Saturday, October 29, 2011

Two-Buck Chuck and Three-Buck Wally

The world is awash in a sea of inexpensive, yet palatable wines.

The wine business is an interesting one. Unlike the spirits business or the beer business, in the wine industry, the sky is the limit, when it comes to pricing.

Think about it.  If you go to the liquor store and look at their cheapest Vodka (Kamchatka or such such brand, in a plastic bottle) and their most expensive (Belvedere, for example) the difference in price is no more than two or three times the cheapest brand.

Similarly, when it comes to beers, even the most exotic imported micro-brew is no more than 3-4 times the cost of your typical "lite" beer.  Perhaps a little more, but not much.

But in the wine world, the price of a bottle of wine can go from $3 a bottle to $3000 a bottle, with numerous price points in-between.

Now, granted, most of the wines sold are at the lower end of the spectrum - in the sub-$100 range.  But even here, it represents a huge price delta.  For example, a "good" bottle of wine at a wine shop might set you back $30, whereas a bottle of Wal-Mart's Oak Leaf Shiraz is less than $3 a bottle - a delta of 10x in pricing - just in the lower end of the business.

Many folks avoid drinking wine, on the premise that it is just all a bunch of posturing and snobbery.  And to some extent, they are correct.  You don't get prices like this by selling on the value alone.  Most expensive wine, I'm sorry to say, is sold on snob appeal - even in the lower price brackets.

The proof of this, of course, is in the pudding.  When put into blind taste tests, inexpensive wines, even Bronco Winery's "Two Buck Chuck" (which is now closer to $3 a bottle at Trader Joe's) end up besting wines that cost 5 or 10 times as much.  When rated by wine magazines, such as Wine Spectator, the scores for such inexpensive wines often top pricier types.  What does this say about the wine business?

And as I noted, the snob appeal of wine isn't limited to the higher end vino.  Even among low-end wine drinkers, people will get snobby about brand, cost, and source.  For example, we were asked to find some wine for a party here on the island for a local group.  The group leader favored a $5-a-bottle brew from the local wine shop.  Not bad wine, in that price range.  We asked him to try the Wal-Mart Oak Leaf instead, wrapping the bottle in paper so he could not see the label.  He said he liked it, but when we told him it was $2.97 from Wal-Mart, suddenly he claims it ain't so hot.  Funny how that works, eh?

The wine business is, in large part, all about perception.   And if you can sell the sizzle, as they say, you can make a lot more money.  People buy more expensive wines because they want to appear to be sophisticated - and put up an appearance of wealth. Who are they impressing?  The Sommelier at the restaurant?  Hardly.   Likely, he's seen it all, including so-called gourmands, scarfing down a bottle of corked $100 Pinot Noir, and commenting on how unusual the flavor is.

No greater example of this phenomenon is in the cork itself.  Sealing wine bottles with corks, is, of course, an anachronism.   Corks have a high failure rate - as much as 5% - and each "corked" bottle (a bottle where the cork goes bad) represents either a loss for the producer, or, if it gets into the stream of commerce, a black mark on their reputation.

When the supply of cork started to dry up a few years back, people started experimenting with twist caps and other closures.  There is no technical reason cork is required for wine - and other types of closures work as well - if not better - without affecting the taste of wine or its quality.  However, half of the appeal in wine is the process of serving it, with a waiter making grand gestures in opening a bottle, sampling it, and pouring.  It is a ritual, and a ritual people like to participate in.  Twisting off a cap, well, seems so pedestrian.

Even for champagne, cork is just an embellishment.  Sparking wine can (and is) sealed by bottle caps, just like beer.  The pressure is about the same, and if you think about it, beer is just hop champagne - made using about the same process.

Americans are more hung up about wine that the rest of the world.  We are status-seekers in America, which is why we will pay over market value for a BMW, Mercedes, or Ferrari, convinced they are "status symbols" - while in the rest of the world they are viewed as just fine cars, but sold at far lower prices in their home countries (as evidenced by the booming grey market in those cars, a few years back).  So Americans view wine as a big deal - and think it should be priced accordingly.  And we view champagne as something to be served only on the most special of occasions.  Both views of wine are, well, just bunk.

In most of Europe, wine is viewed as a beverage - on par with Coca-Cola or, here in the South, Sweet Tea.  And most folks don't drink $30 to $100 bottles of wine with every meal, but rather something more pedestrian, known as "table wine".  Table wine is the vin ordinare that is served on a daily basis, with lunch, with dinner, and any other time.  They don't make a big deal about serving it, and no one attaches any social status to it.  You enjoy it for what it is, and if it is good wine, what's not to like?

