Cheap wine, or wine snobs (long)

rosesinny(7a)October 1, 2008

I didn't know where to post this and maybe don't even need to, but reading some of the threads, it seems like some people are fairly new to wine so I figured I'd add something pretty basic since there doesn't seem to be a FAQ for this forum. Of course, I'm far from any kind of expert in anything, although I do drink a fair bit of wine.

Watching the wine world, one sees that sometimes people who know a bit can be slightly condescending towards others, while people who don't know much wonder why someone would pay X dollars for any wine.

I'll try to explain. Let's start with basics.

For wine lovers, wine is from grapes and only from grapes. I recognize that right there it might seem snobbish to say that fermented apple juice is not wine. So let's just say that it is not wine for purposes of discussing "wine", but it can be a fine drink if that's your preference. One can actually make wine from many fruits, but I can't think of many that are taken seriously by "wine lovers". This is not to denigrate any of those wines or the people who like them. It's just to limit our discussion.

And a note about sake - it is called "rice wine" sometimes, but it is not actually wine as there is no fruit juice. It is actually more akin to beer.

Also, wine has no flavorings added. I've seen things like "peach flavored wine" in supermarkets, but we won't be talking about that.

The grapes used are European grapes. No space to get into the differences here, but suffice it to day that for the most part, the grapes that are native to the US don't make fine wine. There are some hybrids, like Norton, that were quite respected in the 1800s and perhaps with some work, they can be respected again, but the overwhelming majority of fine wine in the world is made from grapes that are identified with Europe.

So let's assume we're talking about things like chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, riesling, malbec, syrah, sauvignon blanc, etc. What makes one bottle more expensive than another and how to find a cheap one?

Start with the cost of goods. If your family has owned its land for many generations and has no mortgage and knows how to grow grapes, your costs are lower than the person who just bought in at $200,000 an acre. This is partly why some wines from Europe are still such values in the US, in spite of the Euro/dollar exchange rates.

But there's more to it. If your yields are 15 tons per acre, you get more wine from your land than the guy whose yield is 2 or 3 tons per acre. And if the 2 or 3 ton per acre grapes are harvested when they are really really ripe and have actually started to dehydrate a bit, then he is getting even less wine from his vineyard.

And finally, how big is your vineyard? How many bottles can you actually make? And did you make it or did you hire an expensive consultant?

So we have some pricing factors now. Suppose you have a vineyard and you don't sell all of your grapes. Maybe there is a hill at one end and the grapes at that end didn't get ripe enough. Or they got riper and you didn't pick at different times. You might sell off those grapes, or the juice from them. I might be in the market for some grapes/juice and if I can get a good price, I'll take yours. I'll take the juice from lots of people and blend it all together. Maybe I will ferment it to leave just a touch of residual sugar and maybe I'll store it in large tanks and I'll put some oak chips or oak planks in it to provide some of the vanilla and toasty notes that people like.

Just as an aside, barrels are overwhelmingly made from oak and they are often toasted - you tell them if you want them toasted and how much. If you don't want any, you just use the barrel made of raw wood. Or they start a fire in the barrel and let it burn. It can go to light toast to actually charring the inside of the barrel until it's like charcoal. That char is what gives some wines a characteristic toasted marshmallow and coconut flavor, and sometimes a smoky one.

Finally, when the wine is finished, it might seem "flabby", so you might add some acid. In warm climates, it is very common to acidify wine - California acidifies a great deal, so does Australia. In cooler climates where the grapes don't ripen as easily, they often add a bit of sugar, not to make the wine sweet, but because the grapes may not have enough natural sugar for the yeasts to ferment. This is called Chaptalization, named for a French man named Chaptal.

Now we can talk about "cheap" wine. Everyone has his or her own definition. For me, it means that the price is low for the quality. So a $40 wine can be cheap.

But we can start at the low end of prices. A wine like Two Buck Chuck, for example, is made of grapes that were purchased from a number of people and which were grown in any number of areas. The point of those wines is to produce a consistent product from year to year. Thus, if it is not as ripe a year, we might add some sugar, if it is very ripe, we will acidify, we will maintain the tannins, the alcohol, pretty much everything we can from year to year. YellowTail for instance, was designed by the importer - essentially a recipe was provided and the wine made specifically for the US market. It would be comparable to MacDonald's fries and burgers - the quality is known and constant.

