Return of the Wine Grinch

Many, many Christmases back, for reasons too many to enumerate, I became a grinch. These days, the total triumph of commercialism over any other aspect of the holidays aggravates me more than anything else about the season. And in the ever-growing lump in my craw, the Thanksgiving-Hanukah-Christmas-New Year’s Eve superabundance of wine hype and what comes very close to wine scamming holds an uncomfortably large place.

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As I’m sure no one reading this post needs to be told, wine appropriately forms a part of any festive occasion, and the conjunction of those occasions at this time of year rightly makes us aware of wine’s important role at the table. Wine advertising and wine publicity are prone to – shall we say lushness? (pun intended) – at all times, but for the past month-and-a-half to two months they have run amok. The gullible consumer – and that includes all of us, at one time or another – could be excused for thinking there is no such thing on the American market as an ordinary wine, or a wine unbemedalled or less than 95-pointed.

For me, the most outrageous of these hypes are those that try to snare the unwary and seasonally-softened-up shopper into not just a single holiday purchase or two but a long-term commitment: wine clubs.

Wine clubs should be a good deal for consumers. Their purchasing power ought to give them some leverage in keeping prices down, and their numbers ought to enable them to thin their margins and still show a profit. Their access to expertise ought to enable them to select really interesting wines that would allow their members to experience many different types. The whole enterprise ought to be helpful, enjoyable, and educational for novice wine drinkers and for those who enjoy good wine but don’t – understandably – want to undertake a whole apprenticeship in it.

The reality, it seems to me, is far from that. Prices are fixed at an arbitrary level, and choices seem pitched to wines and names that consumers will already feel comfortable with. I see no evidence that the selections ever go any further. I might be wrong about that – I don’t have a research team to investigate all wine clubs – but so far I’ve seen no evidence of serious educational, palate-broadening focus.
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I offer WSJWine as an example of all this. I’ve pilloried it once before, and nevertheless it persisted. I have no particular onus against it. But it’s important. First of all, it bears the name of The Wall Street Journal, with all the prestige that carries – though a moment’s thought will tell you that WSJ’s business acumen doesn’t guarantee expertise in any other areas: I find many of its editorial positions deplorable, for instance. But when you discover, as I did, a fancy gold-paper, special offer of “The Wines of the Year for readers of The New York Times” tucked into one of the pre-Christmas issues of your daily newspaper, it kinda catches your eye.

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times: that’s pretty big league, isn’t it? They should know about wine, shouldn’t they? Well, no: Their wine columnists may know a great deal about wine, but there is no indication that those people have anything to do with the wine club or its selections. Thus appeareth the first – and a major – misdirection.

After that, they come thick and fast – not outright lies, but imprecisions and fuzzy associations designed to make the gullible or inattentive think they’re getting access to really superior wines at bargain prices. (If you believe that, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.) “Wines of the year.” “Our best reds of the year.”  And then the individual bottles: “94-point”; “Gold-Medal”; “Double-Gold”; “94-point”; “Winemaker of the Year”; “93-point”; “94-point”; “Double-Gold.” As for the few unfortunate specimens that just didn’t gather enough points or medals to match the others: they become merely “Mighty”; “Mature”; “Hand-Crafted”; “Superstar.”
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Overwhelmed?  You’re supposed to be – so much so that you don’t ask who or what awarded all those points and medals. Good thing too, ‘cause they don’t tell you. Would you invest in a stock on the basis of hype like that? I doubt it.

And what exactly are these eminent wines being offered for such extraordinarily low prices?  Good question: you’re learning fast. There’s:

  • A Bordeaux: just that, simply Bordeaux, which is the lowest common denominator of all of the Bordeaux region’s many appellations, made by the tank-truck-full from grapes from all over the very large zone.
  • A so-called Super Tuscan, an IGT wine of no particular distinction (it retails for about $19) made from unspecified grapes (probably some Sangiovese, plus ?) from anywhere in Tuscany.
  • A “Portuguese Gem” that retails for $10 or $11, from a maker of box wines.
  • A “Spanish Blockbuster” that retails in the $10-$11 dollar range.

Those last two items ought to make clear that these are not bargain prices the wine club is offering – in many cases, far from it. In fact, the leaflet’s claim that its $70 special offer represents a real value of $260 is an assertion worthy of the present US president.

I could go on through every single one of these wines, with similar sorts of deflation of their descriptions, but you get the point. These are the “Best Reds of the Year”? Once again, far from it. What I fear most is that the poor deluded souls who taste these wines believing that claim will simply conclude that, if this is great stuff, then they just don’t get wine: End of story. And that’s perhaps even worse than the deceitfulness of the claims themselves: the potential wine lovers lost, and their loss of lifetime of pleasure.

My apologies for the negative cast of this post, but I find this kind of thing offensive. I’ve written about things like this before; as I said above, nevertheless, they persisted. I try to sit on my grinchitude during the holiday season so as not to spoil everybody else’s fun, but the holidays are behind us now, and I need to vent about some of the vinous irritations of the past . . . is it only a few weeks? Seems like an eternity to me. Bah Humbug!

11 Responses to “Return of the Wine Grinch”

  1. Donn Rutkoff Says:

    Tis sad that so much baloney can be printed on a label. For $10 you get a $10 wine if you are lucky. I guess I don’t mind the movie club since they don’t use review points, and I hope their members merely expect decent wine and a fun label, not a mercurial experience.

  2. Bob Griffin Says:

    The article is spot on. Fifteen years ago when I first became interested in wine I had a bottle of Cappellano Barolo. I was struck by what Teobaldo Cappallano had written on the back of the label. In 1983 he asked a journalist to not publish scores of his wines. He also asked that his wines “… not be included in classifications in which a comparison becomes a divisive numerical term rather than expressing shared human toil.” Your blog channels Teobadlo’s thoughts.

  3. Geoff Weller Says:

    If it makes you feel any better, we have exactly the same phenomenon here in Australia.

  4. Christensen, Philip Says:

    Carol and I are film buffs, and we often turn to the only channel that gives us access to forgotten treasures from the 30’s and 40’s, but I can’t fathom how their “club” pairs wines with film genre, even putting deceased movie stars on their labels.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      You got me: I didn’t know there was such a thing! And now I don’t know whether to be amused or appalled.

      • Tablewine Says:

        Believe it or not, I fell for the TCM Wine Club; the wines were decent but we did not continue for long. This club, like so many of the other highly advertised ones appear to be under the control of a company called Laithwaite that seems to be a wine “curator.”

        • Tom Maresca Says:

          Don’t you just love how “curate” has become the word of choice this past year? Makes it sound as if some serious intellectual work was going on, doesn’t it? I guess this year the Oscars will have to be curated too. Aaaarrrrggghhh!

  5. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Right On Brother. I would like to join your wine (Grinch) club

  6. ANGELO CLARIZIA Says:

    GREAT ARTICLE.

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