Dan, a friend from whom I have learned a lot and who jokes about someday becoming a “life coach with a big neon sign in the heart of Lincoln Park”, unknowingly imparts tidbits of wisdom into every conversation we have. One of my favorites is: “Many people know the cost of things, but a few understand the value of things”. I like to think how that applies to wine.
I’m going to be honest with you. Even as someone who promulgates the gospel of “drink what you like and not what the experts or the market (see cost of a bottle) tell you”, I still have difficulties accepting that the Kung Fu Girl Riesling from Charles Smith is a terrific $10 bottle of wine. But please don’t judge me! Let there be redemption in that I think it’s crazy to pay north of $1,500 for a bottle of Sine Qua Non Grenache (California wine). I mean, is one really 160 times better (whatever “better” means to you) than the other?
I think that a partial antidote to being swayed by the idea that “expensive equals better wine” is to understand some of the market considerations that go into every bottle of wine while bearing in mind that in the final transaction expensive wines are expensive because they can be.
1. Land – In Napa, it’s not uncommon to pay upwards of $400K per acre. If you were to buy the land to then plant vines, you would not really harvest viable fruit until the third year. In fact, it would be by the fifth year that your fruit would be of reasonable quality. Conversely, in Mendoza, Argentina, you can buy a 38-acre boutique winery and vineyard with an irrigation lake and computerized drip irrigation for $295,000! Here’s a quick formula to further geek-out the point: A quality vineyard yield is about 3 tons of grapes per acre. Every ton gives you just above 2 barrels of wine. With each barrel being about 60 gallons (that’s 25 cases which equals 300 bottles), that acre of land will yield about 1,800 bottles (over 6 barrels for the 3 tons). You do the math (hate that stupid cliché).
2. Grapes -Let’s suppose you cannot afford the land and instead want to buy grapes and make the wine either at your own facility or at rented space. If you buy the prodigious stuff in Napa, you’ll be paying over $35,000 per ton. If you subscribe to the industry’s formula that essentially computes that by taking the first three figures of any per ton purchase that’s about what you have to sell your wine for to make the purchase pay off, now your bottle comes at $350. Washington red grapes in 2017 were at an average price of about $1,500 per ton. Just sayin’.
3. Labor – Is your vineyard machine harvested or handpicked? You can machine harvest an acre for $100-$200 whereas if handpicked it will cost about $750 an acre. Unquestionably, the artisanal value of the latter carries over to the price of your bottle.
4. Oak – Being that oak can be the “spice rack of wine making”, its addition is deemed as another layer of complexity. You are not likely to have any oak in a central coast jug wine! With barrels of French oak (more expensive than American oak) you are looking at $850-$3,600 per barrel with the aggravating fact that after 4 -5 uses they are rendered neutral and therefore not useful anymore.
5. Vintages – Some will say that with the advent of modern technology, winemakers can almost mend the shortcomings of certain sub optimal vintages. But even if you don’t believe that, keep in mind that different years are more about different characters than differences in quality.
6. Hype – Here I include “points”, the public buzz, and the concept of “boutiqueness”. For example, the point system, which is merely a score that a certain critic (admittedly knowledgeable folks…albeit ignorant of what YOU find enjoyable) ascribes to a wine will significantly bump up the price of wine once it hits 90. But sadly, the opposite is true as 88 points may render a wine devastatingly “cheap”. But remember that this system does not tell you about the character of the wine. Is a 90 points Cali Chard the same as a 90 points Chablis? “The Prisoner’s” ascend in the American wine consciousness is an example of the power of the “buzz”. This is how it went from a $25 to $45 a bottle. Finally, we are all attracted to the idea of uniqueness and exclusivity. Hence, the boutique wines. Many will develop “cult” followings, such as Screaming Eagle in Napa, fetching over $3,500 a bottle! But here’s the thing: Are the adjoining properties to these “cult wineries”, at often a fraction of the price, truly a fraction of the quality?
7. The other stuff – Cork and capsule vs. screw cap, big bottle with deep punt vs less heavy glass, fancy labels, etc. It all adds up.
So, how to thwart the siren song of “more expensive is better”? For starters, let’s acknowledge that there’s a point when more money does mean better quality. If you don’t believe me try a cheap skirt steak and see what happens.
But after that, the best answer is to know what is that you like in a certain varietal and then later become familiar on how they show in different regions.
I do not know about you but with all the money I will save not drinking expensive wines for the sake of their price, I will open a “wine life coach” office with a big sign in my waiting room quoting Manfred Krankl (the owner of SQN) who has said, "People buy Sine Qua Non. They don’t seem to give a toot where it’s from".
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.