This is not to disparage it at all. Many marketers are similar. Gallo for example, has a huge presence and they also have a number of different labels or brands, which is a very smart move for obtaining shelf space. Where you find "cheap" wine here is easy - you go to the store with the best price. The wine is easy to find, there is a lot of it, and it's sold like any other product, on price.

That wine will enjoy serious economies of scale and can be sold like a standardized commodity, which in fact it is. Of course, that is precisely what turns some people off. It doesn't mean they're right or wrong. But just as some people never go into fast food restaurants and some do, so it is with wine.

Thus, moving up a notch or two, you might find a wine where the producer buys from growers or owns his own land. But this winemaker will not be buying on the open market, rather he will have worked with the grape growers through the summer and will have long term contracts with them. He will vinify the juice and make the best wine he can each year, but he will accept that each year is different and consequently his wine will vary from year to year. This is the traditional model in parts of Spain for example, or France, and now in some places in the US, Argentina, Australia, etc. At this level, it is possible to find pretty good wine that is not overly expensive. On a personal note, this is where I start to look for "cheap" wine. Where you find "cheap" wine here is by looking for wineries who have long-standing relations with their grape producers, as they do in Spain and parts of France and Italy, or where they have developed these relationships for the same purposes, as for example, some producers have in Argentina, California or Washington.

Moving up, the producer can own its own land and manage it's own vineyards. In Europe, there are often restrictions on the yields allowed from the vineyards - they believe that lower yields result in more concentrated juice. But even where regulations do not exist, winemakers often voluntarily reduce yields for the same reason. Yields are interesting however, and I am not certain that they are a good proxy for quality.

The idea is to make the vine struggle. You almost want it to think it is going to die, for then it spends all of its energy producing fruit. If you don't provide sufficient water for example, but you don't go so far as to dehydrate the vine, you can concentrate the juice. That's why when they have a rainy year and especially a rainy harvest in a winemaking area, the vintage is usually considered a bad vintage.

Planting density is another way of making the vine struggle. High density planting can make each vine fight for limited nutrients. And poor soil is another way - some vineyards are basically rocks and you wonder how anything can grow there.

If the vine struggles so much that it gives you only very small grapes and only a few bunches per vine, and the area has warm days and cool or even cold nights through harvest, you might just have really good wine grapes. You might be able to start demanding a pretty good price for your wine, particularly if you have a famous critic give it a good score, or if you have built up a reputation over many years. This is perhaps the situation in places like Chateauneuf du Pape (CdP). Where you find "cheap" wine here is by looking at places that are close to CdP, but do not have the CdP name.

Now let's say you ferment your grapes and put the wine into barrels. Say the barrels hold 225 liters of wine and cost around $800 these days. Let's also say that you paid a lot of money to buy your vineyard because that is not the business you grew up in. Let's also say you hired a very expensive consultant to tell you how to make your wine. And let's say that you want the same respect that your neighbors have, which is why you wanted to get into the business anyway. This is what is happening in Napa today. Your very first wine might cost $100 or more per bottle. Where you find "cheap" wine in Napa is by avoiding the newest producers. They simply cannot open a new winery and produce "cheap" wine, and nobody is interested in doing so either. So look to producers who have been there for 20 years or longer. Where you find "cheap" wine in CA is very often by avoiding Napa and seeking out good producers in less prestigious areas.

But there are other reasons for high prices. In Burgundy, they have very different types of soil in very close proximity to each other. Burgundy is not unique in this of course, but if you look at the flat plains of Kansas and Nebraska, it is apparent that they have similar soil for many miles. Everyone has seen different layers of soil. When you have a hilly or mountainous region, the earth gets folded and sometimes the layers get flipped so that they are like standing a sandwich on its edge. So you might have had an ancient sea that was covered by lava that was covered by sand and then when they get flipped ninety degrees, you have three different soil types next to each other.

My explanation is simplistic, but the point is that wine lovers want to taste, and claim that they can taste, the difference in wine from the different soils. As a result, in Burgundy a grower might have only a few rows of vines and his neighbor a few rows, and they will produce very little wine that is in great demand so their prices will be very high. Where you find "cheap" wine here is by avoiding the vineyards that have been given the top rankings, but the year was good and the wine is made with careful attention. Note that this is precisely the opposite of the winemaking we started with, where a grower buys grapes from all over and blends them to get consistency and sell cheaply. In Burgundy, one is as far away as one can be from that philosophy and people are willing to pay tremendous sums of money for the uniqueness of the soil, the vintage, and the winemaker.

