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Better Cheap Wine, Coming Next?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 25, 2009 1:31pm ET

Alan Heath caught my ear when he mentioned, off-handedly at lunch yesterday, that he is planning a range of $5 wines from growers in Clare Valley, one of Australia’s premier wine regions. But how would that be possible? Clare Valley wines generally sell for $15 and up.

Heath, the ex-race car driver who has focused on North America to market his Heath, Southern Sisters, Lizard Flat and Southern Roo wines, told me that he is negotiating to buy the old Leasingham winery from Constellation. It would come with some vineyards, but he’s also interested in working a deal with a co-op of Clare Valley growers to make wines from their grapes there.

"A lot of these guys are tired of one-sided contracts with some of the big wineries, who sometimes decide not to take their grapes at the last minute,” Heath told me. “This way they’ll always have a home, and we can sell good wines for about $5 a bottle in the U.S.”

Heath may be the guy to do it. His own winery, which started from a single vineyard in Adelaide Hills, has consistently produced good values buying grapes from the South Australian regions best suited to each variety. His dogged marketing style has found success with American wine drinkers. (Heath Wines do especially well in Minnesota and Canada, he noted over lunch.)

Using Clare Valley fruit carries more weight than yet another inexpensive range of anonymous wines from fruit grown in warmer inland regions, known more for prolific volume than for specific character. The co-op model is also intriguing. In tough economic times, co-ops have traditionally emerged throughout the world to deliver fairly priced wines. In this instance, growers would produce their own bottlings from their own fruit, and Heath’s role would be to provide the winemaking facilities and marketing.

That would be quite a milepost, wouldn’t it? Good $5 wine? Even at $6 or $7, that would be a good deal for American wine drinkers, and would go a long way to shoring up Australia’s reputation for making a good drink for fair money.

Eric Heinz
Philadelphia —  February 25, 2009 5:01pm ET
Harvey - In sharp contrast to this post, I saw your recent review of the 98 pt. $1,800 per 375 ml Australian port. Since you can buy semi-aged 100pt 2001 Rieussec Sauternes for $100 per half bottle and various 100 pt 2005 Bordeaux for $400-700 (and hundreds of other extremely highly rated wines for $60 -$150), is this pricing pure insanity or does a market still exist?
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  February 26, 2009 11:38am ET
Harvey; As a writer you clearly understand the phrase : "Words have meaning". So your choice of words for the title gave the article a slant of its own. Your choice was not: Better Less Expensive Wine Coming, or Better QPR Wine Coming, but better "Cheap" Wine Coming. Every reader has a sensuary image, and probably a terrible memory, of a cheap wine. So telling us that bottle of Thunderbird, or other fruit bomb cheap wine, is going to get better doesn't really stir most of the readers of this forum much. But for those who do drink "cheap" wine, I guess any improvement is a blessing!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  February 26, 2009 12:36pm ET
In fairness, Eric, the ultra-expensive Aussie Port is 100 years old (!) and there's only a handful of cases. It's a true collector's item. Truly, it's the opposite end of the spectrum from a widely available value wine.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  February 26, 2009 12:44pm ET
For me, "good cheap wine" is like "dressy casual." It sounds like an oxymoron at first, but it works when you think about it.
Peter Lehmann Wines Ltd
Australia —  February 27, 2009 8:10pm ET
Might make better race car fuel than continuing to pull down a premium wine region.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  March 2, 2009 1:40pm ET
I don't know who at Peter Lehmann Wines posted that last one, but I don't see how it is "pulling down a premium wine region" to give the growers a place for their grapes when the big wineries fink out on them and a chance to make their own wines as a co-op. It also occurs to me that Lehmann himself started his winery in Barossa with similar motives when the growers there were in crisis and had nowhere to sell their grapes.

Maybe it's the price that bothers the writer. Holy cow, good wine for $5? Can't have that, can we?

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