Wine’s Siren Song May Never Be Heard by Some

But even ordinary drinkers deserve good wines—not industrial, cynically-made bottles

Do wine drinkers invariably trade up? Is there a predictable sequence for experience, starting with mundane wines and moving forward to more expensive, possibly pretentious and “sophisticated” wine?

I don’t find these to be useful questions. They can’t be answered except to say, “It depends.” The more salient question is, “Depends on what?”

I have a friend who’s a professor of musicology. I’ll call him Clive. Clive is, obviously, a cultured person. He has expertise in aesthetics and related sociological theories. Such interest as he may have had for wine was tangential. He enjoyed wine but didn’t pursue it as a hobby. At our dinner table one evening, I thought about what to serve him and arrived at a plan to serve excellent wines that would suit the food, but not to make wine the center of attention. (The latter can be a clear and present danger if you accept an invitation from wine people.)

With the first sip of the first wine, though, Clive’s attention was claimed in its entirety. “Oh my, this is good,” he exclaimed. “I’ve never had a wine like this.”

I began to form a theory, watching his captivation. I decided to test it by opening a truly exceptional wine and seeing how or if he would be similarly roused. It was a 2002 Hermannshöhle Spätlese from Dönnhoff, one of the most respected properties in Germany’s Nahe, which you may recognize as stellar. As did Clive. It was not only apparent; it was obvious to him that a wine moment was taking place. I came to believe that the qualities of excellent or even superb wine would be evident to any aesthetically cultured person, regardless of what avenue of culture he or she usually drove down.

Thus the partial answer to the question of wine drinkers trading up is almost fatuously self-evident. They trade up when something motivates them to. If wine gives you sensual or intellectual pleasure—or both—then you will follow it to whatever degree your budget allows. That kind of person will probably trade up.

But if you’re just a casual wine consumer, I doubt if you move beyond that. Why should you? Your aesthetic receiver doesn’t get wine’s signal. It’s just an ordinary and not terribly keen pleasure, and the occasional “glass of wine” will suffice.

Maybe you are somewhere in between. Wine is some abstruse thing to you. You hear people say it is interesting, but you haven’t had your big wine moment, and perhaps you never will. And yet, if you do, if it comes along unplanned and by accident, you will respond if you were somehow primed to respond. You’ll be surprised by a new source of joy and absorption. But such people are thin on the ground, I think. There aren’t many blank slates. “Wine” is enough a part of the culture that most grown-ups have established a relationship to it, one way or another.

Recently an idea was put forth that we should not disdain the many crude and commercial wines, because they could be certain people’s point of entry into wine. This idea, for all its enticing populism, is nonsense. To believe it, you would also need to assert that we should applaud people eating Twinkies because they will then go on to appreciate the organic artisan cupcakes from the shop on the corner. We should be happy that butts are in the seats at McDonald’s because those people will go on to cherish the Michelin-starred places. Can anyone make that case with a straight face? “They’re sitting in a dining room at a table, eating (sometimes) with knives and forks. It’s only a matter of time!”

Even if such a thing could ever be true, garbagey industrial wine would never be the agent of seduction. I happen to believe very strongly that the “ordinary” wine drinker gets far too little respect. There is no reason why anyone should spend more than they care to for an item they don’t care very much about. But I am convinced that these very people deserve to drink good wine, and as a merchant, I work hardest to find and offer such wines.

If a grower shows me his top wines, my response as an importer is simple: yes or no. I taste it, love it, scribble a few notes about it, and offer it. But finding an everyday wine often entails a lot of time: selecting the component lots from which it will be assembled, and then tasting and blending and tasting some more, until the grower and I are mutually satisfied that the wine is a fine ambassador for the domain, that it punches above its weight qualitatively, that it may be simple but it needn’t be dull, and that even the drinker who claims not to taste the difference between a $15 and a $35 wine should be offered an excellent $15 wine as a matter of principle.

If there is a way to bring people further into wine, that is the way—that alone. Indulging some pseudo-democratic romance about the utility of crappy industrial swill is likely to send the poor wine naïf running for the hills. But if you offer this person something hale and tasty, you may just awaken a dormant appreciation of wine’s gifts. It is worth doing regardless.

Terry Theise is the wine importer for Skurnik Wines. He is a winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional and is the author of Reading Between the Vines. He created a DVD entitled Leading Between the Vines and will publish a second book in late 2018.