to explore wine, including paying more for wine that is probably higher in quality than the $3 stuff they're buying at Trader Joes.

You read this blog a lot, so you're in a good position to call BS on all this and say that I'm just part and parcel of the hypocritical establishment that talks "bringing wine to the masses" out of one side of my mouth while encouraging the industry to market wine as the ultimate in luxury lifestyle.

But I hope I'm walking the fine line that I want to. I review wines that many many people can't afford. I drink wines in the same category. Most of my readers do too. But when I sit down to write about wine, and when I talk with people about it, my goal is to get rid of the snob factor as much as possible, and bring in the human factor. If I can prevent even one more person from becoming a wine asshole by helping them appreciate wine for its story rather than for its price tag and score, then I'll consider myself well satisfied.

Let me know what you think.

Arthur wrote:
01.12.09 at 7:18 AM

Alder,

I have a different thought here (surprise):

When you say: "Count me as one of the wine writers who is an unabashed fan of YellowTail and Two Buck Chuck. Not because I like drinking them (I don't) but because they've got a lot of people drinking wine that might otherwise not be doing so."

Isn't that like saying that you are a fan of Taco Bell because it makes people aware of Mexican culture and cuisine?

Alder wrote:
01.12.09 at 8:51 AM

Arthur,

I'm not sure your analogy is completely parallel. In this case it would be being a fan of Taco bell because it introduces people to Mexican taqueria food who might ordinarily not eat such food.

And now that I've made a slight adjustment to your analogy, I will say that if I had a personal interest in trying to convince Americans that A) Mexican taqueria food was great and B) to eat more of it, then YES I would be a reserved fan of Taco Bell.

Reserved because unlike YellowTail or Two Buck Chuck which are real wines that are just lower quality, Taco Bell offers some things that resemble real taqueria fare, and some things that are nothing like what you would find at a traditional taqueria.

But leaving those strange hybrid foodstuffs aside, Taco Bell or taco bell style food is what pretty much anyone outside of California, Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Colorado, and Texas first experiences as "Mexican Food." And ignoring for a moment the fact that even the taqueria food that this stuff is a poor imitation of isn't really the proper cuisine of Mexico, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I grew up liking tacos. Which I thought were hard corn shells filled with ground beef, iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and sour cream. The fact that I had eaten those as a kid made me very eager to try the "real thing" when I finally had access to it. Now I know better (and eat better) but those early experiences, however "fake" they might be to a connoisseur of the food, prepared me to be the taco fiend I am today.

Likewise with wine. The biggest barrier to getting more people to drink wine in this country regularly is simply getting people to try it without pretension or fear that they need to know something in order to enjoy it. YellowTail and Two Buck Chuck have helped that immensely and should be commended, celebrated and given whatever the wine world's equivalent is to a frikken presidential medal of honor.

Jared Brandt wrote:
01.12.09 at 9:44 AM

I agree with Steve that marketing and advertising focused on the elite wine life style are major factors in perpetuating the elite attitude which surrounds wine. As yes, there are endless wine snobs who are act as though since they can quote a score and describe flavors in terms of foods the rest of us haven't every tasted, that they are better than us.

With that in mind, our country seems to have been focused on an anti-intellectualism for some time and I think this rolls over to wine. Many people are (or hopefully were) turned off by mere concept of intellectual debate. The fact that one would be interested in discussing wine intellectually was an inherent flaw in their mind.

I think this changing. The recent election of Obama points this way. The proliferations of well written blogs with thoughtful dialog discussing the issue in the comments points that way as well.

Tere Lyndon wrote:
01.12.09 at 10:21 AM

Because I too was always a bit intimidated by wine, and because I live in SF and CAN, I have been to dozens of tastings and taken quite a few wine classes over the last couple of years. Including Bruce Cass' 8 week course, where I was exposed to over 100 interesting and varied wines I'd never have learned about else. And even so, I walk into BevMo and stare in frustration because I don't know any producers there, or if I recognize the producer, I have no idea about that particular vintage. So, while my knowledge is somewhat useful to me sometimes, I'm hardly any kind of expert, and have never portrayed myself as such. I kind of know what I like best and dislike most, and that's about as good as it will likely ever get. Which is just fine with me.