Bordeaux on the other hand is unique in the wine world. They price very much based on what their neighbors are charging and on what the prices were last year and on what they think the market will bear. In the world of wine, their prices might have the least relation to their costs, at least for the classified growths. Where you find "cheap" wine is either by being a billionaire so you can pay for a case of Haut Brion without blinking, or by buying from the chateaus that might not have the biggest names but that are neighboring, or that have recently been overhauled and are trying to establish a reputation.

There are many many other things that one could discuss and this is not even a surface scratch. But think of bread. We can go to the supermarket and buy bread in a plastic bag. We can also go to the little lady in the town in the hills who grows her own wheat, mills it, and makes bread out of that using wild yeasts in the air. Both can be valid.

Anyhow, I don't know if anyone will ever read this, but cheers!

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I read it , whew ! Cheers

    Bookmark   October 5, 2008 at 6:29PM
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lindac(Iowa Z 5/4)

Me too.....thanks!

    Bookmark   October 6, 2008 at 12:46AM
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Nice write up. I think I will now have some Two Buck Chuck. Thanks and cheers to you too.

    Bookmark   October 15, 2008 at 8:32PM
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ladylotus(Z3/4 ND)

Great information! I'm just getting into wine and you wrote so beautifully, very basic information as to why certain wines are priced as they are. Thank you for taking so much time to put the information into writing.


    Bookmark   October 17, 2008 at 5:18PM
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A great read for a novice wanting a good basic overview. Thanks for writing. I enjoyed the read. I even learned some things. Now I am Googleing Norton grapes.............I'll be up all night.

    Bookmark   October 19, 2008 at 11:51PM
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wild_rose_of_texas(z8b TX)

Thank you for taking the time to write this explanatory piece. I feel like it was written just for me.

How does one go about obtaining a wine mentor? I would really love to have someone to pal around with on weekends, and try new wines with who would not mind walking me through the tastings. My friends are all giggling at me, but I guess I'll go it alone if no one steps up to the plate!


    Bookmark   October 23, 2008 at 5:07PM
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Allison - wine mentor? What a cool job that would be. I don't know. I've been drinking wine for years and ask questions all the time. Now that I'm selling it I end up answering a few questions too, but my suggestion is to read and taste. And if you ever get out to NYC, call me. That's serious incidentally.

Anyway, I can offer a few suggestions for people.

First, don't overlook Beaujolais. It's been producing wine for centuries, mostly for cafes around Lyon, where there were a number of silk merchants. They make a young wine for drinking within a few months and back in the 80s a couple British guys were drinking and made a bet with each other about which one could get the wine to London fastest. That set off a trend for about 10 - 20 years and increased sales of that young Beaujolais. Production shot up and a lot of second rate wine was made to cash in.

Then the fad faded, the market crashed, and the area is suffering today.

BUT - in the hills around Beaujolais they also have what are called "cru" sites and those are very much worth investigating. For education, bypass the young stuff and look for the crus - they will have a name like Fleurie, Julianas, Morgon, Moulon au Vent, Regnie, or something like that.

This area is just south of Burgundy, and some of the winemakers in Burgundy work in both places and you can learn a lot and have fun. Find a producer, say Chermette, or Brun, for example, and sample the wine of the same producer from Fleurie, Morgon and Julianas. Even buy George Dubeouf wines from those places - they are great values and will show you the differences in the soils and environment and microclimates, which the French call "terroir". Because it is the same winemaking, you take that variable out of the equation and presumably taste only the differences that result from the terroir. It's a good lesson and the wine is wonderful, inexpensive, and not high in alcohol. And even try the young Beaujolais just to compare. As a rule it will be simpler, but quite nice. If you can start to understand those, you start to understand what people get excited about when they talk of Burgundy or Piedmont.

