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I Smell a #Slatepitch

2011 November 8
by Mike

So Slate ran a piece last week saying that anyone who spends more than $3 on a bottle of wine is a sucker and that wine connoisseurship is bunk. A number of people emailed me to express their surprise that Slate would publish such an article. I was going to refrain from commenting on it, but since the author, Brian Palmer (whom I don’t know) took a swipe at me, I decided it would be okay to post a response. Slate encourages vigorous debate, so I’m sure neither Palmer nor the editors will be too offended when I say that, even by the dismal standards of faux-populist wine writing, this was a really silly article—so silly, in fact, that I have trouble believing it was meant to be taken seriously. Slate is known for its contrarian disposition, an editorial tic that has even inspired a popular Twitter meme called #slatepitches. Palmer’s piece is riddled with so much contrarian claptrap that I can’t help but wonder if it was intended as self-parody, the ultimate #slatepitch.

Palmer observes that sales of $3 and under wines have dropped sharply since 1995, while sales of $14 and over wines have increased dramatically. The obvious explanation for these trends is that millions of Americans have become oenophiles in the last 16 years and have scaled up as they have gotten deeper into wine. People who become serious about cycling inevitably gravitate to pricier, better-made bikes; the same is true with wine. But, of course, the obvious explanation doesn’t lend itself to a rant against wine connoisseurship, so Palmer instead spins what amounts to a conspiracy theory—critics like me have deceived consumers into believing that there is a connection between quality and price and that dirt-cheap wines are no good.

Palmer suggests that there is no relationship between quality and price—that the difference between a $3 wine and a $30 wine is completely illusory. He cites studies “proving that our appreciation of a wine depends on how much we think it costs.” He mentions other studies showing that “laymen actually prefer cheaper wines.” He says that critics might be able to distinguish expensive wines from cheap ones in blind tastings, but that’s only because they have “gotten very good at sniffing out the traits that the wine industry thinks entitle them [sic] to more money.” So the pros are fooling themselves, too. Palmer is essentially saying that the difference between a $5 pinot noir and a Rousseau Chambertin exists only in our heads. Yep, and there’s no difference between a supermarket tomato and a locally grown heirloom, no difference between a McDonald’s hamburger and a Lobel’s porterhouse, no difference between Bud Light and Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA. It is when you extrapolate Palmer’s argument in this way that you appreciate just how daft it is, and you ask yourself, “He can’t really believe this BS, can he?”

I strongly suspect that he doesn’t. While extolling the virtues of $3 and under wines, Palmer pointedly refuses to recommend any, which suggests to me that he knows he’s peddling nonsense and doesn’t want to pin himself down by naming any names (or could it be that he’s not actually a wine drinker? There’s nothing in the article that indicates he is speaking from experience, which is kind of peculiar). I agree with Palmer that people who can’t taste the difference between $3 wines and $30 wines should save their shekels and drink the cheap stuff. But to suggest, as he does, that qualitative distinctions don’t exist in the realm of wine and that there is no correlation between price and quality is so asinine that I have to think these claims were made in jest.  The piece strikes me as a case study in contrarianism run amok, so much so that I am hoping it was meant as a spoof—Slate just poking fun at itself. Ignore the wine snobs: $3 industrial swill offers all the drinking pleasure you need! Really, it is the perfect #slatepitch.

A site called Young Winos of LA has an excellent takedown of Palmer’s article that is well worth a look. While you are reading that, I’m off to finish a piece explaining why Wonder Bread is the only bread you should ever buy.

24 Responses leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011

    Joe,

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

    I think you are right–as with so much that is published online, it is all about the pageviews. But Palmer did succeed in getting a rise out of all of us and in drawing a huge number of eyeballs to the article, so I guess you could say mission accomplished.

  2. November 21, 2011

    Mike, well done — your response to Palmer’s ridiculous article is intelligent, classy, and completely sans “sour grapes” (pardon the pun, but it’s too fitting).

    I was outraged after reading Palmer’s piece, then sat back a moment and realized the motivation for writing such drivel was for the express purpose of creating outrage among wine geeks / journalists / bloggers, in turn driving attention — and links — to himself (and Slate.com). In other words, all in the name of pageviews. Unfortunately, it worked — this time. Let’s see how he / Slate executes the follow-up.

  3. Brad Wood permalink
    November 16, 2011

    I had occasion recently to recall my introduction to fine wine, somewhat before I was old enough to purchase it (in California, you must be at least 21). At home the family would buy Almaden in jugs, and I might be permitted the odd taste (the philosophy being better the kid try it at home than sneak it somewhere else).

    My father did custom audio and other home electronics installations, and one of his clients was the late actor Lawrence Harvey. Harvey drank a lot of wine, all day long, and preferred white Burgundies. Allegedly he purchased the entire output each year from a small Cotes de Nuits vineyard via an importer here and had it privately labeled. Once in a while he bestowed a bottle on my father.

