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Previously published on LewRockwell.com

Wine, Glorious Wine

by Eric Englund & Karen De Coster

Good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used.
~ William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Othello, II. iii. (315)

The best use of bad wine is to drive away poor relations.
~ French proverb

Wine and subjectivist economics go hand in glove. What does this mean? Well, subjectivist economics "…is based on the theory that the value of goods is not inherent in the goods themselves but is in the minds of acting men; that economic value is a matter of individual judgment which may vary from person to person and for the same person from time to time." In the case of wine, individual judgment can be impaired by intimidation (i.e., lack of knowledge) and ill-conceived notions. Certainly, you have heard statements such as "I don’t drink white wines" or "red wines are just too dry for me." As wine enthusiasts, it is our objective to push you out of your comfort zone, encourage you to try something new, and explore the glorious world of wine.

Since about the 1980s, wine has been marketed to the masses like never before. There are zillions of affordable – or just plain cheap – wines available, whether from California, Brazil, Australia, Italy, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand, or even France. What's more, states such as Oregon, Washington, Michigan, and Ohio are emerging as places known for having some pretty decent wines. In fact, a barrage of competition from foreign wine makers has caused the US wine market to mature, giving consumers more choices and better quality wine at lower prices. This has allowed the middle class to partake in the experimental stages of wine enthusiasm by starting out with cheaper, mass-produced wines before moving on to a more all-embracing wine hobby.

California, as we all know, is a magnificent place that has emerged as one of the world’s finest wine regions. Just prior to the emergence of the mass-producing wine era, the Judgment of Paris (or the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976) pulled the red carpet out from underneath France as the world’s undisputed top wine producer. This is when California wines were granted the highest scores – gasp! – from top wine-tasting experts.

Government and Plonk

California wine, however, has had its dark days. As a matter of fact, government policy was responsible for transforming consumer demand for wine and altering the US wine industry through its Prohibition swindle. Napa valley had already established itself as having some of the world’s finest wines, and indeed, Napa was making wines that were taking Paris by storm. Then along with Pierce's Disease and Phylloxera came Prohibition, and the abandonment of some of California’s finest vineyards.

Pre-Prohibition California included some 700+ wineries, while after the repeal less than 200 of these wineries were left. Some wineries stayed in business during the government’s purge by making legal wines – those used for religious ceremonies – or table grapes and grape juice. These products were a far cry from the fine wines that formerly had been produced in California’s vineyards. In addition, during Prohibition, a head of household was legally allowed to produce 200 gallons of wine a year for personal use, and this served to increase demand for the poor quality grape used for home wine-making. Thus it was inevitable that California saw the displacement of old vines producing quality grapes, as low-quality grapes came to replace them.

As Prohibition ended, and California was left with significantly altered vineyards, the wine purge had not only left California with inferior and/or abandoned vineyards, but also, the average American’s taste in wine had considerably shifted. Instead of demanding dry, superior wines produced by old, quality vines, wine consumers demanded sweet, high-alcohol wines – hence the cheap, jug wine and the era of fortified wines. Thus the dark days of wine were with us until the age of baby boomers and economic prosperity brought with it a new generation of wine lovers who re-fueled the demand for non-fortified, fine wine. Consequently, let’s fast-forward to the modern world of wine and all its splendor.

Not all wine is noteworthy. In fact, mass production and the use of low-quality grapes have brought forth a new class of wine known as "plonk." Plonk is a low-quality wine, usually made for the non-discriminating masses. Stores everywhere are loaded with tasteless wines – both domestic and foreign – that offer no distinction in taste between grapes or brands. In fact, whether these wines cost $5.99 or $18.99, they barely differ from one another as regards quality. Wines like Kendall-Jackson and Sutter Home have managed to achieve mass-market appeal through marketing genius. Kendall-Jackson sells its Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir for $15–$20 a bottle, and for the most part, it’s no better than wine that sells for half the price. But somehow, it’s deemed by the masses to be "above the norm." Pure marketing! Not that we shall criticize the mass marketing of wine, since it’s actually wonderful to see the glorious grape replace the dreadful rice beer, Budweiser, as the household staple for adult beverage intake.

