Where has all the value gone in California wine?
The store employee, who knows his business, didn’t mince words. “You’re not going to find any value here,” he said, waving his arm at the store’s extensive California wine section. “That’s why I tell people to look at Spain and Italy for value. There isn’t any in California any more.”
The Wine Curmudgeon, who had just spent 15 minutes scouring the aisles in a vain attempt to find a $10 California wine to write about (or even a $12 or $15 wine, for that matter) was surprised to hear someone who sold wine say that. But I wasn’t surprised to hear it.
There has been value in wine, even in these dark days, almost everywhere in the world save for Bordeaux and Burgundy. You just had to keep looking. But I’m finding it harder and harder to find value in California. Instead, there are $17 high-alcohol zinfandels that all taste the same; $15 too fruity red blends with cute labels that all taste the same; $12 white wines wearing fake oak disguises that all taste the same; and too much wine costing less than $10 that tastes like it was made without any regard for quality — and that all tastes the same.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t quality, because California can produce the best wine in the world at any price. We know how I feel about Bogle. Rather, it’s that you almost never get more than you pay for anymore, and you rarely even get what you pay for.
How did this happen? Ten years ago, when I started the blog, value was common in California. and I wrote about those wines all the time. Since then, though:
• Land prices have skyrocketed. Higher land prices mean more expensive wine, even if the quality of the grapes isn’t any better.
• Consolidation, which has shifted producer focus from wine quality to wine marketing. This is the difference between “How much is this wine worth?” to “How much should we charge for this wine, given where it is in our portfolio?”
• Price increases, as producers make up for all the price increases they didn’t take during the last decade.
• Pricing based on styles. This is where a producer will charge more for a cheap wine made to mimic a more expensive wine, because the cheap wine will still be less expensive than the expensive wine. It just won’t be a value, but we’re not supposed to be smart enough to figure that out.
Of course, I’ll keep looking for value in California wine. But given all that has happened, I don’t expect to find much.