And that's the rub.  While there are expensive wines that appeal to the more sophisticated palate (or people inclined to think they have a more sophisticated palate), most of what is sold as a "premium" wine in the USA would probably qualify as "table wine" elsewhere.  Just as we pay more for a Mercedes in America, we often end up paying more for wine.  And that is pretty stupid.

Speaking of stupid, there are people who buy wine and never, ever drink it.  And in fact, such folks have been ripped off in the past.  These ultra-sophisticated collectors will bid prices through the stratosphere for old bottles of wine which may in fact be little more than vinegar.  But since no one every drinks these rare "collectible" bottles of vino, there is no way anyone would find out if they are in fact, fake.  And in recent scam, some wealthy collectors were sold what was supposedly part of Thomas Jefferson's private wine stash, but turned out to be, well, something less than that.

Of course, the idiot who paid $500,000 for the fake wine was none other than scumbag-du-jour William Koch, so there is a little poetic justice in all of that.

But for the rest of us, to whom $500,000 might represent the result of a lifetime's work, and not merely a bottle of wine, there is good news.  There is a lot of wine out there, reasonably priced, and as a consumer you are in the driver's seat.

California, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, France, Alsance, South Africa - you name it, people are making and selling wine.  And there are a lot of good wines out there for less than $10 these days.

One source of these cheap wines are mega-wineries like the famous Bronco Winery.  While other wineries may decry their low-ball pricing tactics, as the President of the company Fred Franzia put it, "they sell me their wines".

Most of the more inexpensive wines are blended wines - so-called "varietals" that are made by blending a number of finished wines, or grapes or grape juice.  In some instances, even different types of grapes or wines are blended.  As with blended scotch whiskey, the goal is to produce a good tasting wine by combining a number of lesser wines.

Most more expensive wines are "estate" wines, meaning they are made from grapes grown on site, in one particular year.  Like with a single-malt scotch, the result can be spectacular - or not.  Bad weather, too much water, too little water, and other conditions can mean that an estate wine can be fantastic one year, and absolutely undrinkable the next.  It is these latter wines that end up being sold to places like Bronco, who mixes them with other wines to produce a variational blend that makes for a good, serviceable table wine.

But many folks are still intimidated by the huge selection of wines.  In addition to all the varieties available (red or white, then what kind of red or white?) there are literally thousands of brands, with only a few popular brands being represented at your local grocery store or food mart.   Which bottle to buy?  Even at $10 a bottle, is it worth the risk, to the consumer, to end up with a bad bottle of wine?  It does affect economic choice.

And many folks have little to go on, other than the label.  And labels sell wine, let's face it.  Memorable brands and logos are useful if you are courting repeat business.  To capture the "serious" wine drinker who wants a "quality" bottle of wine for dinner, you might go with a very fancy label on fine paper, with an engraving of the Estate home on the label, preferably with gold medallions and a neck label as well. And on the back, be sure to put some high-toning rhetoric about the quality of the wine.

While that might sell a bottle to Joe Consumer looking for a "serious" bottle to take to a friend's house for a dinner party, it will be death to Josephine consumer, who is looking for something more "fun" to drink with her girlfriends.  Fun wine labels - with pictures of old cars or trucks or bicycles - sell the idea that the wine is not to be taken so seriously - and that you will have a good time, too.

And it is hard, when buying wine, not to fall into the label trap.  And we all do it - buying a bottle of wine because it has an interesting label or name (e.g., Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel) or artwork - and then buying it again, if we like it.  Sometimes even an ugly label can work.  As I noted in another posting, the label on Juame Sierra Cristalino is plain ugly, particularly with its trademark disclaimer.  But I had to admire their balls for using the name, and I bought it.  And you know what?  It is the best inexpensive sparkling wine out there - and the price is creeping up as a result.

But label or not, most wines are pretty decent - if they are the type according to your taste.  I do not like sweet wines, for example, except as an aperitif, and so long as I avoid such wines, for the most part, I have never had a 'bad' bottle of wine, unless it was corked.

I have had bottles of wine that I felt were overpriced, which is a disappointment.  But on the other hand, I have had other, stellar bottles of wine that turned out to be dirt cheap.  And the funny thing is, when you go back to buy such wines, you realize you are not the only one to think so - you'll see the display case emptied out rather fast for such wines.

And that is the beauty of the whole deal.   You don't have to spend $30 on a bottle of wine to enjoy a good wine and have a good time.  And since we have such inexpensive wines to chose from these days, you can afford to "risk" a new brand or type, and see if you like it.  And it is fun to change your kibble on occasion - and try different things.

Unfortunately, most Americans seem to