By Evan Dawson, Managing Editor

Last week I read the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Bonne's outstanding takedown of cheap, bulk wine. I sent it to a few friends who are marginally interested in wine, but occasionally gripe that wine is too elitist. I thought Bonne's piece was direct and, if you pardon the pun, on the money.

But a friend sent a reply that had me thinking. Here's the full email:


Nice piece by Bonne, but there's one thing he leaves out. He writes about wine as if it's the same as burgers or cars. Basically, he makes it seem like you can easily distinguish between a cheapo and a high-end product in each category. Now, that's certainly true with cars. And that's true with a lot of food. I used to love me some McDonald's, but now it makes me sick. On the other hand, a high-quality burger from choice meat is a thing of beauty!

So it's easy for even a novice to see the difference. I just think wine is different. Not too long ago I bougtht a 97 pointer for a price that I didnt want to tell my wife. And I bought a $9 87 pointer. I won't lie – they were both good. But I can't tell you that I found an obvious difference. And that $9 wine is made in huge quantities!

So is there something wrong with me? I'm not sending this email to bring wine down. I'm just raising the possibility that this writer (and a lot of writers) fail to realize that for most people, a lot of wines taste basically the same. Especially red wine.

Now, what to make of this?

First of all, I'm struck by his comparison of the mass-produced 87-point wine (disclaimer: I'm not a fan of point scores and wish he would have left that out of the discussion) and the expensive wine that he bought. My first guess is that each wine had a heavy dose of oak. Which is fine; people tend to like oak.

This isn't meant to become just another diatribe against oak. But that email led me to think of the most important advantage that the artisans have over the bulk producers: the source material. When a high-end restaurant makes a great burger, they tend to use excellent quality meat. McDonald's, on the other hand, uses CAFO-sourced meat, or aging dairy cows. So what does the fast food chain do? They load up the meat with salt, which is a flavor most people like and allows them to cover up the fact that their source material isn't very good.

And what does a bulk wine producer do with overcropped, mediocre-at-best fruit? He buries it in oak. Oak is the salt of the wine world. 

Now, can you imagine going to a high-end restaurant, ordering an expensive burger, and finding it buried in salt? What would be the point of all that salt? Why mask the flavor of the beef? Yes, there are other ingredients on that burger. But they're not simple seasonings. 

So why, then, are the high-end wine producers slapping the equivalent of a pound of salt on their wines? They already have the greatest advantage possible: They have great fruit! Their choice of oak is making their wine taste more like the bulk stuff. I'm not saying it makes their wine taste like bulk wine; I am saying, however, that it moves the needle more in that direction, even if faintly.

Do I think that most red wines taste roughly the same for novice drinkers? Assuming they're not flawed, I can see why my friend would say so. But no, I don't. I think most oak tastes the same, and too often these days, the fruit is not allowed the spotlight. If the fruit were championed and protected, casual consumers like my friend would have no doubt about the difference between plonk bulk wine and the wines produced from the world's top vineyards. 

To some degree, this is oversimplifying things. Great fruit can stand up to new oak, and integrate the flavors and aromas. But if you read James Suckling's tasting notes on some of the top 2009 Bordeaux, you'll find that those wines – which are supposed to be from one of the great vintages ever – come off sounding like hot fudge sundaes. Dark chocolate! Milk chocolate! Cocoa powder! A cherry on top! So even when we want to believe the best wines have seamlessly folded the oak in, we're often distracted by what that wood is doing.

This is not a perfect argument. There are flaws, and sure, I'm being provocative. I wouldn't take all wine out of oak. Absolutely not. I recognize the value in texture and structure that comes from time in wood. But do I think it's being overdone? Yes.

Part of the reason my friend had to hide his purchase from his wife was because elements like 100% new oak make wine more costly to produce, and that cost is passed on to consumers. A wine aged in more neutral oak could see the price come down for consumers, all while allowing the greatest attribute in the producer's arsenal – the fruit – to shine with less obstruction.

Regardless, I recommend that anyone who hasn't read Jon Bonne's piece to check it out. Keep it handy for friends who say there is no different between cheap and expensive wines. And maybe, if we're lucky, that difference won't be so subtle in the future.