Separate wines, worlds apart

[upended bottle]I just got back from a trip to Norway and Denmark, and other than a fun night with some wine geeks in Bergen, wine was only occasionally on the menu. Not that it wasn’t available. In fact, many of the restaurants at which I dined had wine lists astonishing for their breadth and depth. Unfortunately, there was another astonishing thing about them: price.

The way wine is monopolized and, more importantly, taxed in the Scandinavian countries means that “everyday wine” doesn’t really exist as a category. Sure, the wines that would fit the bill elsewhere are technically available, but at shocking markups. $85 for Trimbach’s yellow-label riesling. $82 for the Hugel “Gentil.” And so forth. Naturally, the weak dollar doesn’t help, but even a strong dollar wouldn’t put much of a dent in these prices, and neither country is exactly cheap to begin with.

There’s a pair of silver linings on the edge of this gilt cloud, however, and one is that more expensive wines are not priced by demand, as they are in most competitive markets. Thus, the $75 Burgundy that shoots up to $300 in the States after a high score from some critic not only stays at its release price (albeit one higher than $75), but isn’t impossible to source, either. (Though there are limits to this; even in the monopoly systems, there are favored customers and “off-list” wines that end up in the hands of a chosen few.) The other is that restaurants seem fairly willing to cellar wines for a time, which means that while a 2005 version of a $20 wine may be a ridiculous $110 on a wine list, the 1990 version of that same wine may be only a few dollars more, making it commensurate – or even a value – compared to a similar wine on an American wine list.

The Bergen winos’ response to all this was to claim, only half-jokingly, that they “can’t afford to drink anything but the best.” I lived there, I’d be forced to do the same; anything else would be economically foolhardy. And it’s not like drinking really good wines is something to be upset about.

But I admit that I would miss the other kind of wine. The kind of everyday, non-intellectualized stuff that has, historically, formed the foundation of traditional wine-drinking cultures. I’m not just talking about the increasingly anecdotal jugs of local Côtes-du-Rhône that lubricated the equally anecdotal French peasantry, but about the wines both artisanal and industrial that form the bulk of what most people buy and drink on a daily basis.

I would miss this sort of wine because a daily glass (or two…or sometimes three) is, for me, a fundamental part of my enjoyment of a meal. Not all food embraces wine, and not all meals allow consumption, but its presence is always to be preferred to its absence.

Perhaps more importantly, I would miss these wines because I firmly believe they put the better bottles in their proper context. Yes, it’s possible to drink only great wines, and I know people outside Norway who do. In fact, I know people who refuse to drink anything other than the best of the best. I can’t fault them for doing so, but this behavior just isn’t for me. Not only do I enjoy the simple pleasures of humble food and wine in their proper context, but I find that I appreciate the qualities of better wine more keenly when those experiences have a broad and deep foundational perspective. The components and interweavings that make great wines great are all the more obvious when the alternatives have been internalized. And those who drink only the superstars can, occasionally, lose perspective on what they drink, fixating on the niggling details but losing sight of the fact that they are quibbling over degrees of greatness.

I don’t know if there’s much impetus to change, as both countries seem to have well-entrenched beer cultures that satisfy the needs of the lower end (and in Denmark, at least, some really extraordinary things are happening with that beer; watch this space, eventually, for information on one of them). But I do know that I was happy to uncork a bottle of something uncomplicated and moderately priced when I returned home. I’d actually drank better wines on the rare occasions I’d imbibed in Scandinavia. But there’s such a thing as comfort wine, you know.


  • Sharon

    September 15, 2008

    Great post; compelling thoughts. So what was your salutory cheapie?

  • thor iverson

    September 15, 2008

    Thanks, Sharon.

    The wine was a Brun “l’Ancien.” Very restorative. OK, sure, maybe cheating a little bit as it’s not exactly vin de table (a little joke there, just for us), but nothing like the excellent but certainly ambitious wines I drank with the Bergen crowd.


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