As to, say, Kendall-Jackson, there are far better wines out there for slightly more, or even less. Windsor wines, at a few dollars more per bottle, are far superior, and actually have a distinctive taste as opposed to Kendall-Jackson’s everyday plonk. The Windsor Zinfandel, at less than $30 per bottle, is perhaps one of the finer Zins in its price range. Or for a really fantastic bargain, there is France’s Barton & Guestier. Its Beaujolais, Merlot, and Cabernet wines can be had for $5.99 on sale, making it perhaps the best bang for the buck in the world of wine. Even at its everyday price – a couple dollars more – it’s a very decent wine at a ridiculous price. The authors of this piece find the Barton & Guestier Beaujolais to be one of the best "everyday wine" values on the market.

Oftentimes, new brands offer up cutesy names, colorful bottles, and/or and robust labels to attract the younger, less sophisticated, beer-type crowd to its product. Wine brand names such as Red Bicyclette, The Little Penguin, Urbane, Big House, Toad Hollow, Yellow Tail, Gnarley Head, Goats do Roam (South Africa), Dog House (California), Funky Llama (Argentina), Monkey Bay (New Zealand), and even Fat Bastard are meant to entice, entertain, and win over the normally non-wine consumer. Again, most of it is merely homogenous plonk in terms of taste, however, in the long-term, such strategy is admirable for its attempt to persuade the consumer that wine is a promising alternative. For that, we salute the Wal-Mart World of Wines.

Anything but Chardonnay

When going to the grocery store, it is inescapable to see shelves upon shelves full of Chardonnay. Unfortunately, this is one of the most abused grapes in the world of wine. There is so much poor product available, it is a shame. In our opinion, a key issue is that many Chardonnays tend to be over-oaked – which is like taking a mallet to the palate. Who really wants to drink overly-flabby plonk? Thankfully, lightly-oaked and, even better, unoaked Chardonnays are gaining in popularity. However, when perusing the store shelves, we would like to direct you away from Chardonnay and try other white wines – we’ll get to reds later.

May we start by saying "hooray for Viognier!" This terrific white wine is complex, layered, and opens up beautifully. It is an aromatic wine best know for its apricot, peach, and spice flavors. Serve this wine chilled and sip on it slowly. As time passes, you will note that different flavors emerge as it approaches room temperature – an evolution of flavor may go from apricot to buttery almond. It nicely accompanies spicy Asian foods. Three of our favorites are produced by EXP, Ironstone Vineyards, and McCrea Cellars.

A white wine that is typically misunderstood is Gewürztraminer. Unfortunately, it is often pigeonholed strictly as a dessert wine. Nothing could be further from the truth! The German word gewürz means "spiced," and these wines are known for their crisp and spicy attributes. Arguably, the world’s finest Gewürztraminers come from the Alsace region of France – located in the northeast and on the German border. A wonderful quality of this grape is that it produces a wine which is sweet and spicy yet "big" enough to stand up to a steak – as long as it is a high quality Gewürztraminer such as those produced by Domaine Zind Humbrecht. However, an absolute favorite involves pairing Gewürztraminer and Indian food. To be sure, this wine pairs well with spicy Chinese, Thai, Mexican, and Korean foods. For a great everyday Alsatian Gewürztraminer, we recommend Trimbach.

Oh, and by the way, Gewürztraminer does make for an excellent dessert wine. Just look for a late harvest Gewürztraminer and you won’t be disappointed.

In the 1970s, Chenin Blanc was one of the most popular white wines in America. Sadly, it was over-produced, and forgettable wines became the order of the day – sounds a bit like today’s Chardonnay story. Hence, what comes to mind are generally bland and uninspiring wines. Fortunately, with careful viticultural practices, this grape can produce terrific wines with a floral-honeyed character and a zesty acidity that is satisfying to the palate. It pairs quite nicely with barbecued chicken. A favorite of ours is Barton & Gustier’s Vouvray. This nice French Chenin Blanc is readily found in supermarkets – at, typically, less than $10 a bottle. A bargain, to be sure. Another suggestion would be to try Windsor Vineyards’ multiple gold-medal winning 2005 Chenin Blanc – which may only be purchased directly from the vineyard.

Now, for something truly off the beaten track, have you ever heard of symphony wine? "The Symphony grape was developed in 1948 at the University of California, Davis by Dr. James Olmo from crossing the Muscat of Alexandria with Grenache Gris. A delicate Muscat flavor and aroma characterize the wine. Symphony wines show unusual resistance to oxidation and maintain their light color, flavor and bouquet for ten or more years in the bottle at cellar temperature." Three wineries that produce this obscure wine are Volcano Winery, Maple Creek Winery, and the aforementioned Ironstone Vineyards. At $8 a bottle, Ironstone’s "Obsession" symphony wine is a bargain. However, Maple Creek Winery’s 2005 Artevino Estate Symphony wine is well worth the $22 price tag – a wine described as: "Fresh, crisp and delicious, with tropical floral notes of pineapple, mango and banana. Off dry and perfect for hot days and spicy foods!" Get some before summer is over.

