Ashamed of That Cheap Wine You're Buying? 

Maybe that's because wine writers don't take you or it seriously.

According to independent research, Wine Spectator has 2,298,000 affluent readers who love wine.

The number occasionally climbs a bit, but the message, which appears regularly on one of the venerable magazine's heavy, oversize pages, is always the same: If you're ready to pony up a minimum of $33,000 for a four-color, full-page ad, call Miriam Morgenstern, the magazine's vice president and associate publisher. Despite the high price tag, plenty of advertisers — including some producers of the wines that receive Wine Spectator's highest ratings — heed the call.

Life is pretty good in the magazine's pages. A naked woman makes snow angels in the French Alps; a twentysomething man smiles dreamily through the smoke of his Cuban cigar; an attractive couple is served fresh Hawaiian opakapaka al fresco by the sea in a thatched-roofed gazebo lit by torches. Yes, life is pretty good for these exotic creatures called wine drinkers, but do their lives bear much resemblance to ours? Probably not — unless one of you is in the market for a Lexus with sensor-controlled windshield wipers and headlamps, several hundred acres of vacation property on the Florida coast, or an Embraer Phenom 300 $6 million executive jet.

Due to forces beyond Wine Spectator's control, however, all those high-end advertisers may one day find that the wine-drinking public has evolved dramatically from the exclusive club it used to be. Recent trends in how wine is sold, who's drinking it, and where they buy it are tilting the scales firmly toward the little guy. This is great news if your love of a daily glass of wine exceeds the size of your wallet. But if you're Miriam Morgenstern? Maybe not so great.

One thing that's long separated the United States from other major wine-producing nations is that wine has never been known in our popular consciousness as a drink of the people. In the United States, Everyman drinks beer — cheap beer, and lots of it. That's why we call him Joe Six-Pack.

But last year, polling firm Gallup announced that for the first time since it began tracking alcohol consumption in the United States, more respondents chose wine than beer as their favorite alcoholic beverage. Middle-aged and nonwhite drinkers were a big force in this trend, with a considerable drop in the percentage of Americans between 30 and 49 who drank beer more often than other alcoholic beverages, and an increase of 77 percent in the number of nonwhite Americans who preferred wine to beer or liquor. And while the gender stereotypes of women favoring wine while men choose beer did bear out somewhat, the boys were catching on, too — the number of men citing wine as their drink of choice has risen nearly 10 percent since the early 1990s.

Although beer regained an edge over wine in the latest poll, released earlier this month, the ascendance of wine is in evidence everywhere you look. In a nod to competitive pricing, restaurants are holding no-corkage-fee nights, and many are doing away with corkage fees altogether — while wine shops are grouping together bargain wines and giving them prime placement. Corner stores have gotten in the game too. Forget Mickey's Big Mouth: That little place down the street has tripled its inventory and now holds weekly tastings.

Just who is this new consumer whom retailers and restaurants are so eager to please? Maybe it's you. You're an antisnob with a lust for life and a desire to save both time and money when you shop. You may be intelligent and educated, health- and budget-conscious, and thirsty for knowledge about new varietals and grape-growing regions, what to look for in judging a wine, and how to pair wines with food. Then again, maybe you just think that nothing tastes more like grown-up soda pop than a nice oaky Chardonnay in the middle of a global-warming heat wave. If pressed, you could probably name three or four appellations, and you're pretty sure that "varietal" means a type of grape.

Whatever your tastes are, I'll call you and your kind Wineaux. It seems an apt moniker, capturing both your sophisticated palate and your lack of pretension. My informal survey suggests that you typically spend between $8 and $15 per bottle, but you won't scoff at a $2 or $3 wine if it meets your standards for drinkability.

"I look at wine through the same lens I use for burritos," says Danny Palmerlee, a bespectacled South Bay-dwelling tequila lover who used to live in Oakland — and whose work as a travel writer lets him expense good hooch in foreign lands. "A burrito is a staple, and you should be able to get a good one for under five dollars. Any more, and you're either missing the point or you're a sucker." Palmerlee expects the same value from Zinfandel, his grape of choice.

Michael Thomas is another Wineau, and a Berkeley alumnus who now lives in San Francisco. While he's willing to spend $40 on a bottle for a special occasion, once a month without fail he buys a case of Charles Shaw Cabernet — known to most of us as "Two-Buck Chuck."

Kay Keppler, a case-a-month gal living in Oakland, adds that while Chuck's Cab is her beverage of choice for drinking, she's thinking of replacing the chicken broth she uses for cooking with a case of Charles Shaw Chardonnay — "for reasons having to do with both economics and sodium intake."

It's no coincidence that when Wineaux talk about wine, Two-Buck Chuck gets a frequent mention. Produced by the Bronco Wine Company of Ceres in the Central Valley and sold only through Trader Joe's, Chuck became wildly popular soon after it hit the shelves. This was mainly a California thing, because while it's legal for California producers to sell directly to retailers within the state, other states require producers and retailers to work through a distributor. So thanks to these distribution laws, as well as taxes and transportation costs, Three- or Four-Buck Chuck is the best you can do in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Indiana.


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