One school of thought argues that we are idiots, those of us who find something special enough in wine to pay a little more for it. Naysayers point to scientific studies that purport to show that most consumers can't tell the difference between simple wines for $5 and complex, expensive wines. If that is so, why fork out $50 for a special-occasion bottle, or even $15 for a wine to drink with dinner tonight?
That theme recently spurred a wine columnist for Slate.com to rant that $15 is way too much for an everyday wine, a level now considered the top edge of what you might want to consume regularly. Flak came back rapidly from wine writers in a huff.
Actually, the column made me think of Leon D. Adams, the author of The Wines of America, a seminal work on the pioneers of winegrowing from coast to coast, published in 1973. Leon was a cantankerous soul. He regularly maintained that a decent bottle of wine ought to cost no more than milk. He appreciated finer bottles, of course, but he argued that America would never truly become a wine-drinking nation if all we had were expensive wines.
We seem to have done all right despite rising wine prices, but Adams was correct about one thing: All of us should be able to afford to open a bottle of decent wine with dinner if we want it. And we can, maybe not for the price of a carton of milk, but unless your tastes are terribly rarefied, you can find something drinkable for $5 to $8 a bottle. Though awful, flawed or undrinkable cheap wines were common in Adams' time, they are the exception these days, whether they come from California or Slovenia, Washington or Australia, Argentina or Italy—even France.
I may be biased here because I parse the nuances of exceptional wines for a living, but it's claptrap to say that most people can't tell the difference. Most people can indeed distinguish between simple plonk and wine with, let's say, higher aspirations. The only question is which one they like better.
Without fanfare and without setting up psychological expectations, I have poured outstanding wines for untrained consumers, folks who say they like wine but aren't willing to spend more than a few bucks for it. On many occasions, I have smiled when, unbidden, someone will take a swig and say, "Wow, this is really good. What is it?"
What gets lost in this discussion is a well-known factor in public taste. The more intense, complex and flavorful something is, whether it's a bottled sauce, a restaurant dish, coffee or wine, the more it's likely to offend someone. That's why mass-market brands, chain restaurants, popular art or movies often come off as bland to connoisseurs, who seek out complexity and intensity. Some of us like pop music, others go for classical or indie rock.
Here's another aspect to consider. Although ratings on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale generally rise with the price, there's plenty of overlap in price categories among score ranges. I love it when low-priced wines outperform higher-priced bottles. That's how I identify good value. But that's not the same thing as saying that high-priced wines are bad values. If you can enjoy the difference, only you can determine if the added cost buys enough added value.
So let's get off the high horse here. What's the point in looking down on someone who prefers something other than what you do? Advocates of inexpensive wines, quit yapping at those of us who find some that are worth more to us. There is a difference, and if your personal preference is for something simpler, consider yourself lucky. You get to spend less to enjoy wine you like. Connoisseurs, quit dismissing those who don't get it. No one has a monopoly on taste.