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Wine Price Kerfuffle

A misleading rant stirs up online debate
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 29, 2011 2:28pm ET

One school of thought argues that we are idiots, those of us who find something special enough in wine to pay a little more for it. Naysayers point to scientific studies that purport to show that most consumers can't tell the difference between simple wines for $5 and complex, expensive wines. If that is so, why fork out $50 for a special-occasion bottle, or even $15 for a wine to drink with dinner tonight?

That theme recently spurred a wine columnist for Slate.com to rant that $15 is way too much for an everyday wine, a level now considered the top edge of what you might want to consume regularly. Flak came back rapidly from wine writers in a huff.

Actually, the column made me think of Leon D. Adams, the author of The Wines of America, a seminal work on the pioneers of winegrowing from coast to coast, published in 1973. Leon was a cantankerous soul. He regularly maintained that a decent bottle of wine ought to cost no more than milk. He appreciated finer bottles, of course, but he argued that America would never truly become a wine-drinking nation if all we had were expensive wines.

We seem to have done all right despite rising wine prices, but Adams was correct about one thing: All of us should be able to afford to open a bottle of decent wine with dinner if we want it. And we can, maybe not for the price of a carton of milk, but unless your tastes are terribly rarefied, you can find something drinkable for $5 to $8 a bottle. Though awful, flawed or undrinkable cheap wines were common in Adams' time, they are the exception these days, whether they come from California or Slovenia, Washington or Australia, Argentina or Italy—even France.

I may be biased here because I parse the nuances of exceptional wines for a living, but it's claptrap to say that most people can't tell the difference. Most people can indeed distinguish between simple plonk and wine with, let's say, higher aspirations. The only question is which one they like better.

Without fanfare and without setting up psychological expectations, I have poured outstanding wines for untrained consumers, folks who say they like wine but aren't willing to spend more than a few bucks for it. On many occasions, I have smiled when, unbidden, someone will take a swig and say, "Wow, this is really good. What is it?"

What gets lost in this discussion is a well-known factor in public taste. The more intense, complex and flavorful something is, whether it's a bottled sauce, a restaurant dish, coffee or wine, the more it's likely to offend someone. That's why mass-market brands, chain restaurants, popular art or movies often come off as bland to connoisseurs, who seek out complexity and intensity. Some of us like pop music, others go for classical or indie rock.

Here's another aspect to consider. Although ratings on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale generally rise with the price, there's plenty of overlap in price categories among score ranges. I love it when low-priced wines outperform higher-priced bottles. That's how I identify good value. But that's not the same thing as saying that high-priced wines are bad values. If you can enjoy the difference, only you can determine if the added cost buys enough added value.

So let's get off the high horse here. What's the point in looking down on someone who prefers something other than what you do? Advocates of inexpensive wines, quit yapping at those of us who find some that are worth more to us. There is a difference, and if your personal preference is for something simpler, consider yourself lucky. You get to spend less to enjoy wine you like. Connoisseurs, quit dismissing those who don't get it. No one has a monopoly on taste.

Steve Walker
Raleigh, NC —  November 29, 2011 4:00pm ET
For my family's Thanksgiving dinner, I broke out two bottles of a fine California Cabernet that I had been saving for a special occasion; what's more special than Thanksgiving, right? These were $50 wines, served to folks that usually drink $10 to $15 wines. They didn't know they were getting the "good stuff". Without exception (5 people) took one taste and said, in effect, "this wine is fabulous!"

An expensive wine, well chosen, is worth it. While $100 to give 5 people two glasses of wine is an indulgence, it made the meal one to remember.

Now I just need more special occasions!
Fred Brown
Maryland —  November 29, 2011 8:15pm ET
Well said Harvey, thanks!
Greg Malcolm
St. Louis, Missouri —  November 29, 2011 9:36pm ET
Be it wine or food, I'm much happier paying more for a high quality product that tastes good, versus paying anything for something that is just average or nondescript.
Keir Mccartney
League City,TX —  November 30, 2011 10:42am ET
Harvey,this blog brings to mind the warning placed on fireworks back in the old country. "Light blue touch paper and retire" :) I do really like the comparison you made to musical taste and if you take the $$ out of the equation and just bring this back to personal taste it makes it seem a lot clearer. If people are willing to pay for something, let them do that. I considered buying tickets to see Roger Waters at $200+ and finally decided not to, because I didnt want it enough, but the arena will be full when he performs. Just because I chose not to pay the entrance fee doesn't make the music (wine) any better or worse, it was simply my choice.
Thanks for bringing up an intersting subject again Harvey.
William Matarese
Florida, USA —  November 30, 2011 2:09pm ET
As Harvey so aptly points out, it's now easier than ever to get very good quality wine at the low end of the price spectrum. Columbia Crest Grand Estates is my favorite example. Recently here in FL Publix ran a "buy one, get one free" promotion on the 2008 merlot. That worked out to two bottles for $8.99, and this is a wine that Harvey himself scored at 89 points.

Also being a fan of better Italian and French wines - most of which are "relative bargains", I often find myself asking "How much better is this $25 92-point Super Tuscan than a CC Grand Estates wine?" Usually the answer is "It's definitely better, but not ALOT better". While I often consider it worthwhile to pay the difference to get that extra bit of quality, it's easy to see why many (probably most) people might not. And for those of us willing to pay extra, that's a good thing. It helps keep prices of those Italian and French "relative bargains" within reach!
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  November 30, 2011 3:38pm ET
Whatever Harvey, just keep reviewing those $12 WS90 Wash wines I like. Like Laube recently stated:
"Anyone can conclude that a $100 wine is more expensive than the $25 wine by looking at the price tag. But price is more about image and demand than quality, which is why most professionals agree blind tasting is the truest measure of assessing quality even though the results can often be humbling."
Staffan Bjorlin
Los Angeles, CA —  December 1, 2011 1:26pm ET
Interesting article. I agree with almost everything, especially the core topic of "let people pay more for quality wine if they want to". But I disagree with Harvey's description of public taste vs. the taste of connoisseurs. I don't think that connoisseurs always want intensity and that the intensity would be offensive to non-connoisseurs. On the contrary, I think that many connoisseurs appreciate more subtle nuances, whereas the public wants bigger more obvious flavors. And I think this is also true for food, music, art, design, architecture, and many other things.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 1, 2011 1:32pm ET
Good point, Staffan. I should have said "the more intense, complex OR flavorful." The kind of nuances you're talking about come under the heading of "complex." Mass-market products are obvious, in that they sing one or two notes. People do like strong flavors—just look at the popular brands of soda pop, or ketchup. Most people just like them to feel familiar.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  December 1, 2011 4:51pm ET
"One law for the lion and the ox is oppression." -William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Blake nailed it and so did you. Well said, Harvey.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection

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