Updated: Apr 18, 2020
Or, how to drink shit wine when you have to and why it's not always such a bad thing.
It happens to all of us. We end up at a friend's house for a dinner party. You come in the door. They take your coat and throw it on a guest bed or something. You make it to the kitchen.
I usually start with a beer so I can subtly and non-douchely assess the situation. Sometimes, I drink beer all night.
But this is a common scenario. You've ended up in a situation where your hosts are serving wine that in which arsenic is a trace ingredient or that contains food colouring.
What do you do?
If only Larry David was a wino...
You can start with beer, sure. But the household that is serving wine of this calibre surely is serving Coors Banquet at best or some kind of Pinesol-muddled IPA. You've got grief. And by the time dinner rolls around, you're going to need wine, if just for variety's sake.
This is perhaps the ideal situation to, as they say, check yourself before you wreck yourself.
You see, I recall working the floor as a sommelier, and occasionally, I would get asked by guests for some god-awful products. Beringer White Zinfandel. Sutter Home White Zinfandel. The Little Penguin Merlot. Yellow Tail Shiraz. And then there are the high-end products of food colouring. Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon is probably the worst culprit. I'll get into that in more detail down the road. But it's genuinely high-end ketchup, and I have no bias, trust me on this.
There's a lesson to be learned here, though. See, as much as I am comfortable panning wines that are more commercially-produced beverage than grown-in-the-ground vine derived, I think it's important to be honest about what's going on here and give everyone a break.
You see, there's no set of ingredients on a wine label. With a few exceptions, of course. But there really is no public information that is easily available to the consumer when it comes to the method of production of their alcoholic beverages. I am talking about the general consumer here. Maybe that's not you. But it should matter to you regardless, and here's why:
People are doing the best they can. I mean, hypothetically, you could argue against that, but then I'd say that if they could have done better, they would have, hence, they did the best they could in that moment. I recognize that they may do better at a later date and time, but at any particular moment, a person is doing the best they are able to do. And this includes wine.
How is a person who wants to have some friends and family over and who does not spend their spare time googling bottles and wineries and wine critics and wine blogs supposed to know what's good? Maybe they don't even drink wine more a couple times a month. Honestly. If it's not an interest to them, how the hell do they know what's good and what's not?
The tendency in this situation is to slip down to the herd wines. And as much as I could point out all the problems with the herd-targeted wine products, people in this category who consume wine rarely and have never thought about it much sometimes just assume that this is how wine tastes and that this must be decent wine. It's like Uncle Ben's. If you grew up seeing an Uncle Ben's package every time you ate rice and didn't enter the culinary world, you might just think that's what all rice tastes like.
This is where you come in. Slowly. Because even though you are sophisticated and wine-smart and cool and knowledgeable, this caper requires a slow and gentle hand. You must do your best to take this Uncle Ben's eating family and introduce them to risotto. Real risotto.
One thing that bothers me a lot about sommeliers and wine people is that while they might make fun of shit wines, most of them are somehow involved in wine sales, or in activities that promote the sales of wine to someone, even if that direct transaction is a degree or two removed. And if that's the case, then that means that people who drink wine have to buy their products for their ventures to be successful. And wouldn't it be better if more people appreciated their wines immensely? And how are we going to get more people to appreciate these wines? Well, we have to teach them, I guess. We have to train them. And the thing is, some of these people like the YellowTails and Little Penguins.
Now, as a sommelier or heavy wine aficionado, you can try the rip the bandaid off technique. You can try the belittling technique. You can try the force feed technique. But you can also check yourself and your ego before you ruin your friendship and come down to their level for a second.
Why don't you just drink some shit wine once in a while? Especially if it's given to you! Anthony Bourdain, may he rest in peace, described our bodies not as temples, but as amusement parks. They are designed to process a diverse range of experience. And you know what, if wine is meant to be enjoyed with friends, family and company, and they're on the Dumbo™ ride and I'm on Splash Mountain™, then goddammit, I want to help them enjoy the unbelievable ride that I'm on that they don't even know exists. And in order to do that, I need to know what their baseline is. And in order to do that, I not only have to just taste YellowTail and The Little Penguin and Sutter Home, I need to bloody well understand them. I need to meditate on what this consumer sees in this wine and really put myself in their shoes before I am going to be able to start bridging the gap. I need to know the ride I am going to take them on between Dumbo™ and Splash Mountain™.
So we're back at the dinner party.
"Would you like some wine with dinner?"
Yes, I would. You're goddamn right I would. Because once I get to know this wine, I'll know exactly what I'm going to bring to your house the next time I come over, and the time after that. And if I play it right, one more person in this world is going to be happy and willing to support more good and honest wine producers, more of the time.
If a good bottle offered to you is a gift, then a bad bottle is a responsibility.
Never look a winehorse in the mouth.