Food & Wine Thursdays: Much Ado About Inexpensive Wines

A pair of articles were brought to my attention today regarding consumers and their relationship to inexpensive wines. The first was an article in London’s Daily Telegraph Tweeted out by noted wine writer Jancis Robinson in which consumers in a blind tasting failed to distinguish $20-$60 wines from sub-$10 wines.

(The Telgraph article, as Robinson points out on Twitter, is indicative largely of nothing as it is unclear what methods beyond price were used to select their wines. It’s very easy to find $8 wines that routinely outperform $30 wines. Additionally, a blind “average consumer” tasting at a Science Fair is not the environment to conduct any truly meaningful tasting on the topic. The “average consumer” generally buys sub $10 wine anyway. A more effective study would be do the same type of tasting with professed collectors, professionals or enthusiasts, not to say you wouldn’t get the same result.)

The second article was from Patrick Comiskey, a not-frequent-enough contributor to the LA Times who generally provides the only interesting, thoughtful commentary in what is otherwise a Food and Wine section devoid of journalistic rigor and general awareness of 21st century culinary culture. Seriously, publish this guy more frequently. Comiskey’s article is a discussion of the proliferation of distinctive wines under $20, consumer recognition of the excellent values that can be found for $10-$20, and the perhaps permanent market shift to that price point.

Both articles reflect writers’ growing fascination with consumer love for “value” wines paired with the tacit presumption that perhaps ultra-premium wine’s high price is the product of marketing smoke and mirrors more than any inherent quality.

Those points are nothing new to those of us who have been buying and selling these $15-$25 wines from Portugal, Slovenia and beyond since before the economic boom and bust, but it’s nice to see that the habits of the progressive and curious are now seeping into the mainstream.

A fundamental fact of the wine business, at least as I’ve known it over the last seven years or so, is that virtually no current-release wine is “worth” more than about $40 or so retail and the vast majority of wines’ “worth” tops out at $25. What I mean by that is, when you consider costs of production, including reasonable profits for all parties, that’s what a premium wine, independent of outside factors, should cost. Anything higher and you’re paying for something beyond the inherent costs of the wine: limited availability, high demand, outsize marketing budget, perceived prestige, high scores, or some other narrative cult around the wine.

As consumers’ willingness to spend above $20 for a bottle of wine decreased, it was coupled with a proliferation of wine retail shops that offered in-store tastings and educated salesmanship, making it easier for more consumers to become aware of the excellent wines available in the $10-$20 range from the rapidly expanding global world of wine. When these same consumers compared that $18 wine from Portugal against a $40 wine from France, they’re increasingly seeing them as equals in quality and, at less than half the price, Portugal wins for value. These inexpensive wines, rather than being a stopgap until the 401K recovers, have become the norm for drinkers–not just because they’re cheaper, but because they’re as good or better.

But it’s important to remember that there are expensive wines worth drinking. They’re out there and anyone who tells you otherwise (I’m looking at you, Fred Franzia) is an idiot.

He's literally the wine maker. You don't want to watch the bottling process.

Just as dropping $1000 for two people at The French Laundry will never be “worth it” in any sort of objective financial sense, for the right person it can still be a trip worth having for any number of intangible reasons and the same is true for wine. A rare wine from a unique vineyard, a wine with great personal significance, a wine of which only 50 cases were produced, or, hell, a wine which scored 100 points in Wine Spectator will all, for the right person, have a legitimate value that can have no upper limit.

Though for me, my upper limit is still around $80. If anyone has recommendations for current-release wine in the triple digits that’s worth a visit, I’m interested in hearing them. Thoughts?

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
This entry was posted in Armchair Philosophy, Wine & Cheese and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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