Wine prices haven’t increased overall in two decades, so why does it take $30 to buy a bottle of nice wine?
Expensive wine – the kind you buy to drink with a nice dinner – used to cost $20 and came from all over the world. Today, those kinds of wine cost $30, and even then you’re not going to be quite sure about quality from some regions.
Once, you could buy California wine like the Newton Claret for about $20 and know you were getting something worth $20. Today, even if those wines are more or less the same price, the quality isn’t. Gone, too, are $20 red Burgundies and red Bordeauxs that are even remotely values, as well as Champagne and high-end Italian wines.
How did this happen? When did the value go out of $20 wine? I’ve spent the past six weeks asking retailers, winemakers, distributors, and my colleagues why spending $20 doesn’t guarantee a top-flight bottle of wine anymore. Because it should – as has been noted on the blog many times, 95 percent of us will never buy a wine that costs more than $20. In addition, wine prices overall have barely changed over the past two decades; a $10 wine 20 years ago is still mostly a $10 wine.
The answer, unfortunately, isn’t complicated. It has much to do with the bifurcation of the wine market, which I’ve written about before. Wine today is increasingly made for two audiences – those who will spend more than $20 and the rest of us, and never the twain shall meet. But within that premise, there are other important points — after the jump:
• The increase in California land prices, and especially in Napa and Sonoma. You can’t afford to make quality $20 wine if you paid $500,000 an acre for your land, leading to what Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank has called the conundrum of entry level wine from the Napa Valley: The region is almost at the point where its entry level wines are too expensive for entry level wine drinkers.
• The increasing popularity of less known regions, like Lodi in California. Rich Cook, who runs several wine competitions in San Diego, made a telling point when I asked him about this. If Lodi is selling zinfandel for $18, and has convinced wine drinkers to pay that much for it, then producers in more prestigious appellations will try to raise prices because they don’t want to sell their wine for the same price as something from Lodi.
• Big Wine, which has taken the profit out of $10 wine for any producer that doesn’t have Big Wine’s economies of scale. That means even wineries with affordable land can’t compete with Big Wine in the $10 category, so they’re forced to make more expensive wine in order to stay in business, even if they don’t necessarily have the grapes or skill to do so.
• The demand for prestigious European wine from China and elsewhere, which has raised prices out of all consideration for what you get. I tasted two red Burgundies (pinot noir) for this post – one I bought for $23, and a $23 sample. The former had almost no Burgundian character and was so fruity and boring that it could have come from Big Wine in California, while the sample had unripe fruit, green flavors, and poor winemaking – hardly what you’d expect from one of the world’s great wine regions.
So what’s a wine drinker to do? For red wine, $20 to $25 still buys value in Spain, as well as parts of the French Rhone and Oregon. Though, sadly, I’ve tasted an increasing number of wines from those two regions that were overpriced, as if producers there were trying to catch up to the rest of the world in cutting value. In Italy, look for less known regions where the wine is made with native grapes, though some red blends with international grapes remain values. Banfi, for some reason, does the latter very well.
The situation is a little better for white wine, since the hipsters and wise guys don’t consider it as important as red. New Zealand, with producers like Spy Valley, still offers tremendous value, and there are $20 white Burgundies from Chablis and Macon that are delicious and fairly priced. And there are $18 to $25 Australian rieslings that are worth every penny.
Finally, the one constant that almost everyone I talked to brought up – the zinfandel blends from Ridge in California, which are usually less than $30 and remind us how nuanced, layered, and sophisticated California wine can be at that price.