Robin Goldstein knows even more about cheap wine than the Wine Curmudgeon, which is saying something. But what else would one expect from the co-author and guiding force of The Wine Trials 2010 (Fearless Media, $14.95), perhaps the best guide to wine that costs less than $15 a bottle?
The second edition has just been published, and it's another fine effort. I don't know that I agree with each of the 150 wines in the book (I've tasted all but 25 or so); many simple, fruity wines did better than they should have. But that's nit-picking, because Goldstein's concept is sound. Price is not the be all and end all the experts want us to think it is. Blind tasting, without the influence exerted by price and ratings, matters.
I chatted with Goldstein via Skype (the unofficial Internet phone service of the Wine Curmudgeon) and was going to run this as a podcast. But there were some technical glitches on my end, so it's a transcript of our interview. Part I looks at the trends in cheap wine and why there is more good, cheap wine than ever before. Part II, which posted Friday, looks at some of the wines that made the book, as well as wine labels and wine names.
The Wine Curmudgeon: Were there any big surprises in the 2010 Wine Trials?
Robin Goldstein: I think the two biggest surprises were, one, the overall rise in quality in the under-$15 range, and, two, the breakout performance of Portuguese wines.
WC: Why was that?
RG: Well, as for the rise in quality, I attribute it to two factors: first, economic pressure that's encouraging producers to lower prices and focus more on the under-$15 segment, which is growing rapidly, and second, ever-increasing distribution channels for lesser-known wine regions. i.e. the world just getting smaller.
WC: That's true. Do you also think that some of these smaller producing areas, like Portugal, see opportunities that weren't there before?
RG: Yes, definitely. They're seeing this exploding demand for inexpensive, good-value wine these days, and using that to get in with some of the larger importers and distributors, where previously, regions like Portugal would be dismissed by larger importers as "niche" wine that's harder to sell, so they wouldn't take significant quantities and everyday consumers (especially outside the big cities) would have much less access to wine from such regions. It turns out with the economic downturn, people don't drink less wine, they just spend less per bottle, and that's playing to the advantage of the good-value regions.
WC: So what you're talking about is a major change in the way the wine world works? Which, of course, is a welcome thing to those of us how love cheap wine
RG: Absolutely. Even Champagne, the classic "premium"-priced region, is responding. i just read this article in the Financial Times (which talked about price cutting for Champagne). And I like to think that people like you and me have been able to play some small part in that pressure that I hope will ultimately really change the wine world for the better.
WC: You're very kind. The other thing I've noticed, and especially because of the recession, is almost a backlash from the Winestream Media, as I like to call it, against many of these wines. Have you seen that?
RG: Against which wines in particular?
WC: I have seen, in some writing, a plea that we not give up on $20/$30/$40 wines in favor of "mass produced" wines because they are cheaper. Which overlooks the point that the more expensive wines may have been overpriced to begin with.
RG: Yes. and I think there's also a misperception that cheap wines are all mass produced. Some of them are, but many aren't, and one thing we did in this year's Wine Trials was to lower the minimum production levels so that we could include many small producers. Of course, we still require that the wines be relevant to the national U.S. market — i.e. that they be available in many states around the country, not just in one region — but we've really tried hard to include a lot of wines from smaller producers and lesser-known regions that have done a lot of work getting their wine widely distributed in the U.S. And that's not to say that "mass produced" wines can't sometimes be good, too.
WC: Exactly. The writing I'm thinking of that the best wine is "slow" and nothing else matters. Like there is nothing in between grocery store wine and cult wine.
RG: Yes. If you focus too much on things like production levels, organic farming, etc., you can lose sight of the most important thing, which is what the wine actually tastes like. What i care about is what's in the bottle. We should encourage producers to be honest, to do things that are good for the environment, to try to maintain a "small" or "slow" philosophy even as they grow, but we shouldn't let that stuff bias us any more than we should let price or prestige or Parker ratings bias us.