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How Gavin Newsom’s Favorite Wines Reflect a Deep-Seated Industry Problem

On Tuesday night, during an event at the California Museum in Sacramento, California governor (and possible future presidential candidate) Gavin Newsom was asked what prized bottle of wine he has set aside for an extra-special occasion.

“Newsom—ever cautious to avoid being labeled elitist—was initially hesitant to answer the question,” according to Politico. First, the governor named a bottle of mass-market Robert Mondavi Coastal Chardonnay, which retails for under $10, and which he told the audience was “my political answer.”

Then, Newsom told the audience that his real answer was a 1947 bottle of Cheval Blanc, the legendary Bordeaux blend. Decanter called that wine “not only the finest Cheval Blanc of the 20th century but one of the finest clarets of that century.” It sells for over $20,000 per bottle (and was even name-checked in 2007’s Ratatouille by the animated film’s brutal food critic Anton Ego). Of course, Newsom—wary of being painted as an elite caricature by conservative media—immediately downplayed his Cheval Blanc, saying he’d bought this bottle almost two decades ago, for “a tenth of the price.”

Politics aside, Newsom’s answer arguably defines the wine industry’s identity crisis in a nutshell. Does the answer to the wine industry’s woes lie in becoming more populist? Or should it lean into high-end premium wines and accusations of snobbery, elitism be damned?

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As I wrote about two weeks ago, the complex problems facing the wine industry run deep. But a significant issue is the high-low limbo in which the industry finds itself. On the one end, too many brands want to sell poor-quality wines between $9.99 to $11.99. At the same time, they’re still desperate to be taken seriously as wineries. On the other end of the spectrum, the industry loves talking about prized wines that are mind-bogglingly expensive and so far out of reach to normal people that it’s almost a joke.

Neither side speaks to the sort of everyday drinker who actually wants to spend a reasonable amount of money on a good wine. Even Wine Opinions, an influential market research group, defines a “high-end wine buyer” as someone who buys at least one $20 bottle of wine per month. That accounts for roughly five percent of the American population—meaning more than 17 million people. Neither Newsom’s $10 Chardonnay nor his $20,000 Bordeaux speaks to those wine buyers.

Honestly, the wine-drinking public needs to get some perspective. Only the uninformed walk into a gourmet food shop or luxury clothing outlet or fancy jewelry store and whines, “Wahhh, don’t you have something that’s cheap, yet flatters my adult tastes, yet only costs $10.99?” No, most consumers accept that the prices of white truffles or Balenciaga bags or Harry Winston necklaces are high. While some may choose to plunk down the cash for those, others seek out less expensive but still fantastic quality options, which are advertised to those consumers. They don’t immediately run to dollar-store equivalents.

It could be the same with wine. There are plenty of wines that offer value and complexity, showing nuance and terroir, and cost $15 to $25. The falsehood of “populist” wines like Franzia and Two-Buck Chuck was they represented one half of a binary choice, that wine is either under $10 or over $100 and “elite.” That’s not actually how the vast world of quality wine works.

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Even if someone chooses to occasionally spend $100 on a wine—who cares? I have friends who spend hundreds of dollars on football tickets every Sunday. They would—rightly, I think—ridicule me if I suggested they could save money by attending a high school game on Friday night instead. I have a group of Gen X friends who recently paid $300 per box seat to watch a concert by Journey (and to be clear, this current version of Journey doesn’t even have the original lead singer from the 1980s). I know someone who regularly spends hundreds of dollars on vintage action figures and rare Lego sets. Are these the same people who are going to shame me as “elitist” because I’ve “wasted” $100 on a bottle of Barolo or Erste Lage Austrian Grüner Veltliner or Grosse Gewächs German Riesling?

People spend hard-earned money on the esoteric things they love all the time. So why is it only wine that’s subjected to accusations of “snobbery”? Because, for years, reverse snobbery—just like political populism—has been an irresistible marketing tactic. It’s one from which the wine industry desperately needs to distance itself.

You can follow Jason Wilson on Wine Enthusiast and click here to subscribe to his Everyday Drinking newsletter, where you’ll receive regular dispatches on food, travel and culture through the lens of wine and spirits.