I feel like a Catholic school boy caught smoking after trying some of the ultra-cheap wine at Trader Joe’s (be sure to read all the comments on that post). First, the experience wasn’t all that great, and then there was the guilty aftermath.
Sure, the wine only costs 5 bucks a bottle, and sure, the first one I tried wasn’t bad. But everything went downhill from there. The OK wine was awful on day 2. The white wines were completely undrinkable. The Italian tasted like grape juice — without the fermentation. And those were the best parts — I got completely slammed by some folks whose opinion I completely respect.
Ultimately, two different wine merchants pretty much nailed it on the head: Trader Joe’s sells the “fast food” of wine. I’m going to quote an entire comment, because this reader really identified the issue:
$5 bottles of wine are like McDonald’s hamburgers or Applebee’s dinner – mass produced replicas designed and created in a lab specifically to taste like the real thing, and to taste the same the world over. The Applebee’s spinach dip in Seattle tastes the same as it does down the street in North Carolina. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s just not worth writing or reading about. It serves it’s purpose, but does little more than that. You don’t blog much about Applebee’s food because it’s not really worth discussing. I mean, you can get it cheap, but ultimately there’s not much to it beyond mass appeal and a low price. You blog about people like Ashley Christensen and not the line chefs at Applebee’s because there’s a story there, it’s worth telling, and it’s worth seeking out.
The same is true of good wine. Good wine is a product of a careful farmer working in collaboration with a gifted wine maker. There are stories worth telling, experiences worth seeking, and people worth meeting. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but it’s also unreasonable to expect decent wine at $5/bottle. Ashley doesn’t purchase her produce and meat by the metric ton and store it for months before hauling it out and reconstituting it. She’s very particular about what she uses, when she uses it, and where it came from. She’s no different than a gifted wine maker in that respect. The difference in resulting quality is evident to anyone who is interested in investigating, whether we’re talking about Ashley’s food or well made wine compared to the mass produced replicas you can get anywhere.
Here’s where I screwed up: I think of wine as a commodity. Wine is still pretty much a mystery to me. I enjoy drinking it, but again, my palate is unable to distinguish much other than body, acidity and fruit — oh, and sweetness, too. Moreover, I don’t make wine nor do I hang out with the winemakers. I just buy the stuff. With restaurant food, I actually have some sense of what goes into it, because I’m a decent home cook. And I hang out with chefs and other cooks. And, hell, I’ve even “worked” in a couple of restaurants. I understand that craft and style and how the care of a restaurant kitchen can translate to the plate.
I don’t see that with wine, and so I haven’t even thought about the issue. Until now. Yes, I still want to find cheap, tasty wine. But I want a story with that wine. I want to know what makes it distinctive. If I have to pay a few dollars more, then so be it. And you know what, I suspect that wine will taste a hell of a lot better than that Trader Joe’s shit.