By now you’ve probably heard that Congressman Paul Ryan drank some pricy wines at a Washington, DC restaurant last week and was confronted by another diner who thought it was hypocritical of him to be enjoying such extravagance while pushing draconian budget cuts. Amid all the back-and-forth about Ryan’s big night out, not much has been said about the wine at the center of this kerfuffle, other than the fact that it was expensive. Ryan and his dinner companions, hedge fund manager Clifford Asness and University of Chicago professor John Cochrane, knocked back two bottles of the 2004 Jayer-Gilles Echézeaux du Dessus, a grand cru red Burgundy. At $350 a pop, it is the fourth-costliest wine on the list at Bistro Bis, the Capitol Hill restaurant where the three men ate. Asness reportedly ordered the wine, which makes sense: As any Manhattan sommelier will tell you, the priciest wines on a list are catnip for master of the universe types.
What we have here is a textbook case of a table with more money than wine sense. Jayer-Gilles is a middling producer, and the 2004 vintage for red Burgundies has turned out to be a major bust: Many of the wines have a pronounced and very unappealing vegetal note. Ryan and his friends could have saved themselves $400 and a lot of grief by going instead with the 2005 Joseph Voillot Volnay Champans, a much better wine from a great vintage that is on the Bistro Bis list for $150 a bottle. Asness may be an ace investor, but next time, he should leave the wine to someone else.
All that said, I think this is one of the more asinine controversies we’ve seen in a while, which is saying something. I’m not a fan of Ryan or his plan, but the guy was entitled to have a private dinner with some friends and not be harassed about the choice of wines. Moreover, I fail to understand how this episode reveals Ryan to be a fraud. If anything, it seems perfectly consistent with his public policy aims. Were the Ryan plan enacted, its biggest beneficiaries would be wealthy people like Asness, who’d be left with even more disposable income with which to buy vacation homes, fancy cars, and overpriced Burgundies.
But what really irritates me about this flap is that it is yet another example of wine being used as a political cudgel. Every election season, the beer track vs. wine track meme gets trotted out by the press, and we inevitably hear Democrats denounced as Chardonnay-sipping elites. In this instance, the roles were reversed: Liberals tarred a conservative for drinking a fancy wine. Apart from the fact that all this bleating about wine is symptomatic of an inane political culture—does anyone in Britain care what David Cameron sips during his off-hours?—it is completely outdated. We’ve become a nation of wine drinkers. Indeed, the United States recently overtook France to become the world’s biggest wine-drinking country (although the French still have us beat on a per capita basis), and from what I can tell, oenophilia knows no political or geographic boundaries. Wine is a democratic pleasure—that’s small-d democratic—enjoyed by millions of Americans regardless of wealth, political affiliation, etc. These days, wine drinking symbolizes only one thing: good taste. If people want to score political points over personal consumption habits, go pick on Scotch drinkers or cigar smokers for a change.