Is $15 wine the new $8 wine?

$15

“Why does this $15 wine taste a lot like that $8 pinot grigio I bought last week?”

Is $10 wine the new $100 wine?” was one of the best-read posts on the blog at the beginning of the recession, explaining why cash-strapped consumers were trading down — and that they were shocked to find that wine quality at $10 was much better than they had been led to believe. Today, as we deal with a glut of overpriced and poorly-made wine, often by reputable producers, it’s my sad duty to ask: Is $15 wine is the new $8 wine?

Over the past 18 months, I’ve tasted so much junk at $15 that even I’m surprised, and I’m the one who included a section in the cheap wine book that said that the $12 to $18 range — “the province of ‘Big Wine’ marketing — offered the least value. But what I’ve tasted since the end of 2014 has been even worse than that, $8 of value dressed up in a $15 bottle.

How has this happened?

 A determined effort by producers, mostly big but also smaller, and in regions like Lodi and the less well known parts of France, to separate what they make from the so-called “cheap wine” that we’re not supposed to be drinking. They’ve done this by creating new products with flashy labels that are made the same way as their old wines and at more or less the same cost, but retail for more money. This way, they’re creating the impression that the new wine is worth the extra money, when it’s mostly the emperor’s new clothes. Or, as a boss at Treasury Wine Estates calls it, “masstige.”

 Wretched grapes. Those of us of a certain age remember when wine was made with unripe and poor quality grapes. Unripe grapes gave the wines a green, almost crab apple quality, and poor quality grapes left the wines thin and bitter. Those grapes, which seemed to be long gone, are back and particularly in whites. I’ve tasted $15 chardonnays and pinot gris that were practically gaggable, the sort of wine you spit out and wonder what the producer was thinking.

 The increase in grocery store wine sales. This means we’re buying more wine on our own, without help from knowledgeable retailers. And that means we have to depend on the front and back labels more than is good for us. And if the front label is cute and the back says smooth and chocolate, we’re sunk, and end up paying more for the wine than it’s worth.

There is a cynicism at work here that’s more depressing than anything else, and something that wine — even when it did these sorts of things — never really enjoyed doing. But those days seem to be over.

17 thoughts on “Is $15 wine the new $8 wine?

  • By Blake Gray - Reply

    This is an important observation, Jeff. Do you have any more theories or observations about which $15 wines tend to be bad? What about red wines? Is underripeness not as much an issue?

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      My experience has been that the red wines are not underripe, though there can be some offputting bitterness from poorly managed tannins. And these are typically Big Wine products (but as noted in the post, not always) with back labels that talk about jammy and smooth and the rest of that foolishness. Also, these wines tend to focus on lifestyle more than wine, so that the label is meant to be cool and aimed at Millenial men.

  • By Perry Hilburn - Reply

    I wonder if the wine curmudgeon has an opinion about wines available at nakedwines.com? Is a $15 bottle a $30 wine for example? I’m under the impression the wine producers on the site are only available through that site.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      I’ve tasted a couple of NakedWines and was unimpressed. My sense is that Naked is similar to a winery-run wine club, where you’ll pay more because they’re small production wines and they’re made especially for Naked.

    • By Blake Gray - Reply

      Perry: As a general rule to which I have yet to see an exception, when some company tells you, “This is a $30 wine for $15,” at best, it’s a $15 wine for $15. Sometimes it’s a $7.50 wine with $7.50 worth of expensive marketing for $15.

    • By Blake Gray - Reply

      Perry: I forgot Cameron Hughes, who often sells $30 wines for $15. This is because the companies that made them couldn’t sell them for $30.

      Naked Wines has no problems selling wine.

  • By noblewines - Reply

    It seems to me all about volume and marketing. There has been a 5+ year trend of labels made for distributors and importers with “made up” names that have offered decent quality to cost. But as such a brand gains market share, sourcing equally good grapes or juice to supply 20,000 case need is very different than 5,000 case need. So the choice as the brand builds is raise price to afford more grapes or finished wine at similar quality or just pretend nothing has changed and the buyers are sold on the label and therefore don’t really pay attention to the actual quality of the wine.

    Most opt for ignoring and hoping no one notices. It’s how brands tire out.

  • By Trish Esst - Reply

    Wine is mostly tasted psychologically…. Unless you rely on a true sommelier, or you are a true sommelier

  • By Shane - Reply

    Soms: all show, no go. I invite any som to our winery lab for sensory analysis, fun to watch them talk in circles, as they taste a flight of the same wine.

    Drink what you enjoy, mad dog or screaming eagle, life is too short to care.

  • By Steve McIntosh - Reply

    Amen, brother.

    • By Steve McIntosh - Reply

      …and you’re being kind putting the ceiling at $15.

      • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

        I don’t taste much wine costing more than $15. The lack of quality is too depressing.

  • By Khris - Reply

    Do you think we are we trending toward fewer and fewer wines, at all price points, that are actually worth the price we’d pay to buy them?

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      That’s a good question, Khris. Ordinarily, I’d say these things are cyclical, and even themselves out over time. But the wine wrold on the supply end has changed so much, with more huge producers and so many fewer distributors, that the equilibrium that used to even things out isn’t there the way it was.

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  • By Brian Fitzsimmons - Reply

    I’m optistic but I’m a lot more curious than the average consumer. I would agree with you but what about just being an educated buyer? I don’t really think its that hard.

    Sure, it would be nice if our culture allowed us to be more knowledgeable as European consumers, but is the fact that its not a reason to expect the industry to do what they do? If craft beers can kick the ass of big beverage, can’t the same market forces to it to wine, too?

    There is so much good wine to be had, at an amazing price, when you ask the right questions. Then again, this is a county that loves to down bags of Jack Links beef jerky at Wal-Mart. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m still gonna need honest wine reviews. Job security.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      The problem is not so much that wine is difficult or that the average consumer is overwhlemed, though those are certainly problems. It’s the change in retailing, as more of us shop at big chains, including grocery stores, where it’s almost impossible to get good advice if we are confused.

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