Caught up in our world of drinking really, really good wine all the time, it’s tough to stay connected to the typical wine consumer. Surrounded by tasty, organically farmed wine, both from Stolpman and our neighbors, and living with the constant temptation to try “cool” wines that pique our interest, or benchmark wines that serve as reference points in our pursuit of improving our palates and wine knowledge; it’s an extremely foreign concept to go out and buy a cheap bottle of corporate wine.
Back when I distributed wine for Henry Wine Group, my manager, Ron Streiwig, brown bagged six chardonnays for us. He instructed us to taste the wines in our usual format, noting color, aroma, fruit profile, body, and finish. Ron also asked us to state whether or not we personally liked each wine and how much money we thought each one was worth.
One wine in the flight was the second worst white wine I’ve ever tried. My absolute worst white wine had been poured for me months earlier by Master Sommelier Peter Neptune to illustrate a bacterium that gives some dirty Sicilian whites a horrible garlic flavor. Not as bad as overwhelming garlic odor in an otherwise light and crisp white wine, this brown bagged wine had a hint of garbage that immediately reminded me of walking past a dumpster behind a Macdonald’s. I found the other 5 Chardonnays all pleasing enough. Some of them had more obvious oak influence, one might have had a hint of residual sugar.
When Ron ripped off the brown bags to reveal the chardonnay labels, the intent behind the tasting became immediately clear. Three of the six bottles were entry level wines that we represented; Bogle, Scott Family, and Round Hill. The worst wine of the flight was A for Acacia, and at the same price as Round Hill, Ron wanted us to get more revved up about selling Round Hill. My team consisted of young wine snobs, and Ron had designed the tasting to motivate us to get out and sell cheap Chardonnay, by far the most ubiquitous, and boring, genre in American wine culture.
When I left my job distributing about 800 wines for HWG, my wine world immediately shrunk. Not only was I moving out of the big smoke up to rural Santa Ynez, but I was losing that great sample budget for wines from 5 continents. From my time in Australia, where tariffs and blind national pride make the purchase of foreign wine a pain in the ass – and expensive – I knew the danger of only drinking local. The winemakers down under were so caught up in Shirazland, they lost touch with other trends in the world of wine. The Aussies kept “improving” upon their style, making it higher-octane, riper, and richer than ever before. These Australians removed themselves right out of relevancy as consumers around the world started to thumb their noses at the Oz Fruit Bombs.
So I make sure to try a lot of different wines, but they’re pretty much never the cheap, boring wines most of the country drinks. Selling an international portfolio at HWG, I learned that if you need to drink cheap, you have to understand where the wine comes from. My favorite under $10 wines were all from either Spain or Argentina. Both of these regions have hot, dry summers so not a lot of labor is needed to ensure the fruit ripens. Mendoza sits at the foot of the Andes with canals that are opened and closed to flood irrigate the vineyards, insuring huge, healthy crops. Meanwhile Spain’s history as a high-volume wine producer means there is an abundance of vineyards, many of which are very old, and thanks to a combination of political and economic forces, a lot of them are government owned.
Because I’m no longer selling them, I’ve had to find a new venue to try wines that I would never otherwise purchase. Now that I’ve been flying non-stop for over 3 years, I’ve accrued pretty healthy status with United Airlines and find myself getting upgraded to the front of the bus occasionally. Even though the food served is pretty marginal, dining in the sky just feels luxurious, and the meal makes the flight go by a lot more quickly. And if I’m going to enjoy a meal, there needs to be wine.
Being a typical big company, I’m sure United pays the absolute lowest price they can find for their wines, throwing around the weight of ordering thousands of cases at a time. I’m guessing the average price paid is about $2.50 per 750ml bottle. Again, any winery willing to keep its costs down that low is probably not making a wine I would be interested in buying, even if it costs only $2.50 a bottle. But held captive at 35,000 feet, I shrug and nod my head and request red when the flight attendant comes down the aisle with a bottle in each hand. But unlike my other fellow passengers, I request her to move the linen napkin elegantly wrapping the bottle so I can see the label.
I was thrilled to see a Bonarda from Argentina on a flight a couple weeks back. The wine was simple yet balanced, with nice juicy purple fruit and a hint of boysenberry. I think of Bonarda as a very fruity red grape, appealing to the masses. But Malbec has become king in Argentina, and I can see why an entry level Bonarda would be difficult to sell in America, and therefore was unloaded to United at a steal. I’m guessing folks who buy cheap wine seldom venture out to try grapes they’ve never heard of, and are probably very loyal to what they know, just like a Coors light drinker.
My next flight, the red option was Smoking Loon Syrah. The smoking loon line dominates liquor store end caps and banquet wine lists and this selection seemed pretty transparent as well. This giant brand, owned By Don and Sons, decided to start making a Syrah as a brand extension, to give them one more shelf space on top of the 8 other varietals in production. Unfortunately, they’re in the business of making hundreds of thousands of cases of cheap wine, not the business of battling for Syrah. It looks like Smoking Loon figured out their mistake soon enough, the wine was still relatively young, a 2009, and unloaded their production to United at 50% off, and will probably cut production way down in later vintages.
The wine itself was not nearly as good as the Argentine Bonarda. Sweet, definitely a little sugar in it, cloying over-ripe fruit with no balance.
Of course, the fact that I always choose the red option is maybe the easiest rule to follow with cheap wine: if you’re going to drink cheap, drink red. I believe the reason cheap red is usually more appealing than cheap white is simply because it’s a lot more work to make white wine. From careful temperature control, to more fragile fermentations, wineries interested in keeping costs to an absolute minimum have a lot more ways of screwing white wine up than red.