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Drinking Out Loud

Enough With the Rich, Already

Lower-priced wines need the love, too

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 5, 2014

We all know why expensive things get attention: They make us dream. We're bombarded every day with stories about expensive homes, expensive artworks, fancy cars and, of course, high-end (or wannabe, anyway) wines.

Now, there's no sense in decrying either the stuff or the reportage about it. Big money makes good copy. And let's be honest, a lot of things that cost more often are better.

Is it true for wine? Yes and no. I've gone down this road before and have no interest in reviewing old scenery. Suffice it to say that the high price of many wines is often more a function of fashion and recognition than of intrinsic quality. Supply and demand then do the rest of the heavy (price) lifting.

Yet the very real truth is that so many of today’s modestly priced wines are far better than their price tags suggest. You can credit a worldwide application of improved winery technology, better-educated winemakers, a global recalibration of ambition and, not least, a far more sophisticated consumer audience.

But do we hear about these fine but modestly priced wines as often as I, anyway, think we should? We do not. Wine Spectator, for its part, goes to considerable lengths to highlight wines of exceptional value. So it's not as if attention isn't being paid.

But there are structural reasons why "local heroes" get less recognition than you or I might think they deserve. A variety of causes are at work: small supply; limited distribution; a producer's disinterest in, or lack of, marketing savvy; an unfashionable winemaking style or unrecognized grape variety; and, yes, an asking price that just doesn't demand attention.

Make no mistake: Pricing plays a big role. Increasingly, we live in a world that, consciously or not, wonders how good something can be if it isn't high-priced. With the possible exception of contemporary art, this is perhaps nowhere more true than with wine.

After all, few wine drinkers are secure in their sense of truly knowing if what they're drinking is genuinely good. Most wine drinkers either like a wine or they don't. And if it's expensive, then they're either inclined to like it (Psychology 101) or assume that if it didn't appeal to them, it was somehow their fault for not appreciating it (see "contemporary art," above).

Allow me, then, to make a few suggestions. There's a huge world of wine that's practically begging for attention. And what's interesting—and this runs counter to what we all imagine as "self-interest"—is that a surprising number of wineshops are actually trying to sell you wines that don't cost a fortune.

On the face of it this makes no sense. After all, the money is in high margins. Low-priced wines don't offer such margins, ergo, wineshops only want to sell you expensive wines. But it ain't so.

That's the amazing thing. Just about every good wineshop I know takes an inordinate, even stubborn, pride in digging for deals. That's typically why they went into wine retailing in the first place.

After all, there's no sport in selling high-demand, high-priced wines. Sure, they stock those wines and they're happy to sell them to you because it's good (and easy) business. But the sport lies elsewhere—and takes a disproportionate amount of their time and attention, too.

So if you want to know whether you're dealing with a really good wineshop just look to see if they're trying to persuade you to spend less. See if they're trying to coax you into buying this bottle of Lambrusco or Muscadet or Loire red or Greek white or Mendocino County/Santa Cruz Mountain/Sierra Foothills wine. See if they're offering some high-quality, small-production Oregon wine selling for less than the fancy-dancers (try Westrey or J. Christopher or Cowhorn, to name but three such star attractions).

Look to see if they're promoting the often amazing deals from France's Languedoc region, which is awash in overlooked, undercelebrated reds and whites. Southern Italy anyone? The mind (and palate) boggles at the deals pouring out of Campania, Basilicata and Sicily at the moment.

All of these wines, and many more, are not center stage. Their prices are—you guessed it—too low. The producers know it. Retailers know it. And you know it. But that doesn't diminish their worth as fine wines and, not least, our pleasure in finding and drinking them. The rest is just … publicity.

