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Drinking the Least Bad Wine

By Karen MacNeil
August 10, 2018

A Guest Blog

by Kelli White

Note from Karen: My friend Kelli White is a sommelier and author. Her book “Napa Valley, Then & Now” is one of the definitive texts on Napa Valley wines. Recently Kelli and I were judges at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London and she told me her strategy for drinking bad wine. It’s hilarious and helpful. Here it is, straight from Kelli herself.

In the past decade, I ripened from a 20-something to a 30-something, during which time I traveled extensively for work and moonlighted as a semi-professional wedding guest. Between all those hours clocked in coach and bouncing about to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” (brides have a fucked-up sense of humor), I learned something about myself: I’m a wine drinker.

It’s true. My profession mandates that I admire all liquid intoxicants, but in terms of my personal drinking preferences, I’ve realized that cocktails get me too rowdy and beer makes me feel too full. This means that, when a long flight or a longer wedding calls for a tipple or two, I’m stuck shopping the bottom of the wine shelf.

This in and of itself doesn’t bother me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with cheap wine. A simple unoaked light red or a dry, quaffable white can be the perfect companion to a warm summer afternoon or taco Tuesday. Not every wine that passes my lips has to be collectable, profound.

The inexpensive wines I take issue with are the top shelf pretenders—those that distort themselves to imitate luxury. This generally means oak chips in lieu of oak barrels, concentrate instead of concentration, and more than a spoonful of sugar to help it all down. The result is often a wine that feels tinkered with, that tastes cheap, which is quite a different thing than simply being cheap.

Though a few airlines now offer quality wines (even back where I sit!), a good drink is far from guaranteed, and weddings are a completely lost cause. As such, I have developed the following rules to help you have the best bad time watching a Marvel movie on a tiny screen or toasting your second cousin’s second chance at happiness.

  1. White over red. If producers would simply bottle light, fresh, and fruity reds, I wouldn’t have to worry. But it seems that even the least expensive wine is fashioned to resemble a Napa Cabernet. And as red wine is generally more expensive to produce than white wine, very inexpensive reds tend to taste more manipulated. For this reason alone, and not at all because I’m clumsy and tend to dribble on myself, I generally eschew red wines on airplanes and at weddings, and reach exclusively for white.
  2. Dry over sweet. Off-dry or overtly sweet German Rieslings can be among the most ethereal, evocative wines in the world, and a little sugar can have a pleasant balancing effect in many sparkling wines. But cheap sweet wine is generally produced by adding sugar back to a fully-fermented and sterilized wine. As with ska music, the results of such a process aren’t always awful, but awful’s a pretty safe bet. In any case, it’s certainly less good than drinking a naturally dry wine.
  3. Unoaked, always. I worship Chardonnay. Chardonnay produces my favorite wines in the world, which is probably why I shudder at the thought of it brought so low. But as oak seems to be an inextricable part of the cheap Chardonnay formula, I avoid it. I simply cannot abide fake oak flavor. Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, is the ideal—it can retain relatively good quality at high crop loads and is rarely oaked. In short, even at low price points it is allowed to be exactly what it often is—a simple dry white table wine. (Italian whites and Albariño are also quality options, when you can find them.)

My strategy in action. A few years ago, I flew to Peru on Taca airlines. When the flight attendant trundled by offering beverages, I inquired as to their white wine selection. She smiled broadly and proclaimed, with a remarkable degree of confidence, “We have two white wines available: Chardonnay and Vardonnay.” My smile widened to match hers and I asked for the Vardonnay, please. I had no idea what to expect but I felt sure that whatever it was would be less bad than the Chardonnay.

She handed me a small bottle. I unscrewed its tiny top and poured its golden contents into my plastic cup. It was simple, it was clean, it was dry, it was the greatest Vardonnay of my life.

All four bottles of it.