Cheap Wine, Expensive Wine, and Good Wine
Not long ago, American wine-buying habits were very similar to the Germans’. In 1995, 59 percent of the wine purchased in the United States sold for less than $3 per bottle. By 2006, controlling for inflation, that share had dropped to 29 percent. Wines over $14 per bottle more than quadrupled their share of the market during the same period. Looking at raw consumption rather than market share, sales of over-$14 wine increased sevenfold. Sales of wines that cost less than $3 per bottle actually declined 28 percent, during a period when overall wine consumption was rapidly increasing. […]
Many studies show that laymen actually prefer cheaper wines (PDF). Professional wine critics are quick to point out that they, unlike you and I, can distinguish between high- and low-cost bottles in blinded experiments. Here’s the question they can’t answer for you: So what? The only thing these “successes” prove is that a small group of people have gotten very good at sniffing out the traits that the wine industry thinks entitle them to more money.
I’ve seen these and similar arguments before, and I think they tend to miss the boat. Don’t get me wrong – they’re accurate claims insofar as the debate between oenophiles and laypeople is between “cheap” wine and “expensive” wine.
But, as a slowly budding oenophile, the trouble with these arguments is that few, if any, oenophiles will claim that there is much more than a marginal correlation between price and quality. To be sure, as Palmer’s piece ably demonstrates, there is a popular perception that such a correlation exists in more than a marginal manner.
In reality, most oenophiles and indeed no shortage of wine critics will happily explain how the price of a wine is largely a function of reputation of past vintages, the size of the winery’s operations and overhead relative to the number of bottles produced, type of grape(s) involved (pinot noir is notoriously difficult to grow, for instance), and – eventually – the reputation of the vintage, amongst other factors. Even amongst wine critics doing blind tastings, there is rarely any shortage of wines under $20 – or even under $10 – which wind up with high ratings. Indeed, my local grocery store is filled with such wines.
Ultimately, wine buying is primarily a matter of personal taste, and a matter of what you wish to do with the wine. Are you just looking for something with an alcohol content to quickly wash down your pasta, or are you looking for something to savor and enjoy that will complement your pasta if you slow your eating and drinking down a bit? Are you looking for something that just won’t taste horrible while it gets you buzzed, or are you looking for something to sip slowly? In other words, are you looking to make the wine the focal point of your evening or are you looking to make something else the focal point?
To be sure, there are certain tastes that most people will dislike in most instances. For instance, a wine that feels like it burns a hole in your stomach isn’t going to be enjoyed by many people, a trait that you will likely find only in a carelessly made super-cheap wine (keeping in mind that there are plenty of cheap wines that are made with reasonable care). Conversely, drinking a bottle of fine red wine with that spicy Kung Pao chicken is going to be an absolute disaster where you’d be far better off drinking almost anything else, and not just because of the wasted money. One will also be hard-pressed to find a bottle of locally-produced New Jersey wine for under about $13, but outside of a handful of dessert wines, one will be even harder pressed to find a locally-produced New Jersey wine that a lot of people would rate much higher than “palatable” (not for lack of effort by our winegrowers, but instead because we just don’t have a good climate for making decent wine).
For me, personally, the overwhelming majority of my wine consists of cheap bottles in the $5-$10 range purchased from the local grocery store, with a focus on getting a decent mix of varietals at a cheap price so that I have ample options for pairing with dinner on any given night where we’re planning on having one of our staple meals or when we just feel like uncorking a bottle to help relax after a stressful day. Sometimes these wines are fantastic, sometimes they’re just ok, and on a rare occasion, they’re terrible.
About twice a year, I buy a case of wine from a local specialty wine store that is highly selective about the bottles it sells and only sells bottles from relatively small and/or family-run wineries and which has a particularly knowledgeable staff. The bottles I get from this store range in price from as little as $7 to as much as $40, with the majority that I purchase in the $10-$15 range, and no more than one or two over $20. Any bottle purchased from this store gets reserved for either a specific use (ie, a weekend night when we have time to cook a meal outside our usual staples, though not necessarily an expensive meal) , a special occasion, one of our occasional tasting get-togethers, or an occasion where we’ve picked up some sort of specialty cheese at the grocery store.
The reason for the selectivity isn’t so much a function of bottle price as it is a function of the amount of trust I have in the store’s owner and staff to select and recommend bottles that are specific to my tastes, which far outweighs any trust I may have for the ratings in Wine Spectator that my grocery store likes to promote. Indeed, I’ve little doubt that in the grocery store, most of these bottles would be significantly cheaper because I wouldn’t be paying for the training and knowledge of the staff.
Occasionally, I’ll get a bottle from this store where a mistake was made by the vintner, which doesn’t happen with the more mass-produced grocery store wines, but on the whole, these wines are far more subtle and complex than the grocery store wines (though not necessarily “better”). When we’re looking to really savor our food and wine and take our time with it, a well-paired bottle from this store tends to turn the experience into something other-worldly. But if we drink one of these bottles with one of our staples or just uncork one to unwind after a stressful day, it is really difficult to say that it’s any better than one of the grocery store wines – and it may well even be worse. Indeed, it’s difficult for me to imagine getting a bottle from this shop that would, for purposes of unwinding on a Wednesday night, be the equal of a $6 or $7 bottle of Beaujolais from the grocery store.
But even all of that is little more than my personal preferences.
So if everything is all about personal preferences, why should anyone ever spend more than ten bucks on a bottle of wine? The answer, for someone who is just looking to occasionally have a bottle with dinner or whatever, is that one shouldn’t. But for others, the world of wine is just interesting- unlike beer, the same product from the same manufacturer is noticeably and even substantially different from year to year. As a result, one learns, over time, to appreciate the skills and talents of the winemaker. In this limited sense, then, wine appreciation becomes not altogether different from art appreciation, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that winemaking is art.
There are other benefits to being a oenophile as well. The never-ending process of learning to notice the differences from wine to wine and carefully refining one’s palate can be fun and challenging, eventually resulting in maximizing one’s enjoyment of both wine and food. In the process, one may well discover a preference for certain vintners or styles or whatever that are a little bit more expensive.