Rick Jones
Mesquite Texas USA —  August 5, 2014 2:10pm ET
90 points or better and under 20 bucks, I am constantly on the lookout for such, I enjoy the chase and when I know I have found a good wine at a bargain price it tastes even better
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  August 5, 2014 4:48pm ET
Great article Matt: I've been drinking wine for 49 years, and one of the most valuable lessons I've learned is: a much higher percentage of the wines I buy for under $30 over-deliver on quality & value, and many of the wines I buy for $60+ under-deliver in value vs. price. I wish I would have learned this lesson decades ago---think of the money I could have saved. I still buy a few expensive wines from time to time but today I have the wisdom to know which ones are worth the premium price. To bad the formula for wisdom is TIME & EXPERIENCE !!
Douglas Pendleton
Indianapolis, IN —  August 5, 2014 5:18pm ET
Well written... as a retailer who runs a ratings based concept, finding value is why my customers keep me in business. Over 90% of the wines in my stores have been scored by the major publications and we offer the buyer the score and full review on a cellar card they can take home.

All this meaning that I follow the press very closely. And you are right, Wine Spectator does a pretty good job at value. Case in point, the Chilean Santa Rita Syrah that was recently scored 92 points. We just took delivery on 60 cases and are selling it for $10.99. And I will stack it up against most of the Syrah I sell for $30 to $40. Just the kind of thing that people who actually drink the wine they buy every day are looking for.

The problem at Wine Spectator is California, the value wines there are really not being reviewed with any frequency. I'll look at reviews of 40 Pinot Noirs with nothing under $30 getting any respect. And the value wines do exist!
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI USA —  August 6, 2014 11:46am ET
I buy from some pretty nice producers but my real game when I go to my local retailer is to find a gem for $10. Actually not a difficult task.
Bill Stell
Greenville, SC —  August 6, 2014 11:54am ET
A great point about values. I have noticed a trend of customers looking for high scores, which is a good indicator of quality, but you can overlook small production wines that do not get rated or second labels from well know wineries, especially in the United States.
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  August 6, 2014 12:41pm ET
Personally I tend to focus on the producer, and I really don't pay a lot of attention to wine scores, and when I do, I am looking for wines rated from 85 to 89, because they represent great values. I don't think I can consistently tell the difference between 88 and 91 point wines. From 2006 to 2011 I would open up a couple of bottles of red wine between $30 and $50 a few times during the week. No more. In fact I couldn't tell you the last time I opened a bottle over $30. There are so many great bottles of red wine on the market between $13 and $25 it is ridiculous. The great recession was great for wine drinkers. Quality has improved and great values can be found if you know where to look. If you are a Bordeaux fan, get ready, because you are going to see some great deals on wines from 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013. As for white wine, you can find numerous bottles between $11 and $17 that are outstanding.

Josh Moser
Founder of VinoServant
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 6, 2014 1:00pm ET
Mr. Stell: You make a great point about "small production wines that do not get rated". I know a great many small wineries that, for a variety of reasons, do not submit samples for review to any publication, not just Wine Spectator. Consequently, they can be "off the radar".

Nobody is at fault here. Reviewers can't taste everything and wineries sometimes have excellent reasons (supply, expense, highly local markets) that dissuade them from seeking attention or publicity from reviews. That's their business, in every sense.

But for consumers these wineries--and they are a deep pool--offer tremendous possibilities for superb, original-tasting wines at prices often substantially lower than, as they say, the more famous brands.

Are these wineries doing themselves a disservice by not seeking greater (critical) attention? Sometimes I think so, yes. But I respect their reasons and--let's be honest--they are the ones paying the price, if indeed there's one to be paid.

