AAWE, Economics Dept, New York University, 19 W 4th St, 6Fl., New York NY 10012aawe@wine-economics.org


A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks
Scribner, New York, 2011, 320 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-4391-9518-5 (paperback)

Reviewer: Neal D. Hulkower

Economically it may be the worst of times, but oenologically, it is the best. Winemaking technology has not only matured, ensuring higher quality, but has also been shared globally. I no longer approach an inexpensive unknown label, regardless of origin, with quite the same trepidation as I did in the 1970s. In his fourth book on vinous subjects, journalist George Taber chronicles the evolution over the past couple of decades that has resulted in reducing the gap in quality between the best bottles with high price tags and those with the lowest. Taber asserts and then illustrates that “[t]he chasm…has dramatically narrowed in the last generation” (p. 1). This pleasant volume, as agreeable to read as many of the inexpensive wines recommended therein are to drink, is divided into three parts plus a Guide to Best Buys. Part I, “A Global Business in Turmoil,” sets the tone by relating “embarrassing” instances in which so-called experts misidentified wines in blind tastings or fell prey to frauds. “Clearly, wine consumers should not be buying a bottle simply because it is expensive or because some famous person says it’s good. People should decide for themselves which wines to drink. . . . They may be pleasantly surprised by what they discover” (p. 9).

In Part II, “The Iconoclasts,” Taber introduces several characters who offer alternative approaches to understanding and determining taste preferences to assessing the value of medals awarded to wines, to packaging them in creative ways, and to critiquing them. A commanding knowledge of his subjects based on interviews, research, and literature reviews informs his stories, which sustain an engaging personal tone. For example, we learn about Tim Hanni, who has divided tasters into four phenotypes, “the combination of physiological and behavioral traits someone exhibits when it comes to taste” (p. 37). These are sweet; hypersensitive, preferring “delicacy and finesse”; sensitive or more balanced; and tolerant, able to enjoy more intensive flavors. A test is included that allows the reader to find out what his or her Taste Sensitivity Quotient is. I took this test and followed up with a slightly more thorough evaluation on Hanni’s web site. As someone with extremely eclectic, even promiscuous, tastes in both food and wine, I found the result irrelevant and even naïve.

Part III tells several tales of some of the most prominent “Wine Revolutionaries” who are filling shelves with inexpensive, though in my opinion not always good-value, wine. We learn the histories of “Two-Buck Chuck,” the creation of Fred Franzia of California’s Central Coast, and John Casella’s [yellow tail] from Australia. “The Next Giant of Bargain Wines” tells the tale of the emerging wine industry in China, which some cognoscenti believe will produce rivals to the best of France.

Taber’s “Guide to Best Buys” lists his preferences in 34 categories, mostly varietals, for wines costing $10 or less, and a couple of splurge bottles between $10 and $20. He also lists bargain brands from a dozen regions around the world and concludes with his picks for boxed wines. I read the 128 pages nodding in agreement with many of the recommendations, especially for bottles from Washington State, Spain, and the Southern Hemisphere, and only occasionally shaking my head in disagreement. I’ve never been enamored of “Two-Buck Chuck,” for example.

With the statement “Far too many winemakers stress the importance of their terroir to charge more” (p. 162), Taber stakes out a position with the “antiterroirists” in the ongoing dialectic and foreshadows the plaints in the Occupy Wine manifesto (http://wineeconomist.com/2011/12/06/occupy-napa-andsonoma-and-burgundy-and-bordeaux/). With this volume, he has become an important advocate for reasonably priced wines, but he is no ideologue. He also drinks and appreciates the best wine that the world has to offer but, like the 99% of us, cannot drink them every day.

A big disappointment for me, a recent transplant to McMinnville and committed “locapour,” is the lack of a worthy contender from Oregon for a bargain wine under $10. Taber’s recommendations include 10 Washington/Oregon bargain brands, yet none of the ones listed originate at an Oregon winery. Only Castle Rock, which offers a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, is mentioned. A Maysara Roseena from the McMinnville AVA is a splurge off-dry rosé at $14. “Both Washington and Oregon have many boutique wineries that charge premium prices, so it can be difficult to find wines under $10” (p. 277). I confirmed this after tasting a 2008 Rascal Pinot Noir and a 2009 Rascal Pinot Gris, both on sale for $5.99, regularly $7.99. Although the nose of the pinot noir exhibited some of the characteristics typical of a Willamette Valley product, hints of earth, dark fruit, dried herbs, hay, and coffee, the overall impression was simple and fairly muted. The taste was lifeless ending in a short watery finish. Initially, the pinot gris made a bit better impression with lots of pear on the nose and an ordinary taste but decent finish. The next day was a different story, with everything out of whack. My desire to support the local economy yet drink well for less has not yet reached a happy equilibrium. The search goes on. In the meantime, I find some comfort in the advice of Edmund Burke in A Letter to a Noble Lord, “Expense, and great expense, may be an essential part in true economy. If parsimony were to be considered as one of the kinds of that virtue, there is however another and a higher economy. Economy is a distributive virtue, and consists not in saving, but in selection.”

I enthusiastically recommend Taber’s latest treatise on wines. It is blessedly devoid of purple prose. It represents solid journalism addressing the “who what why where” of the current and emerging bargain wine scene. Finally, it presents one worldly taster’s advice on what to drink while not spending a fortune. But things are rapidly changing. With the economy likely to stay in the doldrums for a while,  established wineries are creating less expensive labels to stay afloat and Taber’s recommendations may soon be dated. So, like the wines it extols, this book should be consumed young.

Neal D. Hulkower
McMinnville, OR