Cheap Wine & The Wax-Coated Sticks of Brown

Reese's I think there is a connection between the degradation in the quality of classic candy and the rise of simply, flabby low priced wines.

First, let's admit that wines in the lower price categories that are made for American consumption do tend to be flabby, sweet, simply wines with little character. They are, in my opinion, delivery vehicles for alcohol disguised as sweet fruitiness that is slippery on the tongue. The California Central Valley and Australia has been pumping out these benign, unchallenging, hollow mixtures for quite some time.

I don't think low priced wines were always such wimpy destroyers of interest. There was a time when you could expect even a lower priced Cabernet to pick up the fat left on your palate from a good rib-eye and wash it down your throat. Not so much anymore.

Now take Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Does anyone remember when you could eat around the edge of the cup and the chocolate on the edge would break off nice and crisp giving you  bite of chocolate you could chew and sink your teeth in to?
  I remember this. I remember nibbling around the edge of the Reese's, slowing the experience and making the candy last.

Today if you try to nipple around the edge of a Reese's, there is no snap to the outter edge of chocolate. The teeth sink into the mushy chocolate like a pitchfork into quicksand. Why the change? I don't know. But I know the effect of whatever change came to the Reese's is that it's quicker and easier (in a manual way) to get the damn thing down your throat. Similar to the low priced wines.

Take the Nestle's Crunch Bar. Remember when it was really chocolaty. Remember when you could take a bite and if you let the bite sit in your mouth the chocolate would slowly melt away around the crisps, leaving a mouthful of chocolate coated crisps to chew on? Today, that same bite sits on your tongue with a distinct paraffin characteristic. It stays smooth and whole and takes a long time to melt in your mouth, influencing you to just swallow it down your gullet without any savoring of the ingredients and chocolaty goodness.

I could go on about the degradation in quality of the classic American candy bar, just as I could go on about the degradation in the low priced wines delivered to our drugstore and grocery store shelves. But what's the points?

Well, the point is that it used to be easier to find something of quality on the wine shelves that was priced to sell. Now, just as with American candy, it's harder to find that real value. It's harder to find a $6 Cabernet that doesn't offend us by assuming we just want to swallow it. It's harder to find a $1.00 candy bar that isn't a wax-coated stick of brown.

20 Responses

  1. Arthur - June 10, 2009

    Nice comparisons, Tom.
    I would say that there ARE mass-produced, low-priced exceptions to the low-acid, high-RS rule for Central Valley wines.
    More to the point, this low-acid, high-RS paradigm is manifest in many smaller and larger production wines from “premium” AVAs up and down California…

  2. Rob Woolley - June 10, 2009

    Like Arthur, I like your candy comparison… but I have no idea if it’s apt.
    I seem to recall that Sonoma based Kendall- Jackson was one of the first wineries to hit a home run with the low acid high-RS formula in Cyy.
    But I don’t remember you accusing them of pandering to the masses and degrading the quality of american wines.

  3. Kristinz - June 10, 2009

    I agree, interesting comparison. In my past life as a sommelier I LOVED to search out those bargain wines to pour by the glass but do think that more often than not these days, those bargains tend to blow me away much less frequently than they used to. Too many people looking to make a fast buck by cutting corners, manipulating the juice that Mother Nature provides, etc and that results in mediocre if not just simply boring wine.
    On the chocolate side of the argument, I thought you might find this story on Hershey’s interesting. I’m not sure it pertains to the Resses Peanut Butter Cup but interesting nonetheless.

  4. KenPayton - June 10, 2009

    Amen, Tom.

  5. LukeBohanan - June 10, 2009

    I like the comparison, and it is so endemic of popular taste across the board. Look at the popularity of American Idol and most bland music on the radio. Music isnt about shaking up the stutus quo anymore. The fact is you can always sell more “units” with a middle ground product. No one wants flavor anymore.

  6. Jason - June 10, 2009

    I’ll second Rob’s point.
    It’s a core concept of any business — giving the people what they want (or “pandering to the masses” as naysayers will describe it). This style of easy-drinking, low acid, high RS wine hits a sweet spot (pardon the pun) on the palates of an overwhelming majority of Americans. There’s no deliberate degradation of quality going on here with respect to value winemaking — it’s just giving the people what they want.
    For most people, these wines that you refer to as dull/lifeless/etc are the only ones they can drink without grimacing from astringency or tastebud overload. If I had a dollar for everytime I’ve been in a tasting room and heard someone ask “Do you guys make any sweeter wines?”…
    Reese’s chocolate may be a wax-coated cup of brown to a few, but if they started making it with only the finest gourmet high % dark chocolate, it would quickly tank. And likewise, if jugs of Hearty Burgundy started being filled with juice from Opus One and sold at $6… few would buy it because few palates would be able to tolerate it.

  7. Thomas Pellechia - June 10, 2009

    Anyone remotely connected to the food and drink world knows by now that blending fats, sugars, salts, and even more sugars and fats is all that matters–and if it can be done synthetically, why not?
    Do this enough, and the overall palate of a culture expects bland, and pays for it in many ways.
    Those so-called candies are mainly glops of emulsifiers with flavoring. You might as well spend the dollar on a lottery ticket.
    As for mass wines, a winemaker I knew once said told me that sugar is the opiate of the masses and whenever he has a wine that needs help, he added more sugar.

  8. pinger12 - June 10, 2009

    Good analogy Tom–although it could be easily argued that just about every consumable has declined in quality since our youth. Remember the flavor of a Coke or a Pepsi? Remember potato chips when they were super-loaded with fat and salt?
    In my experience the loss of acceptable inexpensive American wines concurs with the increase in acceptance of super-premium American wines on the world stage. In my youth in New York the best “value wines” were “finds” from California–Dry Creek Chenin Blanc, Liberty School Cabernet, Rutherford Ranch Zinfandel, Trefethen Eschol White and Red. Today the best values are certainly from elsewhere. Among South American Malbecs, Spanish and Portuguese wines, South African wines great values can be found. Food wines with great structure and acid backbone can be found for $10.

