So much wine. Too much wine!

Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

Drinking to Blur Party Lines

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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There was perhaps a time in America when your political affiliation was a modest part of your identity, like your preference for the Rotary Club over the Lions Club, or for Fords over Chevys. Perhaps. If that time ever existed, it is clearly gone. Increasingly, politics is tangled up with your choices about everything from friendship to cars. The Republican who likes avant-garde novels and $200 nose-to-tail dinners, the Democrat who confesses to an unironic affection for Nascar and marshmallow Jell-O salad -- these aberrations may be tolerated, but there will always be a little asterisk next to their names, denoting a suspicion that they are not reliable party faithful.

In such an environment, no detail of your consumption should be left to the happenstance of personal taste, lest you inadvertently signal some sympathy with the amoral cretins of the opposition. Your house, your clothes, your home furnishings -- are all reflections of who you are as a person, which is to say, as a voter. Even your choice of wines may be safely left up to political ideology, now that National Review on the right and the Nation on the left have started offering wine clubs to their fans.

Naturally, I had to subscribe to both. I imagined a titanic showdown between the somewhat stuffy traditionalist wines of the heirs to William F. Buckley, and the strident cosmopolitanism of the Nation’s approach. Then I placed the orders, and realized that both wine clubs are supplied by the same third-party company.

In a way, this made things even more interesting. Would the wines in both shipments be the same, denoting the collapse of American politics into a single corporatist enterprise? Or would they be different -- the Nation’s box stuffed with little vintages hand-produced by impoverished Guatemalan villagers under a fair trade cooperative, the National Review box full of American wines with little flags on the labels? And which would be better?

For $70 apiece, I was sent two boxes of wine, each containing 14 bottles. Then I invited over my friend Matt Ficke, a software developer who used to be a sommelier and the manager of DC’s fanciest cocktail bar. We sat down with his wife, Becks, and my husband, Peter, to discover what we had.

Our first discovery was that we had too much wine. Twenty-eight bottles is too much to run through in a single tasting. Luckily, some of the wines were the same in both boxes, so we pushed the duplicates aside. That left us with 14 bottles to taste -- daunting, but we Americans have never let an obstacle like this slow us down, regardless of our political affiliation. Matt wielded the corkscrew, my husband lined up the glasses, and I opened my notebook. “Let’s start with the mediocre ones first,” said Matt. And boy, did we.

It took us three bottles to get to anything that anyone would consider drinking for any reason other than scientific inquiry. This was the Willow Springs California Cabernet Sauvignon (from National Review). My companions' reviews were more along the lines of “I would totally drink this” than “Let’s make a note of the name so we can buy it again.”

“This has many of the flavors that you associate with cabernet sauvignon,” Matt said carefully.

The next bottle, a Silver Pony Cabernet Sauvignon from the Nation, represented a substantial regression.  Matt licked his lips, stuck out his tongue and looked pained. His wife dumped the glass into our spit cup, declaring that it was too sweet. Indeed, when I tasted it, it was unpleasantly reminiscent of communion wine.

Things did get better after that, though they were uneven. The wines were smaller vintages that Matt didn’t specifically know, but he had lined them up in approximate anticipation of how interesting or good they would be. As we moved into the more “interesting vintages” we found both some surprising hits, like a Liberty Station Melange Blanc from the National Review box -- which Matt described as a “polarizing wine” but which everyone in our group gave relatively high marks -- and some unexpected misses, like a 2012 Huntington Sauvignon Blanc (National Review).

“Why would they send you a 2012 sauvignon blanc?” asked Matt. Sauvignon blancs are generally supposed to be drunk young.

“Under no circumstances would I finish a glass,” said Peter.

“This is my new cooking wine,” said I. Becks gave it a 3, but only for use in white wine spritzers.

As we drank, we tried to tease out ideological differences between the wines. There did seem to be differences, mostly that the Nation included organic foreign wine, while the National Review’s individual offerings were exclusively American, and leaned toward -- well, I don’t know how else to put this, less liberal-looking labels. Both were mostly the sorts of wines you’re familiar with: merlots, chardonnays, sauvignons and pinots. But there were a few “interesting” wines in each, suggesting that conservatives are perhaps not so averse to novelty as has been suggested by liberal writers.

The best-rated wine of the evening came from the Nation, a Centauree Minervois organic French red.  The worst wine of the evening also came from the Nation’s box, a rose that had looked interesting but was, inexplicably, corked, even though it came in a screw-top bottle.

And who won the showdown? National Review won, even though they didn’t have the best bottle. However, the Nation was getting dragged down by the 0 points everyone had awarded the rose, and it felt a little unfair to the Nation to judge them on a bottle that had been corked -- something that does happen despite the best efforts of vintners and distributors. So I re-ran the numbers knocking out the highest and the lowest rated wine from each box … and National Review still won. Conservatives who feel dissed by wine-sipping coastal snobs now have a rebuttal ready.

Of course, those of you looking to complete your portfolio of ideologically signaling lifestyle choices will no doubt still have one burning question: Is it worth subscribing to the wine club?

Well, I canceled our subscriptions, but that’s because we now have 30 bottles of wine sitting in our house waiting to be drunk. (Yes, I forgot to cancel right away, and I ended up with a second shipment from each club.) At the introductory price of $70 a box, the shipments were a great value. At the regular price -- about $10 a bottle -- it sort of depends on what you’re interested in.

There’s a lot of filler in these boxes, and not counting the corked one, about four out of the 14 we tasted were so bland or sweet that I’d use them only for cooking. Many more were perfectly decent table wine that I’d expect to pay $8-12 a bottle for. A few from each box were quite good wines that I was very happy to have, worth considerably more than the $5 average we paid, or the $10 regular price. And since these were small vintages, and I don’t spend a lot of time trying new wines, I’d never have discovered them without the club.

If you think you can run through a dozen bottles of wine or so in a month, you’d like to give some money to your favorite magazine, and you’re the kind of medium-enthusiastic wine drinker who likes to have a decent bottle with dinner and would like to try something new every now and then, but is not prepared to spend long hours developing a taste for fancy wine, then go for it. I’d say you could be very happy with a subscription.

If you’re a genuine wine connoisseur, skip it. You won’t be happy with these wine clubs.

If you prefer a Miller Lite, of course, then you should probably skip the wine club. You can always devote more time to your Facebook rants to prove your party loyalty. To whichever party.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net