Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Stop Drinking Cheap Corporate Wine!

Tom pointed to an ‘interesting’ article written by Jennifer Rosen defending ‘corporate’ wine. Defending it against whom I am not sure but the crux of her argument posits that this inexpensive ‘corporate’ wine, which is as familiar and as regular in quality as toothpaste, brings more drinkers into the marketplace. In the same breath, she seems to characterize those drinkers who expect more from their wines as neophytes and epiphany seekers, while the ‘clueless masses’ seem to want some sort of ‘bland’ drink that is as ‘reliable and cheap’ as Coke (quality notwithstanding). To paraphrase a paraphrasing blog buddy, her logic seems to suggest that to make wine accessible we must have more shit wine available. Oh those poor, stupid, taste-deficient masses.

Well, wine is not coke. Unfortunately, there seems to be some underlying sentiment amongst certain in the industry to treat it as such; just another spoke in the wheel of the beverage industry. Perhaps I am being nostalgic and sentimental, but I still want my wine to be made by someone who grew and pressed his own grapes, and whose wine ultimately carries his signature and some sense of place. It might be quaint but there is more often than not a measure of authenticity about the final product that differentiates it from the yellow tails, little penguins, and other mass-produced, ‘brand’-oriented wines that fill supermarket shelves. Rosen makes the point that many of these more ‘artisanal wines’ are ‘perfectly dreadful,’ but on the whole I would disagree and find most of these wines more interesting, and at least not disgusting.

I have tried these price-point wines on a number of occasions. I am usually unimpressed, sometimes horrified and rarely surprised. My most recent foray into what Ms. Rosen refers to as ‘corporate wines’ was a tasting of Southcorp (Foster’s) ‘Little Penguin.’ The Chardonnay reminded me more of coconut tanning lotion than white wine, and the Shiraz was closer to Robitussin (without that excellent muted buzz). But this is a question of personal taste. I neither buy nor drink these penguin wines, as I won’t most of the cheap wines presently on the market. This is not because they are made by some massive, unfeeling corporate monolith. It is simply because they taste bad.

But, as children who were raised to believe that garlic-flavored popsicles are good, Rosen claims her ‘blandies’ expect nothing more than the ‘Tzatziki pop’ of wine and are thus happy and comfortable in their ignorance.

This is bullshit. It is rare that I have not been able to take a person who has drunk only cheap wine and showed them that, for a few dollars more, there is a better option. And the majority of the time, they can taste the difference. Ultimately it is a question of priorities. It isn't that different from spending that extra 20% on organic produce, for it too is often better than the cheaper industrial produce which fills the aisles of your local supermarket. It just so happens that these super-cheap wines, which are made affordable because of the economy of scale, are often below the threshold of what smaller wineries can afford to produce. I will not even get into how they are made. But for a few dollars more (at least here in Quebec), there exist a plethora of interesting wines from the world over, many made by co-operatives and good, independent winemakers. By supporting these smaller producers, we are supporting diversity, independence, and frankly they need the cash more than the big corps.

The reality of the modern wine industry is that there are fewer and fewer independent winemakers. Cheval Blanc, Etude, Ornellaia, Yquem, Penfolds, Coldstream and a vast majority of the better wine producers worldwide are now part of corporate portfolios. Like in any industry, there are good corps and bad ones. Those which recognize and continue to support the ‘artistry’ of winemaking and have not become complacent with quality deserve our continued support. Ms. Rosen’s characterization of corporate wine as cheap wine is an insult to many of the better corporations which continue to produce great wines. Her article should have been entitled ‘in defense of cheap, mass-produced wine,’ but even then, I don’t agree.

The real danger of the big corps with large alchohol and wine portfolios lies more in the distribution end of the industry. It is here where smaller producers and distributors face increasingly difficult challenges and it is here that they need our support. So get off the kangaroo, seek out the independents and ultimately tell your friends to spend a bit more for their bottles, you will be doing both the industry, and your friends, a lot of good.


wal said...

Way to go, The same holds true for most of the food industry , the clothes industry , and just about every other industry that exists. We are being sold the idea that more is better, and the fact that we get more it makes up the difference for it being shit.Spend your money carefully, it is the ultimate powerin our corporate world...

St. Vini said...

This reminds me of the South Park episode where they lampoon the hippies who are trying to take down the "corporations" which are inherently evil, even though they can't quite explain why. I'm not defending corporations, but let's just think about your argument for a moment here....