  9. zonk - June 10, 2009

    Plus in Canada double the cost of the candy same bar & triple the cost of the same wine.

  10. Samantha - June 10, 2009

    I hear you pal, I hosted a white Burgundy evening a few weeks ago and this one couple kept telling me that they liked wines, “With more flavor” which of course meant sweetness and oak, the subtlety of the more reserved wines was lost on them. Think about the restaurants, (read chains) that are all over the country, bland, boring, giant plates of food with little by way of purity or freshness. The American palate has been dumbed down and there are millions that are fine with that, “it’s good enough”…thankfully there are people like all of us that push for more, are willing to pay a little extra for “better” and teach others that there is in fact, more interesting options.

  11. Director of Lab Cultural Affairs - June 10, 2009

    Tom, I love the cynicism. It’s spot on. But isn’t it true that when candy was great, we didn’t really care much about varietals? Red wine was “Claret”. And when candy was good, we started drinking varietals we didn’t know how to pronounce (CHAB-less). Now candy sucks, but nobody’s forcing us to drink the grok.
    And just by the way, I think Luke has missed the mark on the many subtle wonders of American Idol.

  12. Thomas Pellechia - June 10, 2009

    Mr. director of lab cultural affairs, get your facts straight: the real Claret never was a varietal and American ‘Chabless’ is not and never was a varietal either. But chocolate and peanut butter candy used to be made of chocolate and peanut butter.

  13. jb - June 10, 2009

    “There was a time when you could expect even a lower priced Cabernet to pick up the fat left on your palate from a good rib-eye and wash it down your throat. Not so much anymore.”
    Devil’s advocate: When was this time? And, adjusted for inflation, are good “lower-priced” wines now really that much higher-priced than they used to be?
    Not trying to be a pain in the neck, but I do think these questions bear consideration…

  14. Dawn - June 11, 2009

    I have to disagree with you. Assuming your definition of “cheap” is “inexpensive.” Lower end wines have vastly improved from 5 – 10 years ago when they simply tasted like a syrupy or sour hangover in a bottle (or box). There are lots of decent wines available at $10 – $15. Good balanced wines that are fun to drink.
    Inexpensive wines fill a need, and with modern blending techniques they are much better than they were 10 years ago. Nothing costs the same as it did 10 years ago (or even 2 years ago). Mad Dog and Boone’s Farm were $3 bottles of wine.
    As for the decline of Hershey chocolates — sadly I must agree.
    That said, This whineaux loves her chocolate and inexpensive red wine.

  15. Director of Lab Cultural Affairs - June 11, 2009

    Thomas, I would love to argue this out, but I don’t think we disagree. I was merely suggesting that the halcyon days for candy and wine by don’t exactly map. To say that when we didn’t care about varietals, red wine was generally knows as claret makes the same point as your correction. Namely, that claret is NOT a varietal. I don’t think I was claiming Chablis is/was a varietal either (although I think it would be fair to say it is synonymous with Chardonnay; I think other grapes are allowed under the rules of the AOC, but must be designated as Bourgogne). I was merely hoping to suggest that in the period after the 1970s, when drinking… let’s call them, cultivars, came into fashion, most of the wine drinking public was drinking from jugs.
    I agree with Tom W that candy has been dumbed down. But I think that wine has always had a cheap Reese’s equivalent.
    I certainly apologize if in my zeal to be brief I was unclear.
    I probably suspected I wasn’t making that interesting a point and so tried to make up for it with cleverness.
    My bad.

  16. Thomas Pellechia - June 12, 2009

    I was tweaking you. Should have done a 😉
    Yet, I do find it hard to accept that just because America woke up to domestic wine in 1976, and the varietal craze mushroomed thereafter, somehow it has become a historical ‘fact’ that all wine is a varietal. As you note, the AOC system still exists, not to mention that here at home there is the pesky 75% rule…
    Score one more in America, where hucksterism trumps reality, and peanut butter chocolate candies are made of, perhaps, 25% wax.

  17. Dylan - June 12, 2009

    I’m curious to hear an answer to jb’s question. It may be a matter of expectations and inflation rather than an actual shift in quality. Of course, there’s always the other question: Are we just entering an age where indeed you get what you pay for? Don’t eat Reeses and expect Godiva.

  18. Thomas Pellechia - June 12, 2009

    It is NOT a matter of expectations, unless one expects what used to be chocolate to now be Minwax instead.
    The emulsifying world has taken over the candy world. It’s all about how the fats, sugars, and salts feel in the palate and little about what they are made from.
    And yes, that’s also connected to inflation. Pay more, get less, help build their profits.
    For instance, the discovery of high fructose corn syrup probably saved Coca Cola billions in sugar costs over the years. Do you think they passed that gain to soda drinkers?

  19. Roberto N. - June 12, 2009

    A while back, Hershey’s even stopped marketing some candies as Chocolate and used: “Chocolate Flavored Candy” Instead. So much for good old chocolate. After all it’s all about making a buck with cheap, low cost items that will sell by the thousands.

  20. Dennis Eagles Nest Winery - June 13, 2009

    Tom you make some interesting points/ analogies in this post. I find more interesting wines in the boutique category. They aren’t the consistent but mind numbing large winery fare and you do get a pricey dog once in a while e.g. if you age an unworthy candidate too long. Sub $10 dollar wines can be daily fare but they are generally unmemorable. I find boutiques consistently interesting with again an occasional dog thrown in.

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