Price Differentiation and Class Consciousness
Apparently, more expensive versions of products are often better.
NYT wine critic Eric Asimov, reflecting on the recent death of budget wine purveyor Fred Franzia, asks, “Two-Buck Chuck: Wine of the People or Cultural Wedge?“
Mention Two-Buck Chuck, the nickname for the famously cheap Charles Shaw wines made by Bronco Wine Company, and you are likely to get two completely different reactions from wine drinkers.
On the one side are people who see it as a bottle for those who want to enjoy wine without spending a lot of money. On the other are people who see it as a cheap wine whose producer used it to make a cynical case that those aspiring to better (and more expensive) wines constituted a snobbish elite.
I have wine with dinner just about nightly and say: Why not both?
I remember the wine as uninteresting, but I last drank it more than a decade ago. I wanted to try it again, but the line of Charles Shaw wines, which includes numerous variations beyond the original red blend, is sold only at Trader Joe’s. The sole Trader Joe’s wine shop in New York shut down last month, so I was out of luck.
I was going to snarkily suggest that Asimov could probably have gone to New Jersey (which turns out not to have any Trader Joe’s locations) or Connecticut (which has stores in eight cities) but it turns out that twelve cities in New York have stores. Including Brooklyn, which has three and Long Island, which has one. And nine in New York City—including a location on 6th Avenue that’s an 8-minute drive from the New York Times building. Alas, New York and Connecticut have bizarre laws that confine wine sales to specialty stores.
Having had Shaw wine more recently than Asimov, though, I can corroborate his recollection. It’s perfectly drinkable table wine. No more, no less.
Still, the relative quality of the wine was beside the point. The price was the attraction: $2 (or a few dollars more outside of California).
Compromises must be made to sell a wine for just a few dollars. Almost all of them work against high-quality wine.
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.
It may not occur to many wine drinkers to ask these questions. But they do matter, especially if you are concerned about farming methods and conditions for agricultural workers.
Well . . . sure. But that’s true of just about any product we buy in a globalized economy.
And they matter to people who care about where a wine comes from and whether it expresses the distinctive character of a place.
Well, by definition. But what if—and this is a hypothetical here—price matters? What if—hear me out here—sometimes people aren’t willing to shell out twenty bucks for a bottle holding four glasses of wine? Or—and I’m just spitballin’ here—they can’t afford to?
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.
The latter group is much, much, much smaller. I at least overlap with that group, although I spend less time and energy on wine now than I did before I had kids.
A lot of people would never pay more than a modest price for a wine, regardless of how it’s made. But I do take issue with cynical companies that peddle false messages to consumers to hype their products.
Two-Buck Chuck did not damage American wine culture. But Mr. Franzia relentlessly told American wine drinkers that no wine could possibly be worth more than $10. “Elites,” he argued, were trying to brainwash people with all their talk about terroir and nuances.
“You tell me why someone’s bottle is worth $80 and mine’s worth $2,” he said in a 2009 profile in The New Yorker. “Do you get 40 times the pleasure from it?”
His message not only promoted his own company’s products, it also destroyed the notion that any wine could be better.
You don’t have to become a trained sommelier, or even drink a lot of wine, to differentiate a $5 bottle from a $50 bottle—although I’ve had some pretty mediocre high-priced wines. But Franzia wasn’t arguing otherwise. He was suggesting that you can get a perfectly enjoyable bottle for a modest price and that the increased enjoyment from a super-expensive wine might not be proportionate to the price differential.
This is not a remarkably controversial idea. I doubt many folks would argue that, say, the Mercedes S Class isn’t a superior automobile to a Toyota Camry. Whether it’s worth four times as much is debatable. But it’s an academic debate for most people, who simply can’t afford to shell out more than $100,000 for transportation. And the Camry is a damn fine automobile.
Beyond that, Franzia most assuredly did not “destroy” the idea that some wines are better than others. The New York Times still employs a wine critic! More importantly, despite the interview being published way back in 2009, stores—including ones like Costco that target budget-minded consumers—still continue to offer wines at a shockingly wide variety of price points to this very day.
People who are passionate about wine knew better, but for others it confirmed a suspicion that wine was all a bunch of foolishness. And for people who might have been curious about wine, it raised doubts.