The US consumes roughly 360 million cases of wine each year. Do your hallowed, hand-crushed wineries make 360 million cases (let alone the rest of the world's needs)? Can they supply even the state of Rhode Island? Should those who can't drink wine that you approve of go without? How do you propose we should close this quality-supply gap?

Then there's the whole argument that people actually buy what they like, and despite your preference for "interesting" wines, most consumers don't put that much thought into it. They want something that they DON'T have to think about....


caveman said...

Wall- cool, a comment from the inner less but better.. you can still live large. You are the model.

Vini- that was a great episode but not quite Mr. Hankie the Christmas Poo.
I thought my post was quite clear that this is not a corporate question. In fact I found Rosen's association of bad, oops cheap, wine and corporate rather insulting for the corp.

Kim Crawford (Vincor) produces 70000 cases of a very good NZ sauvignon blanc. It costs $15 bucks here so what $12 in the states?

It is possible to make good wine in bulk but there exists a thresh-hold whereby either the base juice isn't up to snuff or the tech isn't there to turn it into a reasonable beverage. How often are you running home to your Walgreens wallabee white? Yummy!

This is purely a question of good versus bad and most of the really cheap stuff that I have tasted just tastes bad. Simple. I won't drink it and as my job is to guide people around this somewhat complicated world that is wine (no matter how many people try and oversimplify it), I tell people to not drink it.

In fact, I have always held to the principle, and tell my clients and friends, of drink less but drink better. (That would drive up prices of the better $12-$20 bottles!)

What about the undersupply? I hear there is a whole lotta bottles hanging around in France and Australia. Getting rid of the world wide glut while improving quality would be agreat thing. No?

I don't want people to think too much about it (that is for us). I just want people to drink better and that those winemakers who do a great job (both small and large), recieve the rewards that they are due.

Cheers Back,

Randy said...

Thank you for translating. I read Rosen's article and I'll be damned if I could figure out what the hell she was talking about. But as a fellow wine enthusiast I totally understand. Too much wine, and the writing suffers... if you know what I mean. Was she really comparing wine to Coke? Sediment in Coke... now there's an image!

Anonymous said...

"What about the undersupply? I hear there is a whole lotta bottles hanging around in France and Australia. Getting rid of the world wide glut while improving quality would be agreat thing. No?"

The reason those wines are still hanging around is BECAUSE they are the very shit you rail against.

One needs to increase the quality before those gluts will reduce. And just because it's French or Aussie obviously won't sell it - regardless of whether it's mass produced or 'artisanal' in nature.

Just a thought.

St. Vini said...

Wine consumption worldwide hasn't dropped, but you're implying that the glut in certain countries is due to poor quality?

Talk about a gross oversimplification - only France has had any decrease in consumption. These "shitty" wines were there decades ago, their quality hasn't declined. In fact, many feel that wine quality has continued to improve and that (at least in the US) has been a boon to new-world consumption. Anybody remember early Australian wines....? ugh.


caveman said...

Randy.. coke is in fact better than some of the stuff i have tasted.

Randy and Vini- I agree that quality is what we are talking about here. I, like both of you I am sure want to see better and better wines on the market. Yes, I have a penchant for smaller producers because in general i find the wines better and yes more interesting. whatever. What do you guys honestly think about the quality of low end Gallo, Penguin and the plethora of supermarket bottles out there... My aim is for people to drink the best wine that they can afford and yes I am confident enough in my taste buds to consider myself an arbiter of taste. How do we do that?
and Vini... I have tasted some oversupply of 02 Rhone and the co-op that produced it did a decent job. 1 euro at cost. It can be done. I don't believe the oversupply is necessarily because of quality issues. Maybe price point is too low to make good wine.. you tell me
Caveman Bill

ann said...

I just ran across this intriguing story on the AP and thought you guys might enjoy it

'Critter' Label Wines Selling Big

I can't quite imagine what the connection between cute animals and wine is...

St. Vini said...

Is there a connection between attractive women and beer? Computers and 1984-esque drones? Cute kids and automobiles?

sheesh....its not like marketing is a 21st century phenomenon.

Bill: As for the quality of supermarket wines, it depends - which is why I don't generalize. As you pointed out, Kim Crawford is still a pretty good wine and there are many other such examples.

No, I don't drink most supermarket wines and many of them aren't any good, but I'm not going to generalize and throw them all out.