Admittedly, we were both members of the "ABC" (Anything but Chardonnay) club. As wine enthusiasts, this really isn’t a logical position to adopt, even though the Chardonnay grape is the most abused grape in the world. After all, there are so many talented winemakers in the world, there are bound to be fine Chardonnays available. And, oh boy, did we find one.

Kistler Vineyards produces world-renowned Chardonnays. The Kistler 1999 Chardonnay produced from grapes grown in the McCrea Vineyard located in Sonoma County, California is spectacular. Kistler ages its Chardonnays in French oak barrels for periods of between 11 and 18 months. What we found is that chardonnay and oak-barrel aging can be a match made in Heaven.

One of us decided to take a bottle of this wine with us for an evening of fine dining. The waitress opened the bottle for the group, and we waited for the main course to be served before trying this Kistler Chardonnay. The first sip was stunning! This wine is voluptuous, elegant, and complex. The balance of citrus flavors, minerality, and crisp acidity was unlike any other white wine anyone at the table had ever experienced. Although many may find this difficult to believe, this white wine was "bigger" than almost any red wine. This Kistler Chardonnay is so memorable, it can still be tasted to this very day.

The Big Red Ones

Now on to the medicinal wine – reds! Let’s face it, red wine is just plain good for you. It fights off bad cholesterol, protects against colds, and brings good health and longevity to your ticker. And it makes you happy to savor it. There is so much to explore in the red realm, but first off, let’s look at Zinfandel. The creation of White Zinfandel is perhaps one of the greatest crimes against humanity. The red grape that makes White Zinfandel is disrespected, flogged, and betrayed in order to achieve its proletariat status in the world of wines. Here’s Scott Gunerman on White Zin:

Zinfandel is the ultimate Rodney Dangerfield (No Respect!) grape because of its association with that awful tasting (sorry ladies) yet highly profitable wine known as White Zinfandel. White Zin is a "pink" wine made from Zinfandel grapes left in contact with the grape's skin for just a short time. Bob Trinchero from Sutter Home Winery started this fad in the early 1970's and made this wine into a HUGE commercial success. Many wineries make the lion's share of their profits from their White Zin sales. The winning formula? Simple: cheap grapes + huge yields + broad California designation (ever heard of a single vineyard White Zin?!) = gigantic money. Too bad you didn't think of that first – you'd have enough cash to fill an Olympic size swimming pool. I'm willing to bet that the majority of White Zinfandel consumers have no idea that Zinfandel is a red grape and capable of making monster wines that can knock your socks off. Don't believe me? Go to a Zinfandel tasting, and see for yourself!

Nothing is more dreadful than a glass of White Zin – yet people rip it off the store shelves like it is penny candy. It’s the most popular wine in America –yikes!! As the old joke goes: "If she drinks White Zinfandel she is easy, thinks she is classy and sophisticated, and actually has no clue. If he drinks White Zinfandel, he is gay." All White Zinfandel should be taken out behind the barn to be shot. Now onward.

The real stuff is not of the "white" variety. Zinfandel is a red-skinned grape that produces intensely flavorful wines that are unique in flavor. Zinfandel off of the "old vines" is akin to a reserve and tends to be richer and more flavorful due to the age and quality of the vines from which it came. Windsor, yet again, makes a smashingly great Zin, as does Ironstone. Neither brand is expensive, and Ironstone can be had for about $10 per bottle, or under $30 for the Old Vine variety. Francis Coppola Zin is also a tasty bargain at less than $13 per bottle. These wines – Zin, that is – are typically of a far better quality than the mainstream Merlots and Cabs that are in the same price range. So why wait to try them?

In fact, many red wines are oftentimes pure plonk. Unfortunately, the ultra-mainstream, mass-marketed brands such as Woodbridge, Rosemont, Jacob’s Creek, Blackstone, Fetzer, Gallo, and even some of the Beringer wines, are virtually homogenous in taste and quality throughout the $6-$20 price range. So why pay $20 for mass-produced plonk when you can get Australian plonk for about $6-$10. Or, if you’re smart, you can buy a Barton & Guestier, French red – Merlot, Cabernet, Beaujolais – for the same price as the Aussie stuff. Now make no mistake about it – forget anything encouraging you may have heard about Two-Buck Chuck, that awful stuff offered up by Trader Joe’s. As Slate’s wine man Mike Steinberger said, "It sucks." ‘Nuff said.