You can do it with riesling too - they pretty much never use oak barrels in Germany for the rieslings, so you only taste the winemaker and the vineyard. For example, find some Prum - J.J. Prum, S.A. Prum, Weins Prum. They are related family and they make wine from the same vineyard. You can learn about the differences in winemaking. Or or St Urbans Hof and Zillikin who both use the Ockfener Bockstein vineyard and who are probably cheaper than the Prums. Or find a producer who uses multiple vineyards, like St Urbans Hof again, and try their Ockfener Bockstein vs their wine from Piesporter Goldtropfchen, looking at the same winemaker but different vineyards.

Try to find Kabinett wines and don't mix Kabinett and Spatlese, etc., for this study, because the sugar will through you off. Write down the differences between the wines that you observe.

You can do it in CA too - Andy Beckstoffer owns vineyards that produce really great wines, but those are going to be much more costly than those rieslings are. Schrader for example, is one of many people making wine from the Tokalon property, but you're talking $100 a bottle.

The Prums have had their vineyards for years, maybe centuries. Beckstoffer moved to CA from Virginia, bought property, and sells his grapes at a price based on what the winery is going to charge for the wine! So those CA wineries, being pretty new and only recently opened by guys who became millionaires somewhere else and who paid $200,000 and acre, or else whatever Beckstoffer wants per ton, charge a lot of money for their wines, whereas Prum can sell a wine for $26 or less.

I love the idea of Two Buck Chuck, but the wine isn't so great IMO. I'd rather pay another dollar and get a better wine and I think they could do it. What you won't have however, is the distinction you get from the other wines I suggested. That's because it is designed specifically NOT to have it. The idea is to create consistency, not personality. Again, no problem here and more power to him, but for me it would be boring to drink the same thing all the time, and I collect wine specifically to have variety.

In 2005, the cabernet sauvignon harvest in Napa was pretty big and pretty good. People thinned the crop several times in some vineyards but the grape clusters were large so they still got more tonnage per acre than they normally do, although the wines are top notch anyhow.


Not going anywhere good as far as I can see. As long as wines are selling for $100 and up, the prices aren't coming down.

And about that thinning - in France and other regions, there are often regulations regarding yield per acre. They think that if you cut some young grape bunches off, called "green harvesting", the remaining ones will be more concentrated. That's becoming a basic tenet of winemaking.

But there is some evidence and some opinion that this is BS. The concept was developed before there were adequate ways to measure. So a long time ago in France they thought they could improve quality by limiting yield. But maybe that's artificial, as illustrated by the 2005 vintage in CA. In a nice warm year, with adequate rain and no heat and healthy vines, the plants just might want to produce a little more with no drop in quality. In 1997 and 2005, that happened in Napa. If one were only to go by yield, we would have less wine but in fact, there was no reason to reduce production since the quality is fine. But as long as people are willing to pay, others will produce wine at $100 and up.

In much of France today, they are trying to reduce production to keep prices high. You can figure out the economics of that, but IMO the idea is flawed because the competition is not simply air, it is wine from elsewhere. So if I can't buy or afford French wine, I'll buy Australian wine or Spanish or Chilean. It's a huge generalization and not 100% true, but you might say that in Napa the high prices are the result of extraordinary entry costs while in Bordeaux or Burgundy or Champagne, they are the result of production decisions designed to keep prices high. Again, that's not entirely true but its a shorthand explanation.

So you look for areas like Beaujolais, Cotes du Ventoux, Cotes du Rhone, Languedoc in France, or the Rhine in Germany, or Umbira and Puglia in Italy, or Paso Robles or Mendocino in CA, or Walla Walla or Columbia Valley in WA and you can find much better deals. Or look at Argentina - some nice stuff coming out of there.

And in the Texas Hill Country, they're working and in Arizona and in other states as well. Some people disparage those wines, but the people have to start somewhere. I used to disparage the wines from Michigan. Then I tried some. Taught me a lesson. I only knew the cheap sugary stuff but there are now some serious producers making good whites on the west of the state.

Also in Ohio there are one or two - Kincaid makes really nice cabs down near Kentucky. I would never have believed it if I hadn't tried them. And in fact, they were in some pretty stiff competition - I had them at a dinner with people who brought some serious wine to the table and brought these just to educate us.

So if someone is open minded, there is no reason to listen to wine snobs and you can find some great values out there, that are interesting, complex, and even educational if you care to go that way.

Cheers all.

    Bookmark   October 24, 2008 at 2:39PM
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