The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Wine! Can you buy the cheap stuff? And just what time is wine o’clock? Let’s uncork a vintage bottle of truth as we explore wine myths and reality!
Lie #1: Knowing About Wine Is Really Sophisticated, You Know, Like James Bond or Someone
James Bond — who sucks — likes pretty crappy wine. In Live and Let Die, the second book about him, dating from 1954, he’s revealed to be a big fan of Liebfraumilch, a style of sweet German wine generally hailing from the unappetizing-sounding city of Worms. While Worms now produces other, pretty decent wines, Liebfraumilch is cheerfully widely acknowledged as fairly dreadful. The New York Times describes it as “a debacle” and suggests the damage it did to the region is on a par with the two World Wars.
You’ve probably had Liebfraumilch, or at least seen it around — the best known brand is Blue Nun, a wine that pretty much exists today as a punchline. Cheap, cheerful and absolute garbage, it suggests a happily bygone world of safari suits, keys-in-bowl parties, tacky-ass medallions and casual butt-grabbing.
If a product’s main selling point is that it goes with anything, you aren’t appealing to the most sophisticated of palates, but that’s how Blue Nun positioned itself, as the printer paper of wines. James Bond — who, again, sucks — loves the stuff though. He drinks it with burgers, fries and broccoli followed by a butterscotch ice-cream. Weird. If you see a guy in a suit eating a burger and quaffing a bottle of Blue Nun, you don’t think, “Ooh, he must be a suave, debonair super-spy,” you think, “Hey, I bet that guy’s depressed” and give him a wide berth.
Lie #2: Order the Second-Cheapest Bottle
Ordering the second-cheapest wine on the menu is one of those “life hacks” that gets bandied around with minimal thought. The idea seems to be that you get to look that bit more sophisticated than a cheap-assed know-nothing rube, while still not breaking the bank.
However, according to Oz Clarke, award-laden TV wine expert and Officier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole, this is nonsense, as if you’re somewhere nice, all the wines should be perfectly adequate. “There’s nothing wrong with buying the cheapest bottle, especially in a decent restaurant or bar,” he says. “It won’t be from a crappy wine producer, it’ll just come from a less popular or trendy place.”
In fact, some restaurants deliberately ramp up the price of the second-cheapest wine, knowing people will go for it.
Clarke — who was an actor before becoming a wine expert and appears in both Superman and Superman II, which isn’t relevant but is pretty great — suggests ordering by the glass if uncertain about anything. “If you buy the bottle and don’t like it, be honest, you’re not going to leave it,” he says. “You’re going to drink it, because you’ve paid for it. You’re just not going to enjoy it. If you get a glass and don’t like it, you can get it down you.”
Another area in which he thinks we could do with rethinking deeply-held ideas — serving reds warm. “Most modern red wines are better cooler than warmer,” says Clarke. “In fact, nearly all reds should be cool. Just one or two big old beasts are best slightly warm.” He suggests cooling excessively warm reds with a few minutes in an ice bucket, and if necessary, warming excessively cold ones by holding the glass in your hands for a few minutes.
Lie #3: Taco Bell Is Doing a Wine, How Silly!
Many silly things are done in the name of marketing, and Taco Bell’s recent announcement that it was producing a wine is, at first glance, one of them. After all, wine is a drink savored by gourmands, obsessed over, analyzed, steeped in tradition and history, and Taco Bell is the place that makes your butthole spray hot poop out, splat splat splat.
Putting the two together is, predominantly, a marketing stunt — the wine is mainly available online, only in Canada and only for a limited time, and your local branch is pretty unlikely to install a wine cellar. They just want to get people talking about Taco Bell in contexts other than, “Hey, guess why I have diarrhea?”
