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the grape-ist generation
what does wine say about us?
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
pop culture

We are so weird about wine. The recent Beer Summit at the White House is a great illustration. What would you have thought if, instead of I'm going to invite Officer Crowley and Dr. Gates over for a beer, the President had said, I'm going to invite Officer Crowley and Dr. Gates over for a glass of wine?

First word that comes to mind. Go.



More likely, a sound. Huh or Ehh? or OooooOOOooo.

Beer is the working man's drink. Mixed drinks, whether martinis or Cosmos or gimlets, signal sophistication. Wine can seem sophisticated too, but to a lot of people, it just seems snobby. Wine drinkers cannot be trusted.

Well, girl wine drinkers can, maybe. Sideways was not a movie about a deeply sympathetic guy doing great things for the universe.

Part of the problem is the price. Even inexpensive wines can seem expensive relative to beer, and as the wine gets older and rarer, the prices rocket up to the stratosphere, with no meaningful limit. High rollers can drink away thousands of dollars. Retail prices are bad enough, and the wine markup in restaurants is generally two to three times that, so the sticker can be shocking. Restaurants in major American cities often charge eight or more dollars for a glass, and it isn't that unusual to see something on the list for $15.

(When your wine costs as much as your food, it seems... bad.)

But beyond price, there's also the complexity. Many of us know what we like and don't like, whether we prefer red to white initially, and later, shiraz to merlot (or the other way around.) There's just so much to know. Different kinds of grapes, in different blends, from so many wine-growing regions all over the world. The more you learn the more you realize you don't know. And when you learn one thing you only know that one thing -- knowing you like merlot isn't going to help you look at a wine list or a label and know what you think about mourvedre. And one merlot isn't exactly like another. There's more difference between one merlot and another than there is between one vodka and another, one IPA and another, one daiquiri and another.

Third thing: you can't really tell anything about wine by looking at it. Red versus rose versus white, that's about it. There are some minor differences in color between wines, but it's not like looking at a steak and being able to tell that it's rare, medium, or well done. A $3 wine is going to look about the same as a $125 wine once it's poured into your glass.

Given all this, isn't it a little surprising we manage to drink wine at all?

But we do, and that's good. Wine is great with food, whether you're in the fancy restaurant environment or just sitting at home with a hamburger and a glass of zinfandel. And it's great by itself -- a crisp cool glass of Sauvignon Blanc on a summer day can be a joy, just as much as a cold beer or a gin and tonic.

We do drink wine. We do. We just aren't comfortable identifying ourselves as wine drinkers, for the most part.

I'm not sure where the connotation of snobbiness comes from. Is it because wine is perceived as European? Is it because so many wines are expensive? A lot of them aren't. If you see a person with a glass of wine and a person with a pint of beer sitting next to each other at your local bar, it is definitely possible that the beer is the more expensive choice. It just depends.

(And most of the wine Americans are drinking isn't from Europe anyway. It may be domestic, but it's probably Australian or South American.)

When I say "we" don't identify ourselves as wine drinkers, I'm fudging a tad, but that brings me back to an earlier point that I can't really put out of my head. Women reading this may very well say, "But I love wine! I drink it all the time!" And on some level I do think it's ultimately a question of gender.

The First Lady can invite people over for a glass of wine and that would be perfectly okay. The President, though, that's different. Wine isn't seen as a girl drink in the way that a Cosmo or a daiquiri is, but at the same time, we read completely different characteristics into a man's choice to drink wine versus a woman's. Wine isn't a girl drink, but it's not a man's drink. Despite the fact that men across the country happily drink it.

We are so weird about wine.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

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william carr
8.5.09 @ 11:03p

Thoughtful -- that's the word--or, better perhaps, thinking. There is, I think, a correlation (though not mathematically exact) between what people drink and what/how they think.

Thinking people drink thoughtful wine--wine that evokes thought, thinking. They drink thoughtful beer too--there are differences between IPAs. And they drink thoughtful whiskey--the holy waters of Scotland and Ireland.

Non-thinking people--perhaps aka thoughtless or unthoughtful--drink non-thinking wine, beer, whiskey. I won't name names (brands).

How would you complete this sentence? "Real writers drink...."


russ carr
8.7.09 @ 12:24a

I'd complete it with a period.

jael mchenry
8.7.09 @ 1:11p

Heh. Russ is made of win.

Drinking and thinking... hadn't thought about it that way. It's always better to be deliberate. I know there are cheap and expensive vodkas, good and bad IPAs, weak and strong wines... but I still think that a lot of people just think of wine as something for the uppity, period.

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