Highway Robbery & a Headache in a Glass

While waiting for the Pogues to go on last night, Julie Wanda, Wes, and I stood in the beautiful art deco lobby of the Wiltern Theatre and watched the world go bay. Wes and I both wanted to get a drink and Wanda warned us off, “The drinks are bad and expensive. DON’T do it.”
Now wine is really the only alcohol I can consume without getting sick, really sick, due to allergies to brewer’s yeast, wheat, rye, corn, and barley, as well as gluten troubles (no beer). The grape is my friend. Except many wines are not my friend, as wineries use a lot of hidden ingredients that are not listed on the bottle and I am allergic to some of them. The worst of it is that many wineries use oak chips with wheat gluten to give that oak-ey taste, and that becomes a celiac problem. Given that the US does not require all the wine additives to be listed on the bottle, drinking a glass of wine can be a crap shoot. When wine is good, it is very good. When it is bad, it is very bad.
The cheaper the wine, the more likely that it will be a dreadful headache in a bottle. Wineries add a variety of sugars, flavors, and chemicals to non-vintage grapes to make the wine tasty and higher in alcohol, thus the evil wine headache. American wineries do this (avoid any wine labeled “California” rather than a county or a wine region). Chilean wineries do it. So do the Australians. etc. etc. etc.
I have had a ton of folk tell me they don’t drink wine due to the fact it gives them a headache. If you go to a reputable wine shop, like the Wine Country, and attend one of their tastings, you can learn more about vintage and regional wine and which ones are drinkable and which are not. In my experience, the drinkable, no-headache wines, tend to be over $10 a bottle and are usually not sold at my local grocery store, or if they are at the local grocery store they are over $15 a bottle.
And I am hear to tell you that due to economics in food & beverage business, the likelihood that any of us will find a drinkable, no headache wine by the glass at a bar or restaurant or concert venue is very very slim. Most bars can get [Name Large Company Swill Here] for under $4 a bottle from their distributor, pour up to 5 glasses of wine on the bottle, and then charge you $5-7 for your headache. Do the math, it is too good for them to turn down.
Even the *supposed* “premium” wines like BV, Chalone, Kendall Jackson, etc., sold by the glass at many restaurants also are mass produced by very large companies and have many unlisted additives (BV is a huge headache in a bottle for me). The LA Times earlier this year in its weekly Food section reported that there is a movement afoot to get legislation passed that would require all wine in California to label all ingredients and additives. It is not just the big producers but also little wineries have piped up in opposition to this movement as they say it takes the “mystery” out of wine making. I call bullshit on this. Your mystery is making me sick.
I have poured over the big distributor’s catalogs while in the office at Alex’s, I can tell you many of the non-headache wines start at $9 – 11 per bottle via the distributor, even if you or I can buy that same bottle at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods for $12 (TJs is using economies of scale to make a slim profit). What bar owner is going to get the good wine when they can make oodles off the cheap wine?
But it is a self-defeating loop, as then customers won’t buy the wine after a while due to it giving them a headache, the bar then says, “We don’t really sell wine, so we should only get the cheap stuff.” The bartenders are skeptical and when you ask, “Do you have wine?”, they make a face and thus sell less wine.
We have broken the cycle at Alex’s by finding a decent priced, decent tasting, not-too headachey wine (Sangre de Toro), that customers like a lot and the bar sells before the open bottles go bad. So, when I am out at another concert venue, I am always hopeful that they too have taken the plunge to get better wine… I am also hopeful for world peace, too. I am an optimist.
Last night, at the Wiltern, they were serving a mass produced Australian white and red. Julie warned me off of it, and I foolishly hoped it might be decent. $7 later, I had a glass of wine in hand. It tasted decent on the first few sips and then degraded from there. Halfway through the headache started and I today I have had a huge headache all day. A headache from less than one glass of wine.
And I was charged $7 for the headache. Nice.
Wiltern, you are a great concert venue, you can serve good wine and still make a profit without gouging your customers. Thank you.