One salvo came from Slate, which used to be known for intelligent wine writing until it fired its wine writer, Michael Steinberger. Early this month, Slate published an essay by Brian Palmer under the headline, Drink Cheap Wine. (Palmer has probed other searing questions for Slate such as why Americans don’t eat horse meat and why some people pee themselves and others don’t.) Palmer quotes a lot of silliness, such as the “piles of studies showing that you can’t reliably pick out expensive wines in a blind taste test” and that “laymen actually prefer cheaper wines.”
This is the same argument perpetrated by Robin Goldstein in his book, “The Wine Trials” (Fearless Critic Media, 2008), with his surprising revelation that people like inexpensive wines. Duh! George M. Taber joins this nihilistic celebration of the least common denominator in his new book, “A Toast to Bargain Wines” (Scribner, 2011). Taber is shocked — shocked! — to discover that all people don’t experience the same taste sensations. (Well, at least that explains why I love chocolate and you don’t.)
Terroir, in Taber’s world, is nothing more than a marketing ploy conjured up by winemakers to explain why their wines are worth your arm and leg. So-called “experts” are only interested in making you feel obligated or intimidated into spending too much on wine, Taber argues. He spends half his book urging us to drink industrial plonk such as [yellow tail], Barefoot and Crane Lake. His book costs $15 dollars — you could buy three bottles of his favorite wines instead, and you’d be better off.
This tear-down-the-house argument for cheap wine seems designed to make people feel secure in their insecurities. You like Two-Buck Chuck? Nothing wrong with that! There isn’t, of course, and you shouldn’t need to waste $15 on a book to reassure yourself. It’s also an attack on wine critics such as Robert M. Parker Jr , who allegedly determine our tastes in wine — and, by extension, on wine columnists such as myself who try to sort through the chaff to find a few gems worthy of your hard-earned money.
Taber has serious credibility in arguing that the experts are idiots. He was the only journalist present at the famous Paris tasting of 1976, where some of France’s most eminent wine gurus preferred American wines in a blind tasting. Taber chronicled the tasting and its effect on the world of wine in his 2005 book, “Judgment of Paris” (Scribner). But the lesson of Paris was that America can produce wines to rival the best French bottles, not that we should all be drinking Barefoot. To argue that these are the wines that Americans drink, and therefore the wines that writers should cover, is akin to sending Tom Sietsema around to compare the food at various IHOPs.
And that’s why I’d like to toss Taber’s book out the window and curl up with Natalie MacLean’s “Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines.” (Perigee Trade, 2011) MacLean, Canada’s leading wine writer, pens a rollicking travelogue of her journeys around the world in search of the best vino that won’t break the bank. She knows there’s a lot of plonk out there — she’s tasted it — and she wants to clue us in to wines that over-deliver for the price. I would much rather join MacLean on her treasure hunt than go to the supermarket and pull a bottle off the shelf simply because it’s cheap.