Unfortunately, I find that I'm quite sorry I mentioned to friends that I was taking these classes, because now many of THEM presume that I hold out for some mysterious standard that they can't possibly please me with. Over Christmas my best friend of almost 30 years stressed so much over what wine to serve me for dinner - over my vehement protestations that whatever she liked was just FINE - that I had to talk her through the trip to the store (she wouldn't let me just bring the wine). I then spent several minutes during dinner assuring her that honest, that Mondavi Reserve Pinot Grigio was perfectly lovely with the white sauce lasagna. (And it really was.) Another friend recently visibly relaxed with relief when - after an evening where we each contributed a bottle - I mentioned that I liked her offering more than mine, which I'd received from a wine club and had never tried before. She'd hated mine, but never would have admitted to it until I "validated" her opinion.

I find now I don't mention to new acquaintances that I know anything at all about wine, because of how bad it tends to make people feel. I just go ahead and order something I think we'll all like, and nod happily in agreement when they rave. :-)

Arthur wrote:
01.12.09 at 10:56 AM

Alder

I accept and agree with your adjustment to my analogy. I agree that TBC may not be great wine, but it is not fake.

You say: "The fact that I had eaten those as a kid made me not eager to try the "real thing" when I finally had access to it."

Well, that is often a very formative factor in people's preferences (as your most recent blog post says). But you and I both know people who are perfectly happy with their Taco Bell/ Yellow Tail/TBC (even when they have higher quality alternatives accessible) and can even be quite resistant to branching out past their customary choices.

Alder wrote:
01.12.09 at 11:05 AM

Whoops! Arthur, actually I meant to say (and have corrected my comments to read) "The fact that I had eaten those as a kid made me VERY eager to try the "real thing" when I finally had access to it."

Though your comment is still relevant. There will always be people who won't trade up from the entry level. That's OK. I'd rather have that than people not drinking at all. If anything it creates a market that can fund higher quality wine production.

John Skupny wrote:
01.12.09 at 11:36 AM

Alder... no wonder vinography is one of the most widely read wine-blogs in the world. Kudos to you and the topic.
It has always been my mythical belief that if the French had prevailed in that little skirmish called the French & Indian War [The War of Conquest to the Canadian's] that the whole mid-west [ie: red country] would be speaking French and drinking wine daily without a bother of where it came from or what it was made from except for the grapes that grown near-by!
If that were the case we would not need the MAD-MEN to tell us what to wear or what to say about the grape when drinking wine... For those who want to know more about what High Beverage our forefathers really drank at the founding of this country, see Michael Pollen's book, "The Botany of Desire' and the real story of Johnny Appleseed!

Anthony T. Smith wrote:
01.12.09 at 1:47 PM

Absolute BRILLIANCE! I couldn't have said it better myself. I am a man who will drink the finest Chateau one night and then "spacebag" a box of Franzia Blush the next. I could care less what people think. It's all about the knowledge and the flavor. We needn't be snobbish.

Dylan wrote:
01.12.09 at 5:29 PM

"But perhaps most importantly, there's a lot of wine that needs to be shared among friends -- a lot of wine that needs to be enjoyed without the trappings of ceremony or status, but instead with the simple appreciation for the fact that we are all so very lucky for what we have."

You said it. Wine was meant to be an inviting beverage, if not, it would always be consumed alone. The power of conversation, over wine, of wine, is what makes it worthwhile.

Morton Lesllie wrote:
01.14.09 at 10:42 AM

The only solution to the issue of elitism is for all of us to just shut up about wine. Unfortunately, we cannot and should not. If we shut up, wine becomes just another commodity and there go our margins.

We love all the little nuances. But most of America glazes over when we talk about terroir, or extended masceration, or bottle bouquet. All they care about is "Great taste and less filling." Most of America doesn't want to learn all the crap they think they have to learn just to find a bottle of wine they like. They know if they buy an American pilsner or lager approximately what they will get. But a Zinfandel? They have no idea what a given producer's Zin will taste like and many judge this learning curve not worth the time.

I don't blame advertising. Wine advertising is such a small thing it has little impact on people's taste. The biggest negative impact is someone like me who tries to explain to one of them what is so interesting about hangtime or Nevers oak.

Too much information.

We just need to accept the fact that some people are interested and others are not. And people find a way to the beverage that suits their temperment, taste and pocketbook. It's not really anyone's fault.

