Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Wine and the value of Value

I invite you to go into the comboxes in the latest PA wine thread, in which I’m arguing with commenter Andrew about the crazy Pennsylvania wine laws. The whole thread is worth reading, I think, for full context. Here’s something from one of my recent posts explaining why I get better value out of shopping at a wine store where I can depend on knowledgeable clerks helping me make my selection, as opposed to wine shops like the PA state stores, where there’s no guarantee the civil servant manning the cash register knows jack squat about wine, or bargain-oriented wine warehouses, which may save you money but can’t offer you expertise. Here’s what I had to say about all that; it’s a lesson in finding true value:


There is nothing wrong with not liking wine, or not caring enough about the way it tastes to be able to discern much difference among bottles. But I believe what I take to be your disinterest in the quality of wine blinds you to why it’s so important as a matter of thrift to have experienced help in the wine store. The PA model only makes sense for people who don’t care what their wine tastes like (e.g., one bottle’s just as good as another, so it doesn’t matter what you pick up) or people who are expert at wine, and who can negotiate the shelves with perfect knowledge and confidence.
I am neither. Wine is something I’m interested in, but I’m still a relative neophyte, and I love to learn. But given the relative expense of wine, it’s not a hobby I can afford to play hit-and-miss with. At Moore Bros., [the New Jersey wine shop where I buy my wine — RD] I’ve already established a relationship with a particular salesperson there. I talked with her when I first went in about the kinds of wines we liked, and the kinds we didn’t care for. This was valuable information, because it helped her draw on her knowledge of the store’s stock to guide us to bottles that would likely please us. It’s been a great relationship, because she’s helped us discover wines we wouldn’t have tried on our own, because of uninformed prejudices. Perhaps more importantly, we buy from Moore Bros. with confidence because we can be sure we’re not going to get a bum bottle. I’ve bought several cases from Moore Bros. since we moved here, and I can only think of a single bottle that I just flat-out didn’t like. That’s an incredible record, much better than I could accomplish on my own. In fact, I can tell you that most of the times I’ve been left to my own devices to pick my own wine in the state store, I’ve been disappointed with the results, and have felt more or less than I threw my money away.
The point here is that I only started getting seriously into wine when I discovered (in Texas) the value of finding a good wine store with knowledgeable, helpful staff, and establishing a relationship with them. I did that in Dallas, and I’ve done it here (though I have to go out of state to do it). This practice has opened up a wonderful world to me of wine-drinking and connoisseurship, and, more practically, it has taught me a lesson about value and thrift.
On the other hand, I guess I’d save money if I had to depend on the state store for wine, because I wouldn’t buy much of the stuff. The risk of throwing my money away would be too great. That, too, is a lesson in thrift, but is that really the one you want to learn, as opposed to learning from a positive example that brings a lot of pleasure, and even joy?
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posted July 10, 2010 at 4:25 pm

When people hear arguments like this out of me, I often get one of two things: 1) raised eyebrows, a quizzical look, and a “Yeah, so?” or 2) a comment along the lines of “Don’t be a snob.” I’m not being a snob, and yes, it is important to enjoy things. Sometimes that means a little education with your purchase.
I remember the old Frugal Gourmet shows where the Frug [Jeff Smith] would rant on this: frugality is not cheapness. Frugality means getting the most out of your money and time. Why buy a four buck bottle of wine if it is mostly undrinkable? Why stay at a 39 dollar a night motel when you don’t get any sleep? Why not search for what is the best balance of cost versus quality. A little work and a little extra expense can be worth it sometimes.
This is why America doesn’t really have a reputation for its everyday cuisine. Our ingredients are often based on commodities and as such YMMV on quality. Michael Pollan, in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” pointed out that certain foodstuffs from certain regions [say, carrots from Michigan] have a higher quality and nutritional value, but our food system mixes everything together. Corn is corn, carrots are carrots, beef is beef [the current craze over “registered Angus” notwithstanding].

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the stupid Chris

posted July 11, 2010 at 12:58 am

Life is too short for bad wine or bad food. Assuming the food budget remains flat, it’s better to eat and drink less of higher quality than to default to the “supersized fries” and “free 2liters of soda” that passes for value (based solely on quantity, not quality) in America.
And a knowledgeable staff is critical to either endeavor, but it’s easier to find a knowledgeable wine store than a knowledgeable butcher or produce guy these days…

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barry venison

posted July 11, 2010 at 4:31 am

Dear Rod,
This is the sort of topic that truly animates you. Why don’t you pursue this line on a full-time basis? It is only in the realm of food and spirits and gardening that you truly shine as a writer and thinker. You ought to, as they say, “go for it.”
Barry Vinson

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posted July 12, 2010 at 8:35 am

An aside regarding the state store madness:
That phamous Philadelphian Ben Franklin wrote that nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes. To which the eternal survival of the Pennsylvania state store system can be added.
There is one sure way to commit political suicide in the Keystone State: Support abolition of the state store system. Just ask the hapless pols who have done just that.

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Dan O.

posted July 12, 2010 at 9:45 am

In a down economy, I’m thankful whenever somebody speaks about value in the sense in which expertise adds value. Not only do I feel pleasure receiving value in expertise (there’s a wonderful wine store around the corner from my apartment), but I feel good paying for it (also, the owner has a daughter exactly a year younger than mine).
As somebody who designs high-efficiency, high-comfort heating systems for a living, I wish that people felt that way about more things than wine. We might have more comfortable buildings and use less fossil fuels. Instead, my industry is price-driven.
This kind of value is what drives my argument for carbon taxes. Carbon taxes place a premium on expertise rather than technology. Targeted subsidies, instead, place a premium on technology. That’s pointless, if the technology is misapplied or not implemented correctly.
I also wish that valuing expertise were not considered snobbish. I could then design comfortable and efficient heating systems for people who spend more time at home (and therefore should desire comfort), and who need to spend less on fuel for their family budgets.

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