But there’s something here. First of all, a lot of wines pair really well with spicy food, and a lot of the core components of many Mexican dishes — tomatoes, peppers, cheese and so on — are present in plenty of Italian, French or Spanish foods more often thought of as being accompanied by wine. Pairing burritos and wine really isn’t that wacky: Mexican food just doesn’t enjoy the cultural cachet of its European equivalents, for (racist) complicated reasons (about racism) to do with (racist) established (racist) cultural influences (it’s racism).
Secondly, Taco Bell is a very cheap restaurant, and its core market aren’t generally wine drinkers. “[When it comes to drinking] working-class males have virtually no choice at all,” writes social anthropologist Kate Fox. “They can drink only beer and spirits — everything else is effeminate.” That comes from a book called Watching the English, but the same applies to the American working classes — the patronizing name used for the average working man is, after all, Joe Sixpack, not Joe Winebottle. Beer is seen as the drink of the working man, wine as the drink of the Live, Laugh, Love mom and the big-city gay.
Men from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are four times as likely to die specifically from drinking than those from the highest socioeconomic backgrounds. Obviously, drinking less is the best bet healthwise. But for committed boozehounds, switching from beer to wine could slightly reduce some of the health issues associated with excessive drinking. While the difference isn’t as pronounced as it’s sometimes claimed to be, drinking wine generally involves taking on fewer calories than beer and can include beneficial chemicals, like resveratrol, which have cardiovascular benefits.
Will Taco Bell’s publicity-stunt wine end snobbery about Mexican food and inverted snobbery about wine? No. Might a few dudes give getting fucked up on wine instead of beer a chance and get into it, reaping some health benefits and enjoying something new? Perhaps. Will some upmarket wine snobs try Taco Bell and find they really enjoy diarrhea? Probably not, but you never know.
But mainly, the name they chose for it, Jalapeño Noir, is just too good not to exist. Whoever came up with that, lovely work.
Lie #4: “This New Wine Delivery Service Is Just What I Need During Lockdown!”
Coronavirus has seen an explosion in delivery and subscription services. Wine merchants have begun doing things like virtual tasting sessions and Zoom-based sommelier consultations, as well as subscription services like Winc where you sign up to regularly receive a selection of wine tailored to your tastes.
But innovative pandemic-related wine delivery systems are nothing new. In 17th-century Italy, bubonic plague was something of a problem. One solution wine merchants came up with was wine windows — narrow windows within stone walls, just big enough to hand a flask of wine through to a thirsty customer.
The Buchette Del Vino Associazione Culturale, or Wine Window Cultural Association, of Florence, describes it like this: “They passed the flask of wine through the window to the client but did not receive payment directly into their hands. Instead, they passed a metal pallet to the client, who placed the coins on it, and then the seller disinfected them with vinegar before collecting them.”
There are 150 or so of these windows in Florence and Tuscany, some of which are now in use again. Wanna be handed an Aperol Spritz by a disembodied hand a la the Addams Family? Hit up L’Osteria del Brache in Florence.
Lie #5: It’s Coming Up to Wine O’Clock!
It’s always wine o’clock. Drinking at breakfast is one of those things — like marrying your cousin, owning an incredibly old car and speaking two languages — that is seen very differently if you’re rich. Champagne breakfast on the veranda isn’t viewed in the same way as cracking open a tallboy to accompany your Cap’n Crunch.
There are breakfast beers, sure, but they err on the side of novelty — wacky-ass syrup-flavored brewskis you’re likely to buy once and never again. Breakfast wines, though, are totally a thing, and don’t all have to be bubbly. According to wine writer Nuria Stylianou, “The first wine of the day should be fresh, light and dry, to wake you up with a buzz rather than slapping you in the face with too much alcohol.” As she writes in London’s Evening Standard, while sparkling wines provide a morning-friendly palate-cleanse and cut through rich breakfast foods, something like a Riesling can do the same.
And as your day continues, well, drinking at work has the same double standards — there’s a world of difference between how we see pouring a Scotch in an office a la Don Draper or Jack Donaghy, and how we see downing a Four Loko in the break room at McDonald’s.
It’s not fair, really.