The Myth of So-Called "Starter Wine"
How long will the wine industry persist with its damaging consumer fantasy of cheap, "entry-level" wine? Or, an essay in (slight) praise of wine "snobbery."
Fred Franzia, peddler of Two-Buck Chuck (aka Charles Shaw), died last month. There have been a plenty of obituaries and think pieces to commemorate the passing of this “larger than life” person who has been variously described as “iconoclastic” or a “convicted felon” and who either “revolutionized” or “irreparably damaged” the wine industry, depending on who you speak with. Franzia’s death was a classic moment for milquetoast media takes on wine.
Perhaps the most complex of these autopsies was from Eric Asimov, in the New York Times. “I was not a fan of the wine or the man,” Asimov flatly states. He bristles at Franzia’s false position that “Elites…were trying to brainwash people with all their talk about terroir and nuances.” Asimov rightly takes Franzia’s plonk to task: “How were the grapes farmed, and who provided the labor? What steps were taken at the winemaking facility to ensure some semblance of consistency, since the sources of the wine changed year to year? We can only guess.”
Yet despite his strong words toward Franzia, what’s fascinating is how sheepishly Asimov is willing to let consumers—the acquiescent people who bought a billion bottles of Two-Buck Chuck—off the hook. “A lot of people would never pay more than a modest price for a wine, regardless of how it’s made,” he says, carefully, as he draws this age-old distinction:
“Most people don’t really care about how wine is made or where it comes from. They just want an inexpensive drink that gives them a buzz and tastes good or, at least, doesn’t offend. A smaller group of wine lovers spend a considerable amount of time, energy and money on wine because they find it delicious, as well as rewarding intellectually and aesthetically.”
Asimov, of course, is attempting to navigate the thorniest issue facing wine. Of all the cultural pursuits, wine is the one that most easily gets derailed by accusations of “snobbery.” Wine People are so afraid of being called snobs that they’re always twisting themselves into pretzels. “Drink what you like!” Wine People exclaim, with fake smiles, and then cringe when people love buttery Josh chardonnay or sugary Kung Fu Girl riesling.
I’ve always found this a smarmy position, as a matter of taste. But more and more, this sort of equivocation is causing actual damage to the wine industry. Though many within are too entrenched (or stupid) to see it.
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In fact, Silicon Valley Bank’s astute and scathing State of the Wine Industry Report 2022 calls out “the decline of entry-level wine” as a major problem facing the industry. Rob McMillan, the report’s author, notes that the price of so-called “entry-level” wine has stagnated in the $9-$11.99 range for more than a decade. But he goes a step further in sounding an alarm to the industry:
“The wine industry has allowed the lower-priced entry-level wines to be produced without transparency as to ingredients and in a homogenous and uninteresting way that’s unlikely to appeal to those young consumers who want to drink better and drink less today.”
McMillan’s point is that, at around $10-$11, the consumer has a lot of other interesting, exciting beverage choices that are not wine: craft beer, cider, hard seltzer, or even a $40-50 bottle of spirits that might be consumed in several sessions over the course of a month. The race to the bottom for branded, cheap wine has led to a bunch of bad, sweet, over-oaked offerings with lots of artifice and additives that don’t appeal to a younger generation of drinkers.
The numbers bear this out: Sales of wines under $11 are in sharp decline. So much in decline that the industry is worried. Meanwhile, wines in the $30-and-above and the $50-and-above price categories are on a dramatic rise.
The industry has always had its euphemism for cheap wines: starter or entry-level wines. The notion being that younger drinkers with less developed palates will begin drinking these wines and then evolve, as they get older, to consuming more sophisticated, higher-end beverages. This is a “truthy” but ultimately bogus concept. There is no conclusive marketing study that backs up any of this. The same percentage of people would be just as likely to move to high-end Burgundy from kombucha or juice boxes or frappuccinos.
Just look at how many Gen Xers (my age group) still drink Yellow Tail, Butter Chardonnay, Barefoot, and the like as they enter their 5th decade. Isn’t it rich and cynical to present Barefoot as “the official wine sponsor of the NFL” and to offer, as spokesperson, the actor who’s been rehashing his Puddy character from Seinfield since the early 1990s—that era when my fellow Gen Xers were supposedly sipping their “starter wines.”
No, the concept of the “starter wine” is simply how big companies—who could otherwise invest in and produce better, more transparent, and more sustainably produced wines—justify selling poorly-made swill to consumers.
Asimov, to his credit, has always been a strong voice against the myth of starter wines, as he reiterated in his Franzia column:
I have never accepted the positioning of bad wines as starter bottles. Sure, some wine drinkers don’t want to spend a lot of money. But for $8 to $10, wine lovers have much better options. And then spending $15 to $20 is like going from drab grays to a world of beautiful hues.
I agree with him. When I think about all this, I believe the whole wine culture needs to grow up, or at least grow a backbone. Who walks into a gourmet food shop or luxury clothing outlet or fancy jewelry store and whines, “Wahhh, don’t you have something that’s cheap, yet flatters my adult tastes, yet only costs $10.99!?” No, the price of white truffles or Balenciaga bags or Harry Winston necklaces are what they are. Yet in all of those cases, there are less expensive and fantastic quality options.
It’s the same with wine. Those quality mid-level wines mostly cost in the range of $15 to $25. There are plenty of wines that offer value and complexity, showing nuance and terroir, at that price. The falsehood of Franzia and Two-Buck Chuck was its binary choice: Wine was either under $10 or it was over $80. That’s not how the vast world of quality wine works.
And even if someone chooses to occasionally spend $60 or $80 on a wine—who cares? I have friends who spend hundreds of dollars for Eagles football tickets every Sunday. They would—rightly—ridicule me if I suggested they could save money by going to watch a high school game on Friday night instead. I have a group of Gen X friends who recently paid $300 per box seat to watch a concert by Journey (and, to be clear, this current version of Journey doesn’t even have the original lead singer from the 1980s). I know someone who spends hundreds on vintage action figures and rare Lego sets. Are these the same people who are going to shame me as “elite” because I’ve “wasted” $80 on a bottle of Barolo or Erste Lage Austrian grüner veltliner or Grosse Gewächs German riesling?
People spend hard-earned money on the esoteric things they love all the time. So why is it only wine that comes in for accusations of “snobbery”? Because, for years, reverse snobbery—just like political populism—has been an irresistible marketing tactic. It’s one the wine industry desperately needs to distance itself from.
6 Picks: Inexpensive Upgrades from Two-Buck Chuck
Produced in vinho verde’s best subregion Monção e Melgão, this wine’s best attribute is its reliability, with light effervescence, notes of green apple, pink grapefruit, and blossoms, along with an subtle underlying texture that’s reminiscent of Muscadet or txakoli.
Why drink a shitty wine when you can have a fantastic—and BONE DRY—cider? I’ve pretty much thrown up my hands at trying to make cider happen, but what person who likes to drink nice things would want a cheap wine over this?
Calx is the best sort of primitivo, fresh and lively, zingy cherry and juicy plum, taut structure, and just fun to drink. Organically grown, native-yeast fermentation, no oak, and low alcohol. I wrote about it in July.
Donnafugata Anthìlia 2020, $15.98
An amiable crowd-pleaser made from Catarratto, Sicily’s most widely planted grape. Lush floral and fleshy stone fruit notes, along with its supple roundness. Pair beautiful with a Tuesday night pasta al limone.
Cool, drinkable example of the savory side of Chinon. Earthy, primal with aromas of forest floor, pepper, and blackberry, and flavors of black cherry, olive, juicy and lively, leading to a lengthy, chalky finish.