In the meantime all of us wine lovers should investigate such "under the radar" wineries closely, never mind the lack of "validation" from critical Caesars from afar. The trick, alas, is knowing that they even exist.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  August 6, 2014 4:17pm ET
Well said, Matt! I could do better myself digging and searching for those little jewels. I know a couple "under the radar, low production wineries" that are tremendous values close by. Is in my garage and the garages of other home winemakers close enough? Real up and comers!
Cheryl Vial
Washougal, Washington —  August 7, 2014 1:53pm ET
I have a local Costco which is in a high income area and the wine that they sell is mostly great value and I have found some real gems. Early Walla Walla wines showed up at great prices from small wineries exceeding my expectations. Don't shy away from different wine sites to buy from. I regularly buy under $20 wines from them, occasionally under $30.
Don R Rohde
Los Angeles —  August 8, 2014 5:44pm ET
Well this is interesting. I do a bicycle trip up through Crater Lake and down the Umpqua River. We stop at Inn - The Steamboat Inn - on the River for our day off the bike. The owner Jim Van Loan recommended the Cowhorn Grenache for dinner. Beautiful wine. Thanks for the shout out about it.
Jay Matarese
Germantown, MD —  August 11, 2014 3:27pm ET

Do you review wines that are not blind tasted, or haven't been submitted for review by the winery? It's common practice in the movie industry for distributors to hold back their product from professional reviews, yet newspapers, magazines and internet sites will have reviews after sending a critic to a paid show on opening day.

That could be one way Wine Spectator highlights these hidden gems. The review could note that the product wasn't submitted for the review, but Wine Spectator felt that it is worthy of mention. Maybe not giving an absolute score on the WS scale, but maybe a range, or with an asterisk.


Thomas Matthews
New York —  August 12, 2014 8:43am ET

Wine Spectator policy is always to review new-release wines in our own, independent blind tastings. (The few exceptions are always disclosed in the tasting note.) Most of these wines are submitted by the wineries (or importers). If there are wines we deem important to our readers that are not, for whatever reason, submitted, we do purchase them; we spend thousands of dollars each year buying wines for blind reviews. Our goal is to find wines to recommend to our readers -- top-scorers and great values both.

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
John Moore
NY, NY —  August 20, 2014 11:09am ET
I have been enjoying some truly wonderful spanish wines with some age, 2000 - 2005, that are consistently under $25. Riojas, tempranillos, etc. Just wonderful and excellent summer reds.
Pam Strayer
Oakland CA —  August 27, 2014 1:52am ET
I'm having a little bit of a hard time understanding this piece…"Lambrusco or Muscadet or Loire red or Greek white or Mendocino County/Santa Cruz Mountain/Sierra Foothills wine." - Gee, last time I looked these all cost less than $20.

"See if they're offering some high-quality, small-production Oregon wine selling for less than the fancy-dancers (try Westrey or J. Christopher or Cowhorn, to name but three such star attractions)."

Do you mean these three wineries ARE the fancy-dancers? And you should be looking for some of the other littler brands? Or are you suggesting these three wineries are go to small production Oregon wines? Because last time I checked J. Christopher and Cowhorn, while excellent, were pretty pricey.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 27, 2014 12:06pm ET
Ms. Strayer: Everyone knows that pricing in wine is always a matter of what buyers are willing to pay. There is no "right" price. But I don't think that anyone who follows fine wines would find that the likes of Westrey, J. Christopher or Cowhorn are all that "pricey" relative to their competition.

With a number of Oregon Pinot Noirs now routinely asking (and getting) $50 to $75 a bottle and sometimes even more, the fact that J. Christopher asks between $16 and $30 a bottle for their extremely fine, even underrated, Pinot Noirs hardly makes them a "fancy dancer" as far as pricing goes.

Ditto for Westrey, whose superb Pinot Noirs have typically sold for $19 and $30 a bottle on release. Here again, Westrey makes some of Oregon's finest Pinot Noirs yet asks significantly less than its quality competitors.

As for Cowhorn, their pricing is between $28 for their superb white wine blend Spiral 36 (which was one of my wines of the year in 2012) and $45 for their stunning Syrah. Cheap? Hardly. But expensive by contemporary high-end standards? Here again, hardly.
David Crowther
Tuscaloosa, AL USA —  September 6, 2014 8:26pm ET
Funny you should mention them. I'm a big J. Christopher fan. LIOCO as well.

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