Why Good Wine is Still a Bargain
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
It's a great time to be a cynic when it comes to the cost of wine, what with classified-growth Bordeaux breaking price records, trendy California Cabernet Sauvignon topping $100 a bottle and leading Italian red wines trying their best to keep up in the retail price sweepstakes.
Yet I am still amazed by how inexpensive the vast majority of wine is, given what is required to make and bottle it. When I buy a good wine for $8, $10 or $12 a bottle (which encompasses most of my purchases), I sometimes stop for a moment and think--how did they do it?
One of my jobs here at Wine Spectator is to keep track of and report on great wine values. Quite frankly, I can get as grumpy as the rest of you when it comes to the price escalation of the last few years. It's hard to find good-quality wines at $5 or less per bottle, and even that Great Wall of bargain pricing, $10 a bottle, is not so secure anymore.
However, I also believe that overall quality has never been better. Sure, there's still plenty of mediocre wine out there, and vintage variation can be a wild card, even in top appellations. Yet the greatest challenge for bargain-hunters today is sorting out all the wines that beckon. This cornucopia is due to two basic facts: Winemaking techniques have been modernized around the globe, and greater attention is being paid to the quality of the fruit in the vineyard.
This is true from the largest winery in the world, E. & J. Gallo of Modesto, Calif., to small operations, such as the resurgent domaines of France's Midi region. At Gallo, for example, the Turning Leaf and Anapamu labels offer plenty of very good Cabernets, Chardonnays and Zinfandels for $10 to $12 or less. These are not connoisseurs' wines, but straightforward varietal expressions of the grapes from which they're made. In the Midi, a new generation of producers is making more concentrated wines out of native grape varieties, such as Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, that have plenty of distinctive character, again at $10 to $12 a bottle or less. Chile, Australia, and even Italy can also be counted on for consistent values. Whether you play it safe or want to be adventurous, there are plenty of good bargains to buy and enjoy.
Sound winemaking techniques and good vineyards. Just give a winemaker good grapes and the wine will make itself, it is often said. Yes, I get it in theory, but to make a decent bottle of wine at a good price is still a pretty tough assignment. One of the best benefits of civilized life is that you can take grapes from a vine, crush them and find enough liquid to bottle tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of cases of wine. The fact that there is no other liquid in wine than what is to be gotten from the grape seems to me more sleight of hand than the product of a highly specialized sector of agriculture.
Just compare wine to its brethren in the world of alcoholic beverages. Beer, like wine, involves fermentation--in this case, of hops and barley--to which water has been added. Pure, simple and basically free water. Beer companies take great pains to point out the purity of their water--but it's still water, the most abundant liquid on the planet. The same goes for spirits. Despite the added costs of distillation, you're talking about elements added to water to give it flavor.
That fact goes a long way to describe the great fortunes built on spirits and beer, and the relative paucity of such wealth in the wine industry (the Gallos aside). You can't add water to wine to stretch it--at least not legally--and while grape juice is mostly water, it takes a growing season of four to six months to put the water in the grape.
That's just the juice end of the equation. Then there's the whole winemaking process itself, from fermentation to bottling. There are hundreds of decisions to be made that will eventually be reflected in the quality of the wine, from the yeast strains to be used to turn the sugar in grape juice into alcohol, to the methods of filtering wine to make it stable, to whether or not the wine is aged in oak barrels.
This not to make winemakers into demigods, though some would argue that those at the peak of their profession deserve the Olympian heights. Ever since we decided to settle in permanent dwellings about 10 millennia ago, wine has been with humankind, and for a very good reason: It is the product of natural chemical and biological processes. Fermentation produced a healthy and energy-filled beverage that could be stored for future consumption.
Sometimes the simplest pleasures are the most sublime, and that goes for the better bargain-priced wines. There's still a lot of chaff out there that needs to be winnowed (which is where publications such as Wine Spectator come in), but when a wine for $12 a bottle or less comes up with the goods, it's time to take a moment between sips and reflect on what the hand of man, and the bounty of nature, have wrought.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.