Food and wine have a storied history together. But as a food writer I rarely cross the line. I can rarely detect the gooseberries, duck butter, Spanish leather, and other flavors that are so apparent to others. I think oaky flavors are overrated, and white wine only recently became interesting to me, when I finally tried the good stuff and realized you really can taste flowers.
Luckily for my purposes, fussing about wine isn't necessary. Most of what I know about wine I've learned with my mouth full. A sip, without a bite to chew it with, is a sip gone to waste. This understanding exists at the level of common sense, and has little to do with expertise. If there's steak in my mouth, I'll grab the closest glass of red and be quite happy with it.
Do a taste test comparing that Franzia to any $15 bottle on the shelf. Unless you choose well or get lucky, the Franzia easily wins at least half the time.
Despite being uneducated in wine, I'm more than capable of observing a key distinction in the wine world that usually flies under the radars of those who most need to know about it: the folks who don't have the money to flush down the toilet in the crapshoot that is fine-wine selection. As with other crapshoots, the house usually wins.
Cheaper wines are often made from blends of grapes, and there is a good reason for this: a skilled blender can coax good wine from mediocre grapes. Most prestigious and expensive vintages of wine are varietals, which means they're made from just one variety of grape. Those who can afford it will often keep track of which years were good for which types of grape from which areas, and will pay good money for excellent wines. But if they aren't careful, and lucky, they'll also end up paying silly prices for mediocre wines. In contests, blended wines don't usually compete against varietals, because that would be unfair. And some mixers have put their skills to use in more profitable ways, infiltrating the wine market with counterfeit vintages, carefully packaged in old bottles with oxidized labels. A recent article in The New Yorker documented how easily a good mixer can fool a top-level wine expert into authenticating counterfeits priced in the five figures.
But don't take my word for it. Go buy a box of Franzia Cabernet (not the Merlot or Chianti), which I consider a decent yardstick of value in a good cheap blend. The box costs $15 for five liters. A standard wine bottle has 750 ml, so the Franzia works out to about $2.25 a bottle—about what they pay in Europe for a bottle of good, cheap wine, usually blended. Do a taste test comparing that Franzia to any $15 bottle on the shelf. Unless you choose well or get lucky, the Franzia easily wins at least half the time. And even when it loses, ask yourself: Was the bottle seven times better than the box? That's a personal question, of course, one that's directly linked to your wallet.