July 20, 2010 / 8:53 AM / 9 years ago

Vine Talk: Enjoying wine for pleasure, not price

(Felix Salmon is a U.S.-based financial journalist and a Reuters blogger here. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Bottles of wine, one costing nearly $460, are shown in a wine shop in San Francisco, California January 14, 2008. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Roger Lowenstein, in “The End of Wall Street,” his book about the financial crisis, tells a story about Vikram Pandit, the former hedge fund manager and now Citigroup’s CEO.

Pandit was lunching at legendary New York fish restaurant Le Bernadin, says Lowenstein, and, looking at the wine list, saw nothing by the glass that appealed.

He ordered a $350 bottle of wine, and drank just one glass of it. That way, he explained, he could have “a glass of wine worth drinking.”

A Citigroup spokesman calls the story of Pandit’s $350 glass of wine “an untrue rumor,” but whether or not it’s true of Pandit, there’s certainly no shortage of people who are more than capable of pulling such a stunt.

The great food at Le Bernadin surely deserves to be accompanied by great wine, and people like Pandit can easily afford as many $350 bottles of wine as they feel like buying: with the $165 million Pandit got from Citi when he sold his hedge fund, he could drink 12 such bottles per day for 100 years and still have enough left over for a modest vineyard of his own.

But for most of us the idea of spending $350 on a bottle of wine — let alone a glass — is both terrifying and depressing. Terrifying because we feel that we can’t possibly appreciate the wine enough to justify its price tag, and depressing because we see that there’s a world in which a $350 bottle is the bare minimum of acceptability, and quite obviously we’re excluded from it.

That unpleasant mix of emotions helps to explain the fact that only one in three American drinkers considers wine to be their drink of choice. If you’re an American and you’re having a drink at a bar or with your evening meal, it’s significantly more likely to be beer than wine.

Wine writers love wine, as do the people who put wine lists together in restaurants, and wine retailers too. All of them, quite naturally, love to concentrate on the spectacular and the wonderful: the wines you remember for years after drinking them, the ones which floor you with their depth and sophistication and complex beauty.

But the cause of wine is not well served by such behavior: many Americans find it downright obnoxious, and end up drinking no wine at all.

Wine historian Thomas Pinney sees wines under $20 described as “bargains” in the press, and sees bottles of wine in restaurants regularly priced at well over double the cost of the most expensive entree.

“The ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery,” he writes.

In most of America, the time and place for exposure to the ineffable and mysterious is Sunday morning, in church, rather than Wednesday night with a bottle of red. But you shouldn’t have to be a godless urban sophisticate to enjoy wine: indeed, you shouldn’t have to appreciate its finer points at all, or be exposed to incomprehensible winespeak, with its talk of wine tasting like black slate or smelling like a barnyard.

What normal person can or should embrace such nonsense? Wine culture will never make much headway if everybody is encouraged to judge wine on the basis of how closely it approximates some astronomically expensive first-growth Bordeaux, and to sneer at the cheap or the simply pleasurable.

Americans don’t grow up drinking wine — or any alcohol at all, for that matter. They see how expensive it is, however, on restaurant menus, especially when compared to beer. And when they’re old enough to start drinking, they’re intimidated by just about everything to do with it: its price, its recondite language, its arcane theater of sniffs and corks and stemware purportedly designed to direct different types of wine to different parts of the mouth.

What’s missing is any sense of fun, or of simple pleasures: a bottle of screw-top rose can be cheaper, more appropriate, and much more delicious at a summer picnic than a six-pack of beer. And it would prove more versatile, too, if only people felt comfortable adding some seltzer water or cooling it down with a couple of ice cubes.

Pinney draws a distinction between what he calls Wagnerians, who aren’t happy unless they can drink a sound wine every day, and Martians, who are unhappy with anything less than the superlative and the rigorously-informed. (Wagnerians are named after Philip Wagner, a journalist and winemaker active in the 30s and 40s; Martians after uncompromising California wine pioneer Martin Ray.)

Most wine drinkers — including sommeliers, and retailers, and journalists — would put themselves at the Wagnerian end of the spectrum. But look at how they behave in public, and you’d be forgiven for considering them die-hard Martians.

They might happily and unceremoniously drink cheap and wonderful wine daily at home, but put them behind the counter of a wine bar, or give them a wine column, and they’ll suddenly start acting as though the only way they ever drink wine is with great concentration and connoisseurship.

Those of us who love wine, then, should try to do a much better job of keeping things in perspective and encouraging simple pleasures.

Are you drinking wine out of a tumbler, or even a paper cup? That’s fine. Did someone refill your glass with one wine, when it had a little bit of some other wine in the bottom? That’s fine, too — as is the adding of ice cubes or seltzer should you be so inclined.

Do you feel that you have simply no appreciation for what makes $350 bottles of wine so wonderful? That’s pretty great: think of all the money you’re saving!

And remember that when people buy $350 bottles of wine, they like them because they’re expensive, and they order them as much out of insecurity as out of discernment.

Don’t let their insecurities be infectious.

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