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.