If you were given a blind taste test, could you tell the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle or even a $50 bottle? Last year, I listened to a Freakonomics podcast, in which Steve Levitt set out to determine if his friends and colleagues could tell the difference between good wine and swill and the results of the experiment confirmed what I’ve always suspected about many wine snobs: they’re full of crap.
Leavitt held a dinner party and invited fellow wine enthusiasts to taste a variety of wines without letting them see the labels. But he threw them a curveball by telling them that inexpensive wines were $50 bottles, and, predictably, everyone in the group scored the bogus $50 wines higher than the authentically pricey ones, which Leavitt introduced as cheap or mid-price range.
In the podcast, the authors also cite Robin Goldstein, who published a study detailing research from 6,000 blind wine tests that concluded that when people don’t know the price of the wine, they do not derive any additional enjoyment from expensive wines compared to cheaper ones. So while many people need to know they’re drinking an expensive wine to enjoy it, I’m the opposite – I really enjoy a wine if I get a good deal on it.I’m not claiming that all wines are created equal, but my point here is that you shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money for decent wine. I spent three months in Europe this year, mostly in the Mediterranean, and now that I’m back in the U.S., it’s depressing how wine is valued as a treat or a luxury item in most restaurants Stateside. Even a glass of crap or mediocre wine in most restaurants is going to set you back at least $5. But in Spain, Italy, Greece and in many other parts of the world, you can drink basic table wine for next to nothing.
In Praise of Cheap Wine
In Palma de Mallorca, I had a very nice glass of Spanish wine, with a generous pour, at the Bar Major (see right) in an indoor market for all of 1€. At the Osteria Da Anguilinu, a very nice little restaurant in Lecce, Italy, a quarter liter of the house wine also costs, you guessed it, 1€ (See video below). In the south of France, you can walk into a supermarket and fill your own jug with table wine for, again, 1€. And on the Greek island of Samos, we bought some delicious bottles of sweet local wine from a vintner named Manolis, right off the back of his truck for 4€ and were later told that we got ripped off. (See video below)
In Italy and Greece, even if you’re eating on a beach or in another place with a great view, you can still usually order an inexpensive carafe of table wine. And to be clear, when I refer to cheap wine here, I’m talking about drinkable stuff, not the jug wine you see alcoholics throwing back in bus terminals and alleyways.
But here in the good old U.S.A., glasses and bottles of wine cost a pretty penny. Even at Noodles & Company, a fast food joint, a glass of mediocre wine will cost you nearly $6 with tax. Why?
I think the primary reason is that wine isn’t the deeply ingrained part of our culture that it is in European countries, where babies practically guzzle the stuff from their bottles. Here, wine is still associated with the Grey Poupon country club set, but on the other side of the pond, everyone drinks it, no matter whether they clean sewers or run a multinational company.
U.S. business owners also tend to price their food reasonably to try to entice customers while hoping to make a larger profit margin off the drinks. When customers peruse a restaurant’s menu, either in person or online, they tend to formulate an opinion on how pricey it is based on the food prices, even though the drinks can cost nearly as much.
Also, we don’t consume the same volume of wine that Europeans do, so there is no volume discount. According to the Wine Institute, Americans drink just 9.4 liters of wine per capita annually, compared to 45.7 liters in France, 42.1 in Italy and 27 liters in Greece. Interestingly enough, those party animals in the Vatican top the chart with a whopping 54 liters consumed per person per year.
The same volume discount concept applies to beer in beer-drinking countries. In most parts of Germany, you can buy a half-liter mug of great beer for about €3-4, because bars assume you’ll be drinking several of them. So if we want cheaper wine and beer, we apparently need to drink much more of both.
Perhaps we need a political candidate to draw attention to this problem in the same way Jimmy McMillan did with his The Rent is Too Damn High Party candidacies for governor and senator in New York State. I don’t see a The Wine Is Too Damn Expensive party candidate getting into the White House anytime soon, but it can’t hurt.
Of course, there are other items that are very cheap here and ridiculously expensive in Europe, like car rentals and the price of gas, for example. Given the choice between cheap alcohol and cheap gas, I would be hard pressed to pick between the two. How about you?
(First image by Roger Salz on Flickr, second image and videos by Dave Seminara)