As of late, I have been pondering the question of whether or not wine has become a “classless drink”. I am highly fascinated with how quality plays a role in this question, and if people even care about quality playing a role in whether or not wine has indeed become a “classless beverage”.
For the record, I dislike the fact that there is a class system in the first place, but that is another topic of discussion. Thus, for the sake of this discussion, I shall use the term “classless”. By definition, this word means “not connected to a particular social or economic class” or “belonging to no particular social class” according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.
My instincts tell me that many of you might be immediately driven to the conclusion that yes, wine has become a classless drink. Why? Well, we can infer that many might be drawing conclusions that wine is now available to all social and economic classes as a result of budget bottles and, well, even cheaper budget bottles. Currently, ten dollar wines from a variety of global grape growing areas are at the fingertips of the consumer. Additionally, wine is now available in almost all regions of the world. Wine is being imported and exported all over the planet, and it is in high demand.
Fair, right? Of course wine has become a classes drink…if you stop there.
Though I am inclined to play devil’s advocate for a moment.
Kindly entertain the idea that wine has indeed not become a classless drink. While wine is wine in its most basic form of fermented grape juice, I beg you to consider quality as a factor in determining if wine has truly broken these boundaries.
For a bit of background knowledge, wine has been around for centuries — this cannot be debated. One factor to consider, though, is who was historically drinking the wine.
According to the Professional Friends of Wine:
Wine drinking had started by about 4000 BC and possibly as early as 6000 BC. Priests and royalty enjoyed wine, while beer was drunk by the workers.
Moreover, in Greco-Roman civilization, wine was important to commerce and those of higher society.
Wine was an important article of Greek commerce, and Greek doctors including Hippocrates, were among the first to prescribe it.
I do not think it is an accident that wine has been deemed as an “upper class” beverage even throughout the 20th century. Historically speaking, wine was for the kings and queens of court, for the doctors, philosophers, priests, and politicians. Additionally, as stated above, it had its place in business and with money.
Nowadays, wine consumption by young people is on the rise. For example, let’s consider the social and economic classes of adults in their twenties. What can they (and what do they) typically purchase? The less expensive bottles. Currently, within the wine market, thirty-five dollar bottles are deemed as “expensive” wines. In my experience working in liquor retail stores or pouring at tastings, the average consumer (whether under 25 or not) will avoid a $35 bottle of wine like the plague. (Sorry, no pun intended there.) What a $35 dollar bottle of wine can offer to any consumer of any class is enticingly better than your average $10 bottle. [NOTE: I do understand that there are crappy $35 bottles, too, but I will stick to my price ranges for the sake of examples.]
Coming back to the quality and class dichotomy, what you get in a $10 bottle is not (always) good quality wine. In fact, it could be argued that that wine is not good quality at all. I am not saying that all cheaper bottles are not worthy of drinking. In fact, I know of a few bottles that are about $12 CAD that I absolutely adore. However, the assumption follows that wine may now be available to the world at an inexpensive dollar amount, but what you are getting in that bottle is not a wonderful expression of wine. (Obviously, these factors change again if you do not care at all about the characteristics or quality of a wine.)
In its most basic form, herein deeply lies the idea of supply and demand in the world market. Inexpensive wine has become desirable to many. Thus, vineyards grow grapes. Wineries make wine. Wineries and liquor retailers sell wine. And while technological advances in wine making have increased quality to a degree, issues surrounding good quality (and thus pricing and thus affordability) become apparent if you examine this question through the lens of sales. Inexpensive wines often do not show their variety well, are not able to be aged, are often off balance, and could be made with not-so-nice-additives such as oak flavoring. It’s true, let’s be real.
I have tasted numerous wines. Not as many as others, of course, but I have some experience under my belt. In my humble opinion, for a wine to be of decent quality, it should provide a sense of the grape, of terroir…of where the wine came from – of its place. While you can find wines like this at fairly decent prices, the lower in cost per bottle you go, the further away from these characteristics things seem to get. I suppose my thoughts leave me wondering if those who purchase the less-expensive bottles are actually getting a good taste of what “good” wine can be. While I understand that there are a number of factors that go into pricing a bottle of wine (ie. first year barrel costs), I am wholeheartedly wishing that we could find better quality wines at the $10 mark. I could start to rant about British Columbia liquor taxes now too, I suppose…
I cannot deny the fact that at its very basic nature, wine exceeds all classifications, as anyone of legal drinking age has wine at their fingertips. Sadly, I am inclined to conclude that wine is still a class-driven drink if, and only if, we are considering quality as a factor.