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Wednesday Warblings
Class Warfare In The Wine Conversation

By Stephen Eliot

It is not a new notion that serious wine writing has nothing to do with real people and is only directed at the wealthy and the filthy rich. That notion bothers me.

Professional writers, whatever their specialties, give a fair amount of thought to just who their audiences are. As for those of us who ply their trades in the world of wine, that audience is not a monolithic one, but rather a mix of causal consumers, connoisseurs, collectors and members of the trade whose interests and needs are widely varied.

It has been recently suggested in Tyler Colman’s popular blog, Dr. Vino*, that wine writers as a group are too easily, and perhaps mistakenly, seen as writing principally for those affluent consumers who fall within what is these days fashionably called the “one-percent”. Some may; most do not, but there are clearly so many different niches that I would caution against the notion that all wine writers should adhere to some universal standard when it comes to what wines they review and to whom they direct their opinions. And, as one whose politics are decidedly left-leaning, I am most uncomfortable with thinly disguised issues of “class warfare” making their ways into the discussion.

The rationale put forth in raising the issue of journalistic elitism is that, quite simply, not many people can really afford a steady diet of wines costing $30.00 and more. The argument thus follows that endless reviews of up-scale wines are irrelevant to most people. I would argue, however, that, while those who can afford to spend several thousand dollars a month on their cellars are indeed very few, it is precisely those very middle-class folks who occasionally splurge on a special bottle of their favorite tipple now and again who are most likely looking for a bit of guidance and advice. They are acutely aware of the value of a dollar and would like some assurance that theirs are not frivolously spent.

I remember in the early days of my love affair with wines, days when the budget was very tight, I read every word I could about the great wines even though they were rare, special-occasion visitors to my table. True, the storied bottlings from the world’s finest vineyards were proportionately less expensive that they are now (would that my income had increased by the same percentage as the first-growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies), but they were still far from an everyday indulgence.

Being interested in and drinking a great bottle does not make one a snob. Most of us all have a passion or two upon which we spend a disproportionate amount of our income. For some folks it is cars or antiques or rare books or model trains…you get the idea. That wine happens to be the passion that may trump what some see as common sense is, in my mind, no different. Those that occasionally buy pricier bottles and those who write about them do not deserve to be tarred with the epithet of elitism.

Some angrily and irrationally claim that the wine writing community is comprised of nothing but conspiratorial stooges working at the behest of elite vintners to keep prices high. To them I would say, there is a free market out there. It usually works that in any market populated by informed consumers quality sells and crap does not, and I happen to think that those who enjoy fine wines are a smart and extraordinarily well-informed bunch.

There is enough contempt to go around the days as various voices decry the 100-point system, descriptive tasting notes and winemaking that is not “natural”. I hope that it is not now about to be directed at those who are willing to pay more than $20.00 for a bottle or at those to whom they look for guidance.


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by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:4/4/2012 9:57:04 AM

I almost never visit Dr. Vino but I happen to have stumbled on that post a couple days ago while seeking inspiration, think I came away with the same, "Oh let's not have this be the next divide" feeling. Upon careful consideration, (which means about 45 seconds) I ended up with the conclusion that I simply can't imagine it would. Sure, it makes for fun (to some) blog banter and stirring of the pot but much like no one wants to read a weekly restaurant review on Mimi's Cafe or Denny's, they aren't going to want to read a magazine or newsletter full of reviews on mass market wines.


Outside of my blog I also write for our store newsletter and while we have over 10,000 people on that list the majority of sales generated from it are to hard working, but hardly wealthy people that much like myself spend an average of $10-$15 on their nightly bottles of wine. So of course all of our buyers feature a bunch of those daily drinkers in those pages but we also include those aspirational wines, the rare and special occasion bottles and I cannot tell you how many times, after a passion and praise filled review from one of us appears in the newsletter, people come in just to look at them. Gaze on the label and I can feel them coming up with reasons, or occasions, to buy them. We all kinda need that no? How depressing would a life full of Wednesdays, Mimi's and Jadot Beaujolais Village be?

Not The 1%
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/4/2012 12:27:08 PM

Spot on, Sam.

The uberwealthy don't need winewriters. They buy from fancy stores who keep the good stuff aside for their insider lists or they get on winery lists and spend hundreds and even thousands of dollars a bottle for wines because the wines are expensive and they are rich.

I met some of these folks at an auction dinner where I provided the wine. These young, fat, newly rich cats looked down their noses are my $50 Pinots. If it was not Mark Aubert, it was not good enough for them.