Not any more than the existence of a shoe aisle at Walmart killed off Manolo Blahnik and Gucci. Sure, there are people who genuinely don’t care about fashion, cars, and wine and just see them as clothing, transportation, and an intoxicant. Mostly, though, people simply make trade-offs with limited resources at their disposal.
I’m a suit guy. I make a decent living. So, I would never buy a suit at, say, Target. But while I could theoretically afford it, I can’t justify dropping $10,000 on a Saville Row bespoke or even $5000 on an off-the-peg Brioni. For those with the means, though, I fully understand why they’d spend the extra dough on the best.
Many in the wine industry rationalize industrial, inexpensive wines as starter bottles. Novices begin with these wines, the thinking goes, and then make better choices once they get accustomed to wine. Mr. Franzia blew up that argument as well. If all wine was the same, why would anybody move up?
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.
Right. I mean, why would anyone spend $200,000 on a crappy little starter home when they could get a decent place for $500,000? Or just spend $1,000,000 and get something really nice? The fools!
Even as a regular wine drinker solidly in the upper middle class income-wise, $20 is a bit much to drop every evening. I’m perfectly content to step down to a $7 bottle of perfectly decent table wine and move up to more complex bottles for special occasions or even Sunday night dinner.
There is a really odd class dynamic going on here:
Mr. Franzia, who was born and reared in the Central Valley, reserved particular vitriol for Napa Valley, which he regarded as the headquarters of wealthy, self-important wine elites.
“Take that and shove it, Napa,” he said in 2009 after passing the 400-million-bottle mark in sales of Charles Shaw.
His role model, he told The New Yorker, was his uncle, Ernest Gallo of E. & J. Gallo Winery, the biggest wine producer in the United States, whom he compared with leading figures in Napa Valley like Robert Mondavi. (Bronco is seventh-biggest, according to Wine Business Monthly.)
Mr. Gallo “never wanted to forget he was poor. Bob Mondavi’s objective was to forget he was poor. That’s the essence of the San Joaquin Valley versus the Napa Valley right there,” Mr. Franzia told the New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear. “We are who we are. They want to pretend they’re royalty.”
My parents drank a lot of Gallo wine and its equivalents. I find them just about undrinkable these days. Ditto Folgers and Maxwell House coffee.
We have a lot better options, even at relatively affordable price points, than existed fifty, or even twenty, years ago in food and drink options. But those differentiations in quality and choices also create resentments.
In 1972, the banker and the baker were likely drinking the same brand of coffee, beer, and bourbon—maybe even smoking the same cigarettes. Peet’s coffee opened its first store in 1966 and Starbucks followed in 1971 but it took quite a while for that wave to go national. Single malt Scotch was barely a thing and craft beer and bourbon were a ways off.
The variety of choices is amazing now and there are really excellent options at just about any price point. But, like wine, Scotch and bourbon have limited supplies and the most coveted bottles are mostly available to wealthy speculators. There are some willing to spend the time, effort, and money to chase down a unicorn bottle of Pappy Van Winkle; most of us will just settle for Maker’s Cask Strength.
One might accept Mr. Franzia as a jovial huckster, promoting a message so obviously exaggerated that nobody would take him seriously. But many people believed him.
Mr. Franzia was not the first person in the United States to argue that expensive wines are no better than cheap ones and to gleefully dismiss a long history of appreciation and understanding of these wines. Wine has long been singled out as a con game intended to separate fools from their money.
Mr. Franzia liked to say that Two-Buck Chuck was the People’s Wine, but in his hand it was a crowbar, used to divide wine drinkers.
Yes, it was only Franzia and his ilk that used wine to divide people along class lines. Eyeroll emoji.
It’s of course not all Mr. Franzia’s fault that wine has been associated with snobbery. The wine industry itself is much to blame with its history of pretentiousness, and its absurd rituals and vocabulary that convey the message that one must be a connoisseur before one can enjoy wine.
If all Mr. Franzia did was belie that association, I would have no quarrel with him. Instead, he did his best to corroborate it.
Honestly, I think he was just trying to sell more wine. And make people who mostly drank cheap wine feel like it wasn’t a crime. But, yeah, he clearly seemed to resent those who looked down on those who thought they were better than him because they made or consumed more expensive wine.