The backlash against cheap wine

cheap wine backlashThese should be the best days for cheap wine. The recession has focused the wine industry on wine that costs less than $10, and producers around the globe have been racing to put out as much inexpensive wine as possible. When a sparkling wine house like J does a $15 pinot gris, the world has definitely changed.

But a lot of people are not happy about this. The industry, despite its embrace of cheap wine, doesn’t really seem to have much affection for it. They’ll take the cash, much as they have always done with white zinfandel, but they really don’t want to be associated with it. Follow the business, and you’ll see news reports and interviews over and over about what really matters to them: When are consumers going to start buying wine that costs more than $15 again?

The wine media, even in the cyber-ether, has not been happy with the emphasis on cheap wine, either. Over the last several weeks, there have been a variety of posts and discussions about cheap wine’s popularity and that it’s not necessarily a good thing. The gist? That those of us who advocate cheap wine are missing the point, and that we care only about price and not about quality. Which is not necessarily the case.

The apparent catalysts for the cyber-bickering were the publication of George Taber’s new book, “Bargain Wines” and Brian Palmer’s rant on Slate that most wine was overpriced. Taber argues that cheap wine is better than ever, while Palmer takes that approach one step further: “There are plenty of reasons to go back to our 1990s habits, and to start using 15 bucks to buy four or five bottles instead of just one.”

The controversy, which included the eminent Jon Bonne in the San Francisco Chronicle, was nicely summed up by Evan Dawson at New York Cork Report, who noted that consumer perceptions of cheap wine are not necessarily the same as those of people who drink wine for a living. Which is exactly the point that almost everyone else missed.

The United States is not a wine drinking country. We are a soft drink country, and most of us don’t know anything about wine. What most of us do know is that wine is confusing and expensive and reserved for really special people who can talk funny about it. And anyone who loves wine who denies this is kidding themselves. I got a release the other day from a new wine club that said it would demystify and de-snobify wine — and then used the same foolish winespeak to describe how wonderful its wines were.

Given this, is it any wonder that most Americans buy wine strictly by price? Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer and top-flight cookbook author, put this into perspective for me during an interview several years ago. Most people, he said, look at wine as an alcohol intake system. They drink wine because it makes them feel good. They really don’t care about the wine stuff. I see this every time I do a public event, and ask the audience if a $100 wine is 10 times better than a $10 wine. The audience, almost every time, offers a unanimous no. It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong; it’s their perception that counts.

Which is the real problem, and one that the wine business — and those of us who write about wine — don’t address. We don’t do enough to make wine accessible. We don’t do enough to educate consumers. We want to be famous, and this goes for wine writers as well as winemakers. The dirty little secret of my business is that too many of us want to be Robert Parker, and that’s not going to happen by writing about Yellow Tail or Barefoot or by teaching consumers how to tell the difference between a $6 wine and a $10 wine.

My pal Dave McIntyre got to the heart of the matter with his post on the subject: People should not advocate for cheap wine, but for cheap wine that delivers value and quality. And an East Coast blogger, Pia Mara Finkell, wrote that the next great wine trend will not be about cheap, but about value, what she called finding diamonds in the rough.

Which, of course, is what I have always done here. That’s why the $10 Hall of Fame exists. That’s why I write 52 wines of the week every year, highlighting just those kinds of wine. The debate should not be about cheap wine, but about quality. Are there well-made cheap wines? Of course, just as there are well-made expensive wines. And are there poorly-made cheap wines? Indeed, just as there are poorly-made expensive wines. It’s no crime to make consumers aware of that.

In fact, our job should be to educate consumers about what constitutes quality, and how to tell the difference. And every time we give a point score and use words like licorice and toast, we’re doing just the opposite — and consumers reach for the wine that delivers the most alcohol for the buck.

Sadly, though, that may be a distinction that too many in the wine world don’t — or don’t want to — understand.

9 thoughts on “The backlash against cheap wine

  • By Jeff -

    Hopefully, your blog and others like it will encourage more winemakers to make better $10 Wines. And hopefully our buying patterns will, too. I love quality and frugality. That’s just who I am. Oh yeah, and I love great wine.

  • By RandomWiner -

    Agree with the sentiment of this post – however, what most consumers don’t realize is that this is a factor of economies of scale. For small producers like me, buying quality Sonoma Co fruit frm $2k – $3k / ton, the cost of the juice alone is frm $3 to $5/btl.
    Factor in actual production costs & packaging costs – and you are looking at a bottle cost that exceeds $10.
    We sell our wines at a fair price – some say too low… but hey, shouldn’t I be able to make a living (and not a killing)?

  • By Mary Elke -

    I am a grape grower and produce “good value” Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. In northern California, it is very difficult to produce a “good value” wine unless you were lucky enough to own your own vineyard and to have purchased the land prior to 1980. If you are a good steward of the land, if you have decent farming practices and if you pay your vineyard and winery employees a fair, living wage by US standards, then a $10 or less bottle of wine is almost impossible to produce. The playing field is not level in the global wine market.

  • By winery -

    I couldn’t agree more…drink what you want,and the wine snobs be damned.
    We make good value wines from Napa under $20.00 .
    Consumers love our wines(our continued growth shows that)
    Wine writers don’t care, they want to write about them next 150 case $300.00 wine.

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    Thanks for all the comments. I also got several emails discussing the post, and there has been so much interest in the subject that I’ll do a follow-up post next week.
    Also, thanks for keeping the discussion, which I appreciate more than you know.

  • By Wine Club Reviews -

    This article is incredibly well-written and engaging. And most importantly, on point.
    I’ve been working toward consumer education about wine and helping consumers find value in their wine purchases for several years now and I always feel at odds with the wine-writing community because I take a more consumer-driven point of view and less wine-expert point of view.
    Americans rarely know (or care) what anything costs to produce, only what they’re willing to pay for it. Unlike in China where recent reports stated that people are willing to pay way too much for something they don’t care about just to demonstrate the ability to pay too much.
    I’m guessing it’s cultural influences like these that will set the price of wine going forward, much less than the quality of what’s in the bottle.

  • By Laine -

    My ex was a winebuyer for a well known restaurant in the Ft. Lauderdake area. As a result, I was privileged to be exposed to every price level of wine from under $20 to over $300. I have found that there are some excellent wines to be had, even at the $8 level. There is no reason to buy plonk these days. Don’t be intimidated by wine. Experiment and find the values that are readily available. Thanks for your thoughtful and well written article.

  • By Dave McIntyre -

    Jeff – you make the point exactly when you say, “most Americans buy wine strictly by price”, and then later point out (too gently) that there are poorly made cheap wines. If consumers are buying strictly by price, or simply to get buzzed as Bittman apparently told you, that means they don’t care if the wine is any good. So maybe you and I should just quit. You have always done a stand-up job of searching for good quality among the cheap wines, but by your argument, people don’t care. That makes your $100/$10 comparison irrelevant. (Everyone knows QPR is logarithmic, not linear. 😉
    My problem with Taber’s book is that he celebrates cheap for cheap’s sake and concludes that anyone who favors a $20 wine – or God forbid a $50 one, for whatever reason, is just plain stupid.

  • By Kovas @ 50 States Of Wine -

    Far too often the $15+ wines aren’t that much better than the $5-10 wines, so as someone who doesn’t have much money to spend on wine, I’d rather buy 2-3 bottles to try rather than one bottle I might be unhappy with.

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