The Seventh Sign: $30 Chianti

This morning, around 7 a.m., a senior White House economist citing unexpected job growth last month pronounced the U.S. economy "still strong" and said he does not believe we are headed into a recession.

If you’re like me you’re both encouraged by this news and slightly perplexed. The world as viewed by Edward Lazear, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, does not appear to be the same one I’m looking at — and living in — each day.

Here in my little slice of the U.S., gas prices are incredibly high [about which I am, frankly, ambivalent: I’d be all in favor if it meant people drove less; but apparently, as a group, we don’t], wages are falling steadily as measured against inflation, the sale of goods and services is down, housing values have dropped off a cliff. And those are just the obvious, measurable factors.

The others: it’s often impossible to sell a house even at a rock-bottom price; professional people in retail, financial, media and business services fields are being slashed right and left; and now, the clincher, WINE PRICES are going straight up.

I don’t mean to be glib. Compared to the surge in homelessness and hunger, this is a non-issue. Let me repeat, a non-issue. However, it is an interesting study of what happens when world economies converge. Not only is the price of oil driving shipping costs through the roof, but the dollar is at an all-time low against the Euro.

According to Drink and Be Merry, an article in the December 5 New York Times, European winemakers have held off jacking up prices and probably will continue to do so through the holidays. But NYT wine critic Eric Asimov predicts the hike will come in 3-5 months. And it could be a shocker.

Whether this will prompt people to buy less wine, buy cheaper wine, or simply buy domestic wine remains to be seen. My prediction is that the coming change will buoy up even further American labels such as Beaulieu Vineyards, Bogle, and Gallo’s Red Bicyclette, while potentially crushing importers and small, independent shops that deal in mostly eccentric, garage-style European wines.

It’s a blow not only in a business sense, but also in terms of the small, unique finds that may be lost to us: strange Spanish whites with a hint of caper in the nose and affordable Rhone reds so smooth and filled with a mountain air flavor you can drink them all night.

Mostly, though, I wonder if this is a sign that Mr. Lazear, for all his training, is a little bit off-track. Because in my world, it costs $37 to fill the gas tank and roughly $150 a week to feed a teenage boy. My house is a little crumbly, my savings are not quite what they should be as I stare into the maw of 42, and we’re starting into the time of year when heating costs are well into the triple digits.

This wine thing may be the final sign of our impending middle-class apocalypse. The horsemen may be coming, despite all that "wisdom" from Washington. You never know.