California needs to be careful it doesn’t price itself out of the market
California wine is just too expensive. It really is. Not all of it, to be sure. There’s a lot of expensive wine that’s worth the price. But there’s a ton of badly made, mediocre wine that will set you back an arm and a leg, and that’s a real drag.
Of course, nobody’s forced to buy overpriced wine, and I don’t have any sympathy at all for people who are so ignorant or devoid of taste that they willingly plonk down $30, $40 or more for a wine that I would score, at best, 84 points. That’s their problem, and if they like what they’re getting, fine. But I can tell you that when I give a low score to an expensive faulty wine, it makes me mad.
The first thing I wonder is, does the winery team even have the slightest clue their stuff is average, at best? If they know, then they’re engaging in very ugly, nefarious behavior–all the more awful when the wine is accompanied by glowing “winemaker notes” telling us how glorious and rare it is.
If the winery team is unaware they’re sending out plonk, they should be fired. I was having this conversation yesterday with someone who works in marketing for a big winery. I wondered how it’s possible to have to sell something you know isn’t very good, and still keep your soul. Yes, your “soul,” meaning–not what some religious people say–but your integrity, conscience, love of truth. If your job is to sell something you know, in your heart of hearts, isn’t good, but you spend your time trying to convince people it is, then you’ve lost something you used to treasure when you were young. I can only imagine the rationalization that people engage in to dull the pain. I suppose a fat paycheck helps to narcotize.
I shouldn’t let my blood pressure be affected by a bad bottle of $50 wine, but I can’t help it. I think, “What in the world is wrong with you [meaning the producer]? What were you thinking?” The other thought that always follows is, how can this winery remain in business? Sometimes, when I review a bad expensive wine, I’ll go into Wine Enthusiast’s database (which you can access for free) and look at the winery’s track record. More often than not, these wineries have been producing dismal stuff, at inflated prices, year after year after year. How is this possible? Who buys it? Don’t they know that a 16% Syrah that tastes like sugared asparagus is a total ripoff? That a $36 Petite Sirah that tastes like melted jam is a joke? That a $55 Cabernet with nothing but caramelized oak is an insult? That it’s insane to pay $50 for a Port-style wine (in a half-bottle, at that) that’s thin and lacking in anything but sugar? That if you fork out $30 for a Chardonnay that tastes like buttered popcorn, you should have your head examined? These are all real examples from this past week, although obviously I’m not going to name names. And if I went back over the last year, I could write a book called “500 wines you should hate because they’re not only boring, but they’re trying to rob you blind.”
It all leads to a final question. Let’s say I blind taste a wine, think it’s pretty dumb and simple, but that I could imagine drinking it in a paper cup at a party some Saturday night and not actually throwing up. I give it 83 points. Then I see it costs $6 retail. I still think it’s a pretty boring wine, and I won’t adjust the score, but I will soften my language to suggest it might be a good buy for someone who’s looking to get off cheap. That kind of wine doesn’t make me angry. I’ll think, “Okay, I wouldn’t buy it, but at least the producer doesn’t have hubris, and millions of Americans will benefit from this cheap wine.” But those expensive ones really piss me off.
When you’ve been a critic for a while, as I have, it’s a lesson in humility. You realize that a lot of people must like stuff that you find execrable, because these wineries just keep on cranking it out. That makes me realize it’s just my opinion. But I know what I know, and I believe that what I think I know is true. There’s an awful lot of bad California wine out there that’s absurdly priced, and I wonder how long it can go on.