How do you write about quality cheap wine when the system is rigged against it?

Look out! They’re shelling us with premiumization and the wine tariff!

You keep a stiff upper lip, try to ignore the frustrations and complications, and soldier on – because quality cheap wine is worth it

How do you write about quality cheap wine when the wine industry and the federal government have gone out of their way to make quality cheap wine an anachronism?

Because, as we celebrate the blog’s 12th birthday, that’s the situation I find myself in. Premiumization and the 25 percent European wine tariff have made it all but impossible to find the kind of $10 and $12 wine that’s worth writing about. I feel like a character in one of those British Raj movies where the garrison is stranded in a fort on a remote hilltop and we’re being picked off one by one and we know the relief column isn’t going to arrive in time.

Yes, there is still plenty of cheap wine on store shelves, but just because a wine is cheap doesn’t mean it’s worth drinking.

So what’s the Wine Curmudgeon to do? Carry on, of course. What else is a stiff upper lip for?

The irony here is that I seriously considered ending the blog after this final birthday week post (with a Hall of Fame wrap-up in January). And if I had known about the wine tariff when I was pondering the blog’s fate this summer, it would have been that much easier to close it after 12 years.

Changing my mind

But two things happened to make me change my mind: First, and most practically, the site’s hosting company charged me for another year in August. So, if I closed the blog with this post, I would have been stuck paying for nine months of service I didn’t use. Second, four people whose opinions I admire and respect pointed out that if I didn’t keep doing this, who would? And that despite my frustration with the blog, there is and will be a need for it.

For the frustrations have been endless. These days, it’s not just about paying homage to our overlords at Google or dealing with out-of-touch producers and distributors and too many incompetent marketers. Or fending off the sponsored content and the fluff pieces that so many others in the wine writing business have turned to in an attempt to make money at something where there is little money to be made.

These days, it’s about making sense of a business that is divorced from reality. Which, frankly, makes me feel like I’m using a croquet mallet to comb my hair.

Consider just these two items: A group of Washington state wine producers, faced with declining sales, say they aren’t worried since the wine they are selling is more expensive. Meanwhile, Italian pinot grigio producers, also faced with declining sales, want to know how to sell more expensive wine to make up the difference.

Making money the hard way

Am I missing something here? Aren’t declining sales a bad thing? Shouldn’t an industry do something to reverse the decline, instead of furthering it by raising prices?

But not, apparently, if it’s the wine business in the second decade of the 21st century. Because, of course, premiumization. I’ve probably written entirely too much about the subject, but mostly because I can’t believe anyone in wine still takes it seriously. Though, and this is welcome news, there are others who are beginning to question its validity. Damien Wilson, PhD, who chairs the wine business program at Sonoma State University, is blunt: Premiumization can be a path to ruin, since sales decline and higher prices scare off new wine drinkers.

The less said about the tariff the better. It’s as counterproductive as premiumization, and its adherents are blinded by politics to economic reality. That the tariff could forever wreak havoc on U.S. wine consumption is beyond their comprehension.

So let me shepherd my ammunition, keep my head low, and hope against hope that the relief column gets through. And keep a very stiff upper lip.

More Birthday Week perspective on the wine business:
Have we reached the end of wine criticism?
• 10 years writing about cheap wine on the Internet
• Premiumization, crappy wine, and what we drink

4 thoughts on “How do you write about quality cheap wine when the system is rigged against it?

  • By CM - Reply

    Amen, Jeff! Please keep your blog going – it’s the best of the few sane voices out there defending affordable, good-tasting wine, and I look forward to it every week.

  • By Mike Dunne - Reply

    There may be hope for cheap but commendable wine yet. At the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition last weekend the five-person panel on which I sat was assigned a class of Cabernet Sauvignon priced between $5 and $13. There were 65 entries. That’s the sort of class and the number of wines that ordinarily would draw moans from judges at the outset, and I don’t deny that it at least brought a pause to the kick-off jolliness. Yet, after just the first flight we asked that the price range be double-checked. We’d given two double-golds and one gold among the first 12 wines, with several silvers and no non-medals. The outcome for the other flights wasn’t quite as impressive, but throughout the class we continued to be pleasantly surprised. And, yes, the price range was correct. We won’t receive coded results for another couple of weeks, so the identities of the most impressive wines aren’t yet known to judges. I also was on the finals panel to select the best value wine in the competition, which drew 3,528 wines, and it also was notable for a high proportion of wines whose identity I look forward to learning…and buying.

  • By Linda Lee - Reply

    Yours is the only blog I follow even though I read a lot about wine. Please keep going.

  • By Paul Tincknell - Reply

    Happy blog birthday, Jeff! You’ve got to keep the good fight up. I refer your site all the time to people online that don’t think there are good wines out there for under $20. Someone has to keep insisting that quality and value isn’t directly related to price!

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