Tell people you write about wine for a living, and you’ll get some interesting responses. Some just look at me with a puzzled expression and slowly say, “How interesting …,” in a tone that suggests such an occupation never occurred to them. Most tell me my job sounds fascinating and fun.
But the oddest response I’ve heard is, “I’m sorry.”
Believe it or not, I’ve heard this apology more than once. When I ask why they’re sorry, they explain, “Oh, because I drink cheap wine, usually [insert popular brand here]. I enjoy it and I don’t know much about wine.”
Everyone feels they should know something about wine. Enology and viticulture are not part of the Common Core curriculum (yet—get on this, Madam First Lady), but for some reason people believe they were home sick on the day wine was covered and they should know about it, even if they know nothing about 90 percent of the other things they drink.
What people usually do know is that they like wine, have tried a few examples and have settled on a reliable favorite or two. But they also fear that their favorite wine marks them as rubes, that people who really know about wine will sniff out their ignorance, the same way they can sniff pencil shavings and tar in a glass of red. If your favorite wine happens to be under $20 per bottle, well, you suspect people think you’re a simpleton.
I drink plenty of wine in that price range these days. It’s part of my cosmopolitan, extravagant lifestyle as a dad to two young boys. If you have children, you know that good day care makes Napa Cult Cabernet look like a bargain.
My wine budget may be modest right now, but it doesn’t bother me. Because while I usually don’t spend much, I think a great deal about what wine I buy. You have to if you have a small budget.
Wine pricing is one of the more mysterious rubrics out there, a blend of how much a wine costs to make, how much the winery paid for the vineyard, and how much marketing muscle they put behind the brand. There’s also what I call the Screagle Theorem: If people are willing to pay a high price, why would you charge less? We don’t begrudge Bugatti and Bulova for charging luxury prices if someone will pay them. So I don’t begrudge a winemaker charging what his mailing list will pay.
For those of us who can’t afford first-growths, however, we thankfully live in a time of vinous plenty. The global spread of wine and ideas have sparked vintners in little-known regions to up their games and make their best bottlings ever. Plenty of wines for $20 and less are outstanding today.
But you need to think to find them. Check out my colleagues’ picks and talk to a retailer you trust. Learn about what style of wine you like, which regions and grapes excite your palate. Try something new, and then try something new again.
Most of all, don’t be ashamed to ask dumb questions. My job entails visiting winemakers in their cellars and asking nothing but dumb questions. And I never apologize.