In Praise of Table Wine

If you think wine is only for special occasions – for having with dinner when you go out to eat, for example, then read this now.  If you think that the only wine worth drinking costs over $10, read up immediately.

In Europe, they have something called table wine.  You sometimes see it on a label: vin de table or vino di tavolo, in French and Italian, respectively.  If you’re in France or Italy or Belgium, you can go to the local bistro or restaurant for your lunch and order the house wine and get it in a little pitcher or flask for two or however many are at your table and it’s good, tasty stuff.  Not the transcendence of, say, first growth Bordeaux or a spectacular Santa Rita Hills pinot noir.  But it’s a basic tasty wine meant to be part of the everyday experience.  And it’s pretty darned cheap.

So why do we Americans still seem mostly convinced that wine is only for special occasions or that it has to cost over $10 to taste good?  We think it has to do with the way many of us grew up with wine.  Thanks to the influence of our ancestors from the British Isles and Germany, Americans have largely drunk beer and spirits.  Wine was French or Italian and, therefore, unusual for the average person.  Unless you happened to be of Italian ancestry.  The only other people who drank wine with any regularity at all were the rich and they drank it with formal dinners, and it was imported and expensive.

Until the cheap California jug wines of the 1950s and 60s.  And let’s face it, that stuff was pretty grim.  As the wine industry in California grew, particularly in the 1970s, good California wine made by boutique wineries became available, though not plentiful, so we’re back to an expensive, special occasion drink.  In short, good wine in our country has always been associated with wealth and elitism and bad wine has been associated with being cheap and for high school kids and drunks on the street.

A couple years ago, when the Charles Shaw chardonnay won a double gold medal at the California State Fair, tons of people blasted it and poo-pooed the idea that a wine that retails for $2 a bottle (in California) could be that good.  And we have to say that Two-Buck Chuck (as it is familiarly known) is that good and it isn’t.  No, that’s not a comment on its inconsistency (and we frequently find the quality of the reds to be largely inconsistent).  It’s just not great wine.  It’s good wine – basic, tasty, everyday stuff.  It’s a table wine.  It doesn’t need to be anything else.

Turn up your nose, if you will, but we think it’s time we Americans got back to the idea of table wine.  If we demand good, basic wine at everyday prices, the market will supply it.  Winemakers aren’t fools and they want to make money.  And $10 is too much to pay for wine with dinner every night for many of us.

Wine with dinner is a good thing, when not abused.  It slows us down and reminds us of what’s really important – not the wine, but the people we love and care about, like our children and partners.  Wine with dinner reminds us that our family table is important and needs to be a priority in our lives because that’s how we connect with others.  Think about it.  In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, our main practice of worship revolves around a meal, the Pesach Seder and Shabbas, the Christian rite of Communion.  And for all we know, other religions do, as well.  We, as human beings, connect around food and wine and always have.

So let’s bring back the concept of the humble table wine and appreciate it for what it is.  It does get better than that, but it doesn’t have to.  Not every day, it doesn’t.

Please tell us what you think.