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Opinion Wine Rant

In Defense of Bad Wine

Remembering carefree parties and wines sipped from plastic cups

Henry Jeffreys By November 24, 2021
illustration of people in formal black attire drinking wine
Illustration by Irina Perju

Life’s too short to drink bad wine.

Few wine lovers have resisted spouting those words at one time or another. Apparently, Goethe came up with the saying, though that might be as accurate as all those quotes attributed to Orwell that people use to win arguments on Twitter. I associate it most with the late English political writer Simon Hoggart who for many years wrote a wine column in the weekly British magazine Spectator, not the Wine Spectator, and published a book called, yes you guessed it, “Life’s Too Short to Drink Bad Wine.”

A life in good wine

During the various lockdowns and restrictions that most of us have been subjected to since last year, those words took on a special resonance for me. I was fortunate enough to have a small but steady income from writing about wine and spirits and because we weren’t going out or going on vacation, for the first time in years I had a bit of excess money. Some people would have spent it on home renovations, I bought wine. During those long unchanging months, meal times assumed a totemic importance. My wife and I cooked lavish dishes, and I would spend ages thinking about the right wine to go with the food. In the middle of a global health crisis, it seemed silly not to open that bottle of Echezeaux I’d been saving. After all, life’s too short not to drink very good wine.

But after yet another daube de boeuf eaten with a nice bottle of Gigondas, I found myself longing for the kind of mundane occasions that I might have passed up in the before times: a neighbor’s barbecue, an old friend’s book launch, or a meeting up for drinks with work colleagues. And what do all these things have in common? The wine usually isn’t very good. It might just be boring or it might, like the wine served at the Daily Mail’s Christmas parties, be borderline undrinkable, but it won’t be the kind of wine enjoyed by Hoggart or indeed Goethe.

And yet some of the best times in my life have been spent drinking very ordinary wine: gossipy publishing parties I spent my life at in the ’00s fueled by warm white wine out of plastic cups, bottles of Jacob’s Creek with pretentious late-night discussions while listening to Leonard Cohen at university, or vacations in southern Europe drinking the thin acidic wine that was cheaper than mineral water. The day in Sicily, when I first met the woman who would become my wife, we were drinking mediocre wine, though the food was wonderful.

“Sometimes life’s too short to obsess over wine.”

When wine is a bit player

I recall a dinner paid for by a whisky company where another wine writer and I bored the table senseless choosing the wine. After a long day looking around distilleries, the table just wanted something to drink, but we pontificated over the list for a good twenty minutes before I ordered a great favorite of mine, a Clare Valley Riesling from Australia. Everyone hated it. 

For most people, wine quality isn’t that important. It’s fuel for conversation. I’m gradually learning not to try to force people to appreciate wine: just pour something palatable and if anyone goes “mmmm,” then that’s a bonus. When I meet new people, I try not to talk too much about my job as a wine and spirits writer because having a reputation as a wine snob can really put a crimp in your social life. Quite often I’ve had to reassure my host that I will in fact drink anything. My fear is that I might come across like a relative of mine who, when I offer him a glass of wine, asks me what it is and if he doesn’t like the sound of it, won’t have some or will ask me to open something else. I’ve even known him to send a wine back because he didn’t like it. In someone’s house. Who does this? 

Think what you might be missing while your nose is buried in the wine list. At some of the most important events of our lives, like weddings, christenings, and funerals, there will be bad or at least indifferent wine. But more than this, bad wine actually has a symbolic value from the communion wine in Christianity to the mevushal wine in Judaism — a wine that was deliberately made to taste unpleasant to discourage non-believers from drinking it. The point is not that it’s good, it’s that everyone is partaking. I can imagine some of the wine enthusiasts I know taking a sip of the wine at the wedding at Cana, and sending it back as it’s a bit watery.

Everything in its place

Don’t get me wrong, I love really good wine. I can’t wait until that case of 2016 Barbaresco in the cellar it’s really a cupboard is ready to drink. There’s a time and place to appreciate it, ideally with like-minded people, or better still on your own. But on some occasions, you just have to forget about the quality of the wine, knock back the sickly-sweet cheap prosecco, sip the warm Barefoot Merlot, smile, and raise a silent toast to life. Sometimes, life’s too short not to drink bad wine.