Sommeliers. Wine students. Restaurateurs. Wine salespeople. Wine instructors.
Total beginners. People who drink wine who literally just want to understand that like Gala & Granny Smith, there are different kinds of grapes. That simple fact.
The two groups of people that I just mentioned. There is a shitload of information and content out there for them. It is not difficult to take your first baby steps with wine education. And it is not difficult to obtain a high level of knowledge just by using the internet and getting woke to some seriously in-depth wine professionals if you are serious about your own education.
But, what about everybody in between? What about everyone who's just trying to get a bottle?
I get depressed right around this time for two reasons. The first reason is that I am afraid that I cannot possibly help these people. The second reason is related to the first, and is that though I may have been trying to speak to these people, that I have also failed, and have devolved into the very thing whose lack of existence I am now lamenting.
I became the very thing I was mocking. At least that experience might help me get some more inspiration for that novel I've been working on for quite some time now.
Seriously, though. I had somebody I used to hang out with in bars while I was peddling my songs at open mics in Ontario a few years back tell me the other day that they had two rules for themselves when it came to wine. Those rules were: "I like wines from Chile and Argentina" and "I seem to get luckier if I spend more than $15."
I thought this was fucking brilliant. Because that's real life for most wine drinkers out there. Especially in places where wine must be purchased either from a government-run monopoly or from a huge-corporation-run near-monopoly. In other words, most of North America.
I don't know if we could ever measure it, but the chance of getting real help from a wine professional who speaks an official language during a wine shopping experience is pretty much slim-to-none, the way I see it. But that's when wine drinkers need us the most. And we are almost NEVER there for them.
HOW DO WE FIX THAT?
Honestly, I want to know how. Between huge wine companies producing millions of cases, seemingly never running out of wine, making it way easier for retailers to carry their products on top of actually just paying for the shelf space and retailers who care only about cost-benefit analyses and pumping out case deals, the consumer has a brutal time trying to drink something exciting, interesting, and somewhat honest. No. They won't do that. BECAUSE THEY CAN'T.
Because they aren't rewarded for doing so in any way at all. It's easy for me to say, "well, they could find a good wine shop, or do this or do that...", but I live in Vancouver. It's a progressive, big enough city with an international influence, an unbelievable bounty of culinary ingredients growing in the wild, a solid restaurant scene, a burgeoning and significant collection of wine regions with a ton of great professionals running them, and liquor laws that allow roughly 50% of retailers to be private, work with importers and list whatever wines they want. Inevitably, we have some excellent independent retailers. It's fucking unbelievable. Sure, it might not be New York City or London, but dammit, it's not so bad. It beats Billings, Montana. It beats anywhere in poor little Ontario with their government-run monopoly stores. And that's sad, because Ontario has a wonderful wine industry and few places other than the wineries themselves or restaurants for people to find them. It genuinely sucks.
Today, I drove 35 minutes to a shop and picked up a case of 12 different natural/minimal intervention wines from around the world.
"Ohhhh congratulations, give yourself a pat on the back, Steven, do you also want us to know how many people of colour you hang out with and how many gay friends you have?"
Ya, I hear you out there. Even if you're just in my head or on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
That's not the point.
The point is that I am lucky enough to be able to do that. Drive 35 minutes and have more wine that I would die to taste at my fingertips than I could possibly consume in one shop. And I could have gone somewhere else nearby.
If I lived an hour away, I would have had to drive an 1 hour and 35 minutes to do the same thing. And if I lived 2 hours away, I would have had to drive 2 hours and 35 minutes to do the same thing.
And if I lived on Hilton Head Island, I don't think it would be that much better. Please somebody prove me wrong.
I also spent a shitload of dough on a few bottles of natural wine which, yes, I am very much enjoying as we speak, but I'd say it falls on the chuggable side of drinking atmosphere and certainly doesn't hit you like a $50 ton of bricks bottle after bottle. What I spent on average on one bottle of natural wine today, many people wouldn't spend on 3 bottles. Or maybe even 4 bottles.
This is also a little troubling. It's starting to feel like a political campaign. All of the options are bad, and the ones that sound good are delusional to try and snag votes. Fuck me.
I am tired of just working for the the upper-middle class, no disrespect. Because they're not the only people who drink wine. And trying to get them off of Rombauer and Cannonball and Belle Glos and onto Ridge and I don't even know what else isn't that easy. I think I would rather just help somebody get out of a bottle of Diabolica or Apothic and into a $12 bottle of something just a little cleaner from Portugal or Spain or Italy or France or somewhere else. There's something beautiful about being thrifty in this scenario. If I can save someone money and get them to drink something that's just a little cleaner, a little more honest, a little less made in the lab, and a little more wine-like, then everybody wins.
I would rather drink a bottle of the cheapest wine from the biggest producer in Italy or France or Portugal or Spain or Germany or anywhere in Europe than from the United States or Canada. (I would still drink that bottle from the United States or Canada if somebody served it to me). Why? Because I believe that the lowest common denominator in the EU is a little bit better, a little bit cleaner, a little bit more honest than in the US or Canada at the moment. Because there's a history there and some standards there that don't exist in the same way in the new world. That isn't to say that I don't love the experimentation of new world wine regions. It's amazing. But at the lowest common denominator, big companies care about making money in any way that they can get away with.
Here's my favourite example. I was doing some Googling™ a couple years back trying to find information on a couple of wines. One of them was a $27 Cabernet Sauvignon (Canadian dollars in Canada) from the "California" appellation. The other was a wine in a Tetra Pak™ called the French Rabbit. I found more information on the areas and vineyards from which the FUCKING FRENCH RABBIT was sourced than I found from this so-called fledgling California virtual brand. Fuck me. Again.
The wine industry, in many ways, like many other industries, communicates with its consumers on a "need to know" basis. And many consumers just don't need to know. By law. The beautiful thing about Europe is that many wines sell for more money and at a higher clip if they meet standards that allow them to qualify for "need to know" status, this being the "appellation of origin" or "denomination of origin" system that is put on their labels to indicate where they are from and a little bit about how they were made. Now, I don't know if you've been paying attention, but as long as companies in the USA and Canada don't HAVE to do that to sell wine at a high price, they won't. Yes, many producers are already utilizing appellations in new world regions. But it's not quite the same. See, take a declassified wine in France and call it "Vin de France" and you've probably got a wine on your hands that you could sell for less than five euros. There might be a few exceptions. But take this to California, and you've got Cannonball and the Prisoner and a host of other wines that go for $25 plus. These wines are celebrated, but there is an inherent ignorance involved. It drives me mental. California is almost the same size as France.
Does anyone see what I am driving at here? I'm not on a moral "all or nothing" pedestal. I'm looking at the lowest common denominator and trying to figure out what would be a tangible way for the beginning or fledgling wine drinker with an interest in learning to start tasting something real. And the way I see it, for many, the only way is through cheap European wines. At least there are laws that we can trust a little.
Otherwise, we're left to trust the relatively unregulated new-world beverage companies who take up the bulk of shelf space at Walmart, gas stations, liquor stores, corners stores, grocery stores, and government monopoly stores.
And did I mention that in the USA the same body that governs gun control governs wine?
I think I've distilled this down enough for now. If you're new to wine, want to get more acquainted, don't want to break the bank every single time you shop, want to start reading tangible information on the labels of the wines you purchase, and want to begin to understand some of the older traditions in winemaking, marketing, and drinking, then just drink European wines for a while.
That's my only piece of advice. For now.