Steve wrote:
01.14.09 at 1:58 PM

Speaking of class, I would imagine that everyone who commented on this blog to be solidly middle class. The idea that wine is upper-class is a middle-class invention to make us all feel fancier. The upper classes - unless they're related or involved in the trade - don't give a shit about wine.

On the opposite side of the social ladder, the poor never cared for wine other than that it was a readily available and cheap form of alcohol. Poor farmers in France, Spain and Italy drank (and still drink) wine we would recognize as much worse than any jug wine available. To get an idea of this, buy a one euro bottle of wine the next time you're in Europe.

Through the efforts and attitudes of middle-class people like us, most people worldwide - not just in the US - think of wine as a fancy drink. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Wolfy wrote:
01.14.09 at 3:05 PM

The only way to demystify wine is educating people, not about all the mumbo-jumbo we fanatics love about wine, but about its very simple culture. In Italy (as in most European countries) wine is part of the education of children: a bottle of wine is on the table of most family meals, children start drinking water with a few drops of wine and are even allowed half a glass of wine in very special occasions (Birthdays, Christmas, New Year's Eve, ...). Eventually they are encouraged to responsibly drink in social events. Unfortunately in the US, the ridiculous 21-year legal age for drinking severely limits this possibility and creates an aura of "prohibitedness" around wine and alcohol in general that encourages youths to get drunk just for the sake of it.

The market, we included, of course, has its faults on creating the wine myth. Once, I attended a tasting lesson hosted by Angelo Gaia and he was asked why, being him a very wealthy man, he was nevertheless selling his wines for their outrageous prices. His answer was really simple: "If people are ready to pay EUR 300 for a bottle of wine of mine, why should I sell it for 30?"

german wine guy wrote:
01.15.09 at 9:03 AM

I like wine, I like beer, I like the Grateful Dead and I am middle class....I find that the last part has no play in the enjoyment of the first three.

Neil wrote:
01.16.09 at 10:47 AM

Hey Alder: Great post.

Someone above touched upon my feelings on the matter: It seems as though the wine industry itself is responsible for the class perception issue. It amazes me because I think if there was more of an effort to market wine as something to be enjoyed be 'everyman' the industry would reap the benefits in dollars and cents. I've met quite a few people that are trying to get into wine and want to spend their hard earned dollars on wine, but have been intimidated by the snooty attitudes they've found in wineries and wines shops.

I am encouraged by some newer wine bars and stores with young-minded owners that are trying to market their establishments to the masses, as well some of the newer, smaller vineyards. That said, I think some of the Napa big boys and the publications could do more to remove the elitist attitude and welcome one and all.

Arthur wrote:
01.16.09 at 10:58 AM

Neil

I think that "everyman" pleasures inherently have to be affordable rather than pricey. Perhaps it is then that wine is framed in people's thinking as refined, elite or exclusive and rare to justify the price of some offerings?

dw wrote:
01.20.09 at 10:44 AM

Okay, I JUST got back from Sonoma and Napa and I'm not sure how a personal experience of wine in the US could be done by anyone without money. I understand one doesn't have to tromp through vinyards to enjoy wine, but when the good stuff is priced so exorbitantly, expect wine to continue as a thrill only the upper class will experience.

Molly wrote:
07.21.10 at 4:52 PM

I liked your article, but I think you could have answered your own question if you had just pushed a little further. With all of our European immigrants, you ask, why didn't we adopt wine? As you know, daily wine-drinking in Europe is mostly restricted to the Mediterranean South and France. Some Euro-Americans hail from these areas, but the vast majority do not. Our biggest ethnic groups are German, Irish, and English, and in these groups wine-drinking is very clearly trumped by king beer. Add to that fact that the U.S. remains an Anglo-Saxon culture (as the French love to remind us). So if you want to understand why Americans don't drink wine, you must first ask why the British don't. In fact the British don't drink wine for the very same reasons--for example, I know that grapes were an expensive commodity in London as recently as the late 19th century.

That said, I don't know why it's so important that all Americans start drinking wine. You say wine shouldn't be a status symbol but if so, why is it so important that we drink it? Red wine has health benefits but then so do dark ales like Guinness. Some European countries drink wine, others prefer beer, and still others are attached to vodka. We're a beer culture and there's nothing wrong with that.

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