Why buying cheap wine is not more “ethical”

A few days ago, someone mentioned to me that they knew a couple who refused to spend more than $10 a bottle on wine as a kind of “ethical commitment.” This was a new argument for me. While I’ve heard many, many times that people want to drink cheap wine because a) they can’t afford more expensive wines or b) They like the taste of Andre, Apothic Red, or Arbor Mist. But to be ethically against it? I can understand if someone had ethical qualms against spending thousands of dollars on Chateau Lafite or Romanee Conti, but to be against spending $25-30 on a nice Loire red? While I don’t doubt their good intentions, I think refusing to spend more than $10 on a bottle of wine is in fact unethical.

The truth is that at least in today’s wine market, the vast majority of wine under $10 are produced on a massive scale by huge companies..think Sutter Home, Yellowtail, Franzia, Gallo, etc. One of the problems I have with these wines (besides the fact that I don’t like drinking them) is the sometimes negative impact they have on the environment and society. One, these mass-produced wines require tons of grapes, most of which (at least where California wines are concerned) come from over-irrigated vineyards primarily in the San Joaquin and Central valleys. With California in the middle of a severe drought, why are we supporting this massive use of water, especially when studies have shown (link) and numerous winemakers claim that non-irrigated vines produce the highest quality fruit?

A second concern is to do with the labor practices at these large companies, particularly related to the temporary workers who bring in the harvest. In California, many agricultural workers, including many temporary vineyard workers, are immigrants and don’t have access to a living wage, basic healthcare, etc. For example, a few years ago Gallo was found to have interfered in a vote to oust the United Farm Workers union from their vineyards. Is it really ethical to support this kind of business?

Finally, lets not forget how one of the co-founders of Yellowtail was arrested last year for being part of a drug ring. He also owns an ammunition factory. Sounds like an upstanding citizen, right?

Its pretty much impossible to cap your wine budget at $10 a bottle and not find yourself buying something from one of these producers (or their parent companies) at one time or another. But if you instead decide to buy maybe fewer bottles, but spend around $15-25 a bottle and find a nice wine store, you could be supporting a small producer, farming organically, whose family has worked the land for generations. Now, not all small growers are paragons of virtue (or make good wine), but with a little research you can find some that are delicious, ethical and pretty affordable too. In the end, drink what you want, but if you want to buy sub-$10 bottles please don’t claim that you’re being more “ethical.”

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