I Smell a #Slatepitch
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.