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The soft bigotry of tasting inexpensive wine



If wine tasters could be categorized into political categories, I guess you’d call me a liberal. By that, I mean that all wines have the right to be taken seriously, in terms of their own aspirations and self-identity. No wine should be automatically dismissed because it’s inexpensive. As in the case of Justice, the only fair way to evaluate a wine is to do it blind.


This is why I never did turn into a snob, even after 25 years in the trenches as a wine critic. Sure, I could appreciate Harlan, or Colgin or Screaming Eagle, and when I rated them, it was usually with high scores. And while I didn’t formally review non-California wines, for the better part of two decades I tasted every one of the world’s most valuable wines, from Romanée-Conti and Grange Hermitage to Guigal’s LaLas, Petrus and the First Growths. I completely understood what it took to produce wines of that quality and complexity, and I rewarded them accordingly.

But I always could also appreciate a good, affordable wine. I never shuddered just because something was produced in high volume, or because it wasn’t an elite, estate-bottled wine. That didn’t bother me, anymore than it bothers me that some of my neighbors in Oakland are rich while others are struggling and poor. I just felt you have to take everyone for what they are. And that’s how I feel about wine.

My career as a critic was shaped by this attitude. It was reinforced by the basic philosophy of Wine Enthusiast. The magazine could have gone in a direction of elitism, the way the competition did, but very early on the decision was taken to make it more of a “people’s” magazine than one for collectors. This is a tricky game to play if you hope to be taken seriously by wine buffs. On the one hand, you don’t want to present yourself as ignorant and pedestrian, devoid of the taste and discernment required to appreciate great wine. On the other hand, you don’t want “ordinary” wine drinkers, whom you respect, to feel left out of the conversation. You want to appeal to both the aspirational crowd and the folks who are just looking for a nice $12 wine without turning  off either side.

If I had any doubts about my approach, they were dispelled through blind tasting. There were times, in large flights, I preferred a $25 wine to a $250 wine. At first, that was a humbling, almost embarrassing experience. But after a while, I grew to expect it. It was almost a badge of honor, because it proved that I hadn’t been mesmerized by labels, or reputations, or whatever trend was then in vogue. Some of my readers will know exactly what I mean when I remind them that some very famous “palates” have been hoisted on their own petards through blind tasting, when what they said was contradicted by what they actually found.

If I had to choose between drinking only expensive wine or inexpensive wine for the rest of my life, I’d choose the former. Fortunately, I don’t have to. If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it around and try to change the attitude of elitists who will only drink this, or that, or something else, and tell everyone else to do the same. That’s what the writer Michael Gerson calls “the soft bigotry of expectations,” which means: You’ve made up your mind about the wine before you even taste it.

  1. Good for you, Steve, for taking this one on. As Jose Diaz has repeatedly said about music, “There are only two kinds: good and bad.” The same holds true for wine.

    I’ll never forget the woman, who bent her head down so she could look over her glasses to see me. She wanted me to pour more wine for her… her long red pointed fingernail tap, tap, tapping the wine menu on the bar’s counter top… “I’ll have the cab sauuuuuv.”

    I thought, “Too funny.” My smile was not what she thought it was. I was splitting a gut inside; her memory has been sealed in cement.

  2. James Rego says:

    Hey Steve, you are really missed at the Wine Enthusiast! In case you haven’t noticed , there is one new reviewer at the magazine who is going to require a glossary of terms to decipher what it is he is trying to convey;otherwise, his comments will forever be lost in the fog! Best wishes.

  3. Bravisimo, arriba, encore, taste some more.

  4. Bob Henry says:


    On the subject of self-hoisting, I still have trouble with this quote from you:

    “… a score … (… under Wine Enthusiast’s rules) … [of] … 80 or 81 ([is] barely drinkable) … In general you can say that any wine I review that scores between 80-84 points is not one I would wish to drink; …”

    From “Being kind to mediocre wine”


    “Barely drinkable”? “Not one I would wish to drink”?

    When did wines rating 84 points become swill? Plonk?

    84 points is not far removed from your glass ceiling of “90 points” for that soul-satisfying rosé you drink on a warm, muggy night after a long, tiring work day.


    ~~ Bob

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