    The instant I tasted this wine I was amazed and delighted. It was so incredibly better than the customary plonk. I was “hooked”. And I had utterly no idea how much it cost, nor was I subject to propaganda about how good it was supposed to be.

    As soon as I could buy it I started to drink wine, and was extremely fortunate to live a few blocks from a store that had outstanding selections. The year was 1969, just before about everyone and their maiden aunt started to discover wine. I was able to barely afford some things that are now the province of billionaires. How about 1962 DRC Richebourg for 18 bucks?

  4. David Schildknecht permalink
    November 16, 2011

    I didn’t see anyone here having pointed out – forgive me if I overlooked this in haste – that at least for imported wines, production costs (notably the price of a glass bottle with even sub-standard bottle-closure); ocean freight; taxes; and at least two tiers of what’s usually three mark-ups virtually precludes $3 wine other than as a loss-leader and certainly allows for no more than a few cents ex-cellar price for the bottle’s contents. Scarcely any imported wine that was legitimately grown (as opposed to manufactured) and was sold with even minimal profit to its grower would be likely to land on a U.S. retail shelf for $3.

    I wrote a column a couple of years ago on “debunking the debunkers” that wine seems so inescapable to attract, but obviously this instance isn’t worth an intelligent person’s time to debunk. The think worth banging one’s head over is the disturbing fact that it appeared where it did. That said, I’ve read a lot of drivel in recent years in once-trusted places (needless to say hardly just about wine).

  5. November 14, 2011

    Sharon, Thanks for dropping by and for the comment; appreciate the very kind words. I did see that Jon’s excellent post drew a lot of angry comments. Have you checked out the comments section for the Slate article? It makes for more satisfying reading; a number of people blasted the piece. But wine is always an easy target–it hasn’t entirely shed that elitist image, and at a time of economic distress, I guess it gives people an excuse to vent. And, yes, the crazy prices don’t help. I just wish they’d find other hobbyists to pillory–like cigar smokers, or Scotch drinkers. For once, leave us wine folk alone.

  6. November 12, 2011

    Mike, I am glad you responded to that article, and in a place of sense. Jon Bonné’s piece in Inside SF on this theme attracted over a hundred angry come-downs, which was frustrating.

    Where do these picayune wine assessors come from? How on earth can they ignore the variables present in any given wine?

    I once again applaud your reasonable and persuasive approach in likening it to biking. And in pointing toward the increasing knowledge of wine as an explanation for paying more.

    Not sure how to field the angry people, however. It’s true that a hurdle really is the arbitrary pricing of wine past a certain point ($30? $50?).

    But unfortunately, when we’re comfortable with the juice, we tend sometimes to know what we prefer and not buy on hype, points, labels or other things that might steer tyros astray (or guide them). My latest $60 bottle was 1986 Château Simone red. It was so pretty. It might not immediately have leapt out to a shopper, or perhaps its taste would not have flushed with a steakhouse red.

    Anyway, I ramble, to my detriment. I’d like to thank you for your ever-readable, ever-clearheaded writing.

  7. Robin C permalink
    November 9, 2011

    I recently purchased the cheapest bottle of white wine they had at my grocery store to use in making a sauce. It was a pinot grigio which I generally don’t care for. I sampled the wine and I liked it. It was a revelatory experience for me. Not that I’ve ever bought anything that inexpensive again and not that I think that Mr. Palmer knows what he’s talking about, but just an interesting aside.

  8. November 9, 2011

    Let’s see, we replace the lm with rk…
    Or maybe it’s a new pseudonym for Andy Borowitz.

  9. John Anderson permalink
    November 9, 2011

    As a Ag producer with some experience in wine grape production, I question how many regions could afford to produce grapes and wine that sell for $3.00.

    I would expect that price point would be met primarily by where it is now, the hot, big yield producing regions of California, and by foreign low cost producers. The lower yielding but higher quality producing areas would find a better use for their assets and time, thus considerably lowering wine production in the US.

  10. Bill Klapp permalink
    November 9, 2011

    Mike, well-done, but shouldn’t the title have been, “Fe-fi-fo-fum, I smell a #slatepitch!”?

  11. November 9, 2011

    Mike, I am SO GLAD that you responded to this article!! I find it somewhat hard to believe that the article was written completely in jest, although you’re right that it is so wildly off-base that it seems impossible anyone could truly believe it. My blood was boiling when I read it, but one of my friends posted it on Facebook as “proof” that cheap wine is good. Clearly, some people took it seriously! Regardless, I hope you’re right. I think my support of your writing also makes it impossible for me to believe that Slate would hire someone – even for one article – who could so completely undermine everything you that have ever written. Let’s hope it’s one big spoof, and Slate hasn’t lost its mind. As for you, keep up the excellent writing!

  12. November 8, 2011

    Thanks everyone for the comments; much appreciated.

    Steve, I don’t know if he’s going to be writing about wine regularly for Slate. But with this piece, he sort of boxed himself into a corner–if he sincerely believes that no one should pay more than $3 for a bottle of wine, that severely limits the range of wines he can discuss.