And Port wine – what about that? Port is a staple as a desert wine; it originated in Portugal. "Officially," Port only comes from Portugal like Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France (all others are sparkling wine), and bourbon comes only from Kentucky. Port is higher in alcohol, and, in its vintage form, can be aged for decades. Once again, Windsor Vineyards makes a Rare California Port that we think challenges many of the fine Portuguese Ports in regards to quality. It’s sweet – as is the nature of Port – and makes for great after-meal enjoyment.

With respect to red wines, cabernet sauvignon is the kingpin. A misnomer regarding cabernet sauvignon pertains to the belief that it is an ancient variety of grape. Genetic studies, performed at U.C. Davis, have determined that cabernet sauvignon is actually the hybrid offspring of sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc. Nonetheless, this terrific varietal produces some of the world’s finest red wines. To continue with our mission, however, we want to guide you to try something a bit different. Yet, before moving on, we would be remiss to not pass on two recommendations for excellent cabernet sauvignons that are excellent values in spite of appearing to be somewhat expensive – these are better than many cabernets that have triple-digit prices. Hence, if you are willing to spend a bit more money, definitely try the Dutch Henry 2001 Napa Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($58) and/or the Salvestrin 2003 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($49).

There is a wonderful winery in Yorkville, CA, (Mendocino County) that epitomizes being off the beaten track. Yorkville Cellars produces some delicious wines using varietals typically thought of as blending grapes. For example, Yorkville Cellars produces an intensely flavorful wine made of petit verdot. As stated on their website: "It is unique and seldom seen. There are only 895 bearing acres (compared to 71,536 of Cabernet Sauvignon) of it out of a total vineyard acreage of 440,296 in California." This deeply intense reddish-purple wine has raspberry and red-cherry flavors and can cellar for decades. Such a big wine pairs well with Cajun-blackened steak and zesty barbecued pork ribs.

Another grape, considered to be mostly a blending grape, is cabernet franc. Well, Yorkville Cellars comes to the rescue again. Their 2003 vintage is 79% cabernet franc and 21% cabernet sauvignon. In their own words: "Rich and full-bodied with lots of Bing cherry and blueberry fruit. Hints of licorice, toasted spice and herbs on the nose with a touch of burnt sugar or maple syrup. Good structure with moderate tannins, light herbal note mid-palate and a hint of violets to finish. Try serving with pork chops, lamb kabobs or sausage with peppers." For $18, this wine is a bargain. A great price for the "other cabernet."

Have you ever tried a Bordeaux-style wine? Yorkville Cellars produces one using all five classic red varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. It has a magnificent name "Richard the Lion-Heart." Here again, in Yorkville Cellars’ words: "Our Richard is always deceptively soft, yet complex and features a long, smooth finish. Wine critics typically compare it favorably to wines at twice the price and even more, so it represents great Mendocino ‘bang for the buck.’" At $30 a bottle (for the 2001), this may be one of the finest values on the market.

For one winery to produce such unusual and wonderful wines makes it simple for you to experience lesser-known red wines – all at reasonable prices. And, by the way, all of Yorkville Cellars’ wines are crafted using certified organic estate grown grapes. Talk about being off the beaten track. This winery truly goes the extra mile.

Within the economic way of thinking, wine is something that can cater to both high and low time preferences. The June 30, 2006 issue of Wine Spectator notes, "The top wines are built for aging. But their opulence should please consumers with less patience. They are wines for a generation that enjoys instant gratification as well as long-term pleasure." There are some things that are just meant to be enjoyed in the here-and-now, and the heck with later. Luckily, wines are now drinkable while young, especially those in the modest price ranges. Hence, no need to wait around before raising a glass.

Of course, the mass production of wine has triggered shelves full of appalling plonk with Budweiser appeal. Then again, mass production and mainstream popularity has also brought forth an amazing array of wines – bringing to the market a new sense of variety, affordability, and creativity that only entrepreneurship, competition, and inspired marketing can provide. From Boone’s Farm to Beringer to Kistler, fortunately, there’s a little something for all of us.

Alcohol – the cause of and solution to all of life's problems
~ Homer Simpson

July 29, 2006

Karen De Coster, CPA, has an MA in Economics, and is an accounting and finance professional in Detroit. See her website and blog at www.karendecoster.com. Send her mail.


The Hyperinflation Survival Guide, Published by Eric Englund.