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Cheap Wine & Cheaper Words / Anthony Neil Smith

We should all be so lucky as to enjoy food and wine the way renegade literature-maker Jim Harrison did. In his food and drink columns for a variety of magazines, he extolled the pleasures of great (expensive French) wine, gourmet cooking, and how there was no better way to spend an evening with your friends and family than engorging and imbibing. A lot.

“A lot” is an understatement.

But let’s get one thing straight: I’m a lightweight drinker. I didn’t start until grad school thanks to earlier decades of religious fear, and seven years living with a stepdad for whom “lush” was, again, an understatement. Once I picked up my first beers, moved on to my first wine, then eventually developed a taste for tequila and mescal, there was no turning back.

Wait, of course there was turning back. People quit drinking all the time. What I mean is, considering I am not an everyday drinker, and it only takes a fraction of the fluid ounces my friends can guzzle to get me way far gone, thus…

I lost my train of thought. Whatever.

But I’d rather talk about cheap wine. The Trader Joe’s “exclusives,” the huge brands like Yellow Tail or 19 Crimes that charge next to nothing for a sugary sweet bottle dyed with Purple #5, the cardboard boxes with the spout that can sit on your shelf for months and still be reasonably drinkable (if you make enough exceptions), the stuff from Lodi, California priced at only an top knuckle compared to the arm and leg of Napa Valley. These wines are my wines.

I’ll drink half a bottle while watching YouTube videos, munching on Goldfish crackers seasoned with Tony Chachere, then set it aside for three, four days, returning to it just as it’s starting to show its impatience. I’ve consumed bottles called “Jammy Red,” “Double Dog Dare Merlot,” “Melted Popsicle,” and even one Thunderbird that was not the infamous fortified wine of Merle Haggard songs and hobos, but rather a red blend in a black bottle with the T-bird logo. I’ve never seen it again, and can’t find any info about it beyond “this exists.”

I want to write about these wines without the tone of “no, really, there are some great bargains out there” I’ve found in cheap wine blogs online, trying to elevate the un-elevatable. Trying to find gold amongst the tin foil. I promise not to say I detect notes of berries, or leather, or pencil shavings (fuck’s sake, how do they know what pencil shavings taste like?), or dirt, or vanilla. What I want to do is be honest – cheap wine can be fun and tasty, but also gross and sad. They can weirdly complement a Jack’s frozen pizza, or they can make your ears ring.

And they certainly pair well with weird-assed indie lit.

Enjoy a bottle of the French-sounding “Maison Barboulot” (French-sounding because it’se French, so they want us to believe) for five, six bucks while reading Calvin Westra’s bizarrely excellent Donald Goines. Empty some Gnarly Head “Grateful Dead” zinfandel while checking out Hunter’s Affects lit journal. Swish and swallow an alarmingly inexpensive Australian shiraz from Yellow Tail while scaring yourself silly reading Charlene Eslby.

I’m not saying any of these writers or their work is cheap. Not at all.

I’m just saying you’re probably not reading them in a Michelin-starred gastro paradise serving foams and raw meat along with a three-figure bottle of Duckhorn. If you’re anything like me, probably in an Olive Garden chowing down on endless pasta with the “house” chianti.

Now, a disclaimer. Of course I love a three-figure bottle of Duckhorn. It’s incredible! I also love a pricey bottle from Napa, or a Cotes-du-Rhone (fuck the little marks on the O’s, no clue how to put those on there), or a fancy reserve from Tuscany. Hell yeah. Bring ‘em on. But those are not my wheelhouse. Neither is literature that’s supposed to be “good” for me. Dude, I’m a super-taster who thinks most veggies taste bitter. If you want me to eat that salad (or read yet another tome about a sad literary writer and his shitty relationships), you’d better pour a fuck-ton of honey mustard and croutons on it first.

You dig?

You know what else I love about cheap wine? Screwtops.

Catch ya later, Bill and Ted.


Anthony Neil Smith is a mystery/crime fiction writer who has had a great number of his short stories published in literary magazines and crime writing zines, and has also published numerous novels. His work will appear in Best American Mystery & Suspense 2023 in October 2023. He is co-creator of the well-received online noir journal Plots with Guns. He was also an associate editor with the highly regarded literary magazine Mississippi Review, having put together several special issues featuring crime fiction for the online edition. He currently edits Revolution John and is a Professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, MN.

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