    John, I’m not sure that the piece was that overtly political. You may well be right, however, about the sensationalism. If there was another motivation besides just hyper-contrarianism, I suspect it was a desire to stir the pot and generate a lot of hits (and as you know, hits are the coin of the realm in online journalism).

    Blake, I think you are absolutely right. While the piece has infuriated oenophiles (check out the comments section if you haven’t yet done so), it has undoubtedly given a lot of readers the validation they seek. For people who drink wine just for the buzz, and who don’t really care to think about what’s in their glass and don’t want to spend more than a couple of bucks to achieve that buzz, an article like this offers assurance that they’ve got the right attitude, etc.

  13. Dan McCallum permalink
    November 8, 2011

    I’ll submit that the “dismal standards of faux-populist wine writing” are an outcome of the dismal standards of faux-populist wine reviewing. Starting with the notion of a hundred point scale with a mean of 89 or so. Re-basing statistical arrays for populist appeal is an oft-employed canard to avoid confronting the apparently too dire recognition that half of the population of any ranking array is not as “good” as the other half.

  14. John permalink
    November 8, 2011

    I’m curious about another angle here. They cut your (not even frequently published) column yet they publish a wine article from the Explainer guy, who presumably knows little about wine? (Unless of course, he doesn’t – but he approaches the subject from such a distance in his article.) Further, they JUST cut your column recently and then they take a swing at you as a critic and a past article you wrote for their magazine? Outrage!

    This article isn’t parody: Slate is picking up readers by knocking the very idea of expertise and, frankly, appealing to how badly people feel about their empty wallets. The article tries to make this slice of readership feel better about its economic situation by painting people who are comfortable enough to spend significant money on wine as suckers and idiots. I think were the opposite the case, because the issue is really about money and how a lot of people don’t have it, Slate would be mocking the 99% it is so supportive of, which is inconsistent with the rest of its articles on the economy.

    Sure, the topic is “just wine” but Slate is pulling a classic sensationalist readership grab.

  15. November 8, 2011

    I’m happy to see your rebuttal, Mike. He’s your replacement at Slate?

    I hate articles like this, which should really be titled: “In praise of bulk wine”

  16. Al Diablo permalink
    November 8, 2011

    Palmer’s article was complete garbage. Slate got what it deserved if it thought a cheap wine writer could replace a real wine writer.
    And two-buck up chuck (or do you prefer two-buck chuck wagon???) is so bad it’s not even funny–it takes effort to make wine taste that horrible.
    I tell people if they want to drink ‘wine’ at that price point, they should mix vodka and Purplesaurus Rex Kool Aid…and serve it in a wine glass.

    Keep up the good work, Mike.

  17. November 8, 2011

    There is some truth in this for the European wine market. My daily glass when in Spain is typically from a €1.50 jug of bulk wine I picked up from a local winery. It’s not amazing, but it’s fine.

    But obviously, the more you spend, the better the wine there as well until you reach the €25 level at which point it just seems that everything is all about the cost of the oak used in making the wine.

  18. Bud Carlos permalink
    November 8, 2011

    My guess is that this fellow Palmer is actually a wine drinker and he’s met too many
    of the pompous among us, so he’s decided to have a bit of fun, knowing that the
    more provocative he can be, while still maintaining some semblance of validity,
    the more reaction he’ll get. He’s achieved his goal, increased Slate’s readership,
    and they’ll probably have him back for another go. The knee-jerk outrage should
    provide the material.

  19. November 8, 2011

    When I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, I got emails and comments all the time from people who said Two Buck Chuck proved there was no reason to spend more than $2 on a bottle of wine. For them, there is not.

    One of the great services critics provide the public is validation. Slate is validating a large group of readers. The rest of us can be horrified or amused, but that article is not for us.

  20. Rick permalink
    November 8, 2011

    I don’t know what the average European pays, which was one of Palmer’s metrics, but I honestly don’t see a lot of under $3 wine in either supermarket or specialty stores besides for the ubiquitous Chuck. So to argue that people should be paying less than what is commonly available to pay is just silly, as much of the article was.

  21. November 8, 2011

    When I saw that article, I really couldn’t believe it. What an incredible piece of crap that is not only wrongheaded (let’s industrialize all production and drive the small vigneron out of business!) but seriously misleading.

    I guess you get what you pay for. What a mental midget this Palmer DB must be.

  22. November 8, 2011

    Mike,

    Thank you for a well thought response to this piece. Do you think that there any correlation between sales of wine by category and the amount of wine in the category? In other words, I go to my local grocery store and I don’t see a lot of $3 (or under wine). I guess its out there, but if I wanted to drink it (which I don’t), where do you find it? That might be part of what explains why the category has declined in recent years, not whether people like drinking it as the Slate piece suggests.

    Keep doing what you are doing!

    dctravel (Jacob)

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