I’m a bit disappointed that we missed a great opportunity for constructive debate on several key issues, but I’m truly beside myself that what little discussion did take place turned frivolous with petty charges of wine snobbery and elitism. Crowded out were the critical issues of industrial farming, the morality of laboratory manipulations that pander to consumer tastes and the hidden costs of manufactured wine. By the end of the Cork Dork discussion Big Wine benefited from all the smoke it generated and actually emerged from the haze positioned as the victim. Several wine professionals even apologized to The Big Boys for being so snobby about wine, bemoaning the fact that their professional ethics might confuse or even, heaven forbid, offend the masses.
In all the bluster the central question was never addressed: Should satisfying a questionable consumer need— cheap, dumbed-down wine—be subsidized by the rest of us. And by subsidized I mean its true cost in wasted resources, outright pollution, health consequences, human exploitation and the like. In this way the discussion is somewhat analogous to the fast food industry and industrially grown food versus the organic and sustainable community of farmers—organic granola versus Fruit Loops, so to speak.
Hidden Costs of Cheap Wine
I suppose a two-dollar bottle of wine makes a fifteen-dollar bottle of wine look expensive. No argument there. But let’s take a closer look at how much the cheaper wine really costs.
Farming: The factory farming of constituent grapes is a common feature of cheap wine production. Typical of such a practice is the wide use of synthetic chemicals in the form of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. The consequences of such farming practices are well known and can include adverse health outcomes for workers—both acute and long-term—and environmental concerns including damage to wildlife, groundwater and the chemical industry’s self-sustaining-loop of disease resistance begetting new chemical formulations.
Nitrogen pollution from fertilizers damages streams and waterways before finding its way to our oceans where toxic blooms do damage to seemingly unrelated layers of life. The effects of chemical poisoning are rippling and far-reaching—and costly. Is Big Wine paying its fair share for the damage it causes? Not at two-dollars a bottle, my friends.
Manufacture: This is only to mention in passing the potential health effects upon consumption—especially over the long term. Last time I checked processed wine is rarely below 13.5% alcohol by volume and frequently quite a bit above. The popular wine descriptors big, rich, powerful, gutsy are all euphemisms for high alcohol and assertive flavors. Flavors that may be chemically derived. Because there is no mandatory ingredient labelling it is impossible to say which added components one might want to avoid and which may actually be harmful. Just be aware that there are several dozens of permitted additives in the manufacture of wine and there is no obligation to name them. Big Wine is an ardent opponent to ingredient labeling. Caveat emptor.
Water: The type of monoculture practiced in vast swaths of vineyard presents different issues. Monoculture is known to contribute to erosion from wind and rain and when coupled with synthetic chemical treatment the biodiversity of the soil and the surrounding environment is destroyed. Virtual deserts are the result and in California where water is in short supply the true cost of cheap wine is most keenly felt. Tens of thousands of acres of grapes destined for cheap wine literally suck the Central Valley dry, wasting a precious resource in order to supply a steady stream of cheap brands. This is an absurd trade-off that has nothing to do with snobbery or elitism.
Water is also wasted in the winery itself. It is well established that making wine is one of the most water intensive activities on the planet. The true cost of water in California is not being paid back by cheap wine. Guess who suffers the consequences while Big Wine profits.
Transportation and Packaging: The packaging of cheap wine is also an abomination. Franzia, for instance, continues to use a cork-like enclosure to gussy-up its bottles of Two-Buck Chuck in pursuit of faux-value—talk about make-up on a pig. Wines such as this should be relegated to boxes or bags at the very least in order to diminish their way out-of-whack carbon footprint.
Industrial wine is so cheap to produce that transport by tanker across international borders is profitable. Unrest in southern France is directly attributable to cheap wine produced in Spain. In this way a troubled region with out-of-whack economies of scale and differing social needs can disrupt the economy of its neighbor by exporting its excesses. In trade talk this is called dumping and its consequences are considerable.
Conclusions: With so many pressing and consequential issues at hand do we really need to have a discussion about the pleasing aroma and pleasant mouthfeel of Layer Cake Zinfandel?
No? Then you’re a snob.
Is there really a goût de San Joaquin Valley that exists outside a lab?
If there is, I don’t really want to know it.
Cheap wine is a commodity that feeds the same fast-food mentality that contributes to disastrous health, environmental and social consequences worldwide. Cheap wine misrepresents the true cost of the real thing because like its counterpart, the fast food industry, it benefits from a fragile and shrinking infrastructure of resources at a great but invisible cost to society. Any time our wine community misses an opportunity to discuss these issues then we have done our audience a disservice. Far from confusing the public, real knowledge is the impetus for change and the only hope for a thoughtful, responsible consumerism.
A follow up article that responds to the comments below can be found here: The True Cost of Cheap Wine: An Update