Now, I don't have any axe to grind with any winery that prices its wines in the stratosphere. The market allows them to do it.

But, most winewriters do not focus on those wines, and some of us rarely review them. In fact, the only way to review the "cultiest" of those wines is at the winery with the labels showing. That Parker and Tanzer do that has to raise questions of objectivity. Steve Heimofrf will taste those wines but not rate them. At CGCW, we say, "why bother if there is no buying guidance forthcoming".

So, for me, the notion that winewriters write only for the uberwealthy is silly. We may not live in the under $20 price range despite how much wine sells in that area because the folks who regurlarly read wine prose tend to be over $20 buyers. But I also like it that we get as much "love" mail when we uncover great buys as we do when we go bonkers over yet another three-digit Cabernet.

And, when I was doing newspaper columns, those writings necessarily focused on good values because that audience may have been regular bibers but they were not reading the LA Times or the Oakland Tribune to learn about Screaming Eagle or Ch. Latour.

by John
Posted on:4/4/2012 12:55:27 PM

I thought Tyler's piece was at best off the mark and at worst, pointless. Oh just a minute; I'd give it 80 points (and we know what that means, right?).

Ant then all the moaning about how wine writers don't write about "affordable" wines! Holy cow. You can't pitch a penny on the internet without hitting some "value wine," "wines under $20," "or "high QPR wine" blog. And they are all equally BORING. If I want to be bored I will look for wine buying advice on Cellar Tracker or Wine Searcher.

by Sherman
Posted on:4/4/2012 1:48:18 PM

Being a car guy much longer than I've been a wine guy, I've read most of the major car magazines for many years. Do I buy cars very often? No, I tend to own them for a long time, treat them well and get a lot of use from them. That doesn't mean that I don't like to read about the latest, the greatest and the most outlandish vehicles that the car industry can imagine. 

I've never spent multi $$$ on a supercar, but it's vicarious fun to experience them. I don't own a Honda but it's cool to read about Controlled Vortex Combustion Chamber and how that acronym gave rise to the name of a car (CVCC=Civic). And I do enjoy stayingon top of legislsation that will have an impact on my life.


Akin to wine, I study the articles about regions; love to hear about obscure varietals; and read about wines that I will most likely never drink. Good wine writing is about the totality of the wine experience -- there's more than enough to experience to keep one busy for many enjoyable years.

reviewing cheap wines
by harvey posert
Posted on:4/5/2012 10:01:36 AM

Having done pr for everything from Opus One to Charles Shaw, I am endlessly amazed that wine reviewers so seldom review wines under $10, including boxes, etc.  It must have some psychological reverberation, because most Americans are drinking these wines and would be pleased to have some experienced reactions.

Cheap Wine
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/5/2012 10:38:28 AM

Hi Harvey--

Thanks for stopping by. This topic is an interesting adjunct to the question of whether writers, especially the subscription-based critics, are writing for the 1%.

Whether we are or are not, I can tell you that my readers, and I am guessing the readers of all the newsletters, would have almost zero audience for box wines and Chuck Shaw. We do, as Steve Heimoff likes to point out very loudly, review wines in the lower price brackets when they come our ways, but I can tell you that few of them do come our ways and the standards by which we judge wines would almost always find those very cheap wines finishing out of the running.

Beyond that, even when I was writing in newspapers, neither my editor at the LA Times nor my editor at the Oakland Tribune wanted me playing in the verry cheap end of the market on more than rare occasions.

I even suggested to the Tribune that it sponsor a low-priced wine tasting as a way of broadening its coverage. The idea never went anywhere. Even the food editor at the time was drinkiing better wine than that and was more interested in the right buy in the $12-25 range than in the really cheap range. The argument went something like, "I don't need expert help with $5 wine".

That said, I think the topic is much better suited to newspapers than it is to subscriber wine publicatioins. I just cannot imagine Jon Bonne doing it however. Can you?

box wines
by Jerry Griffith
Posted on:4/6/2012 1:01:32 PM

I agree with Sherman.  There are no wine writers for box wines.  Why?  Nielsen reports nearly $800M in 3 and 5 liter boxe sales in 2011.  Who's buying?  I run into a fair number of box wine "closet drinkers"--drink but don't tell!  There's a real cultural bias out there regarding box wines that some expert should address properly and fairly.  There are greally good wines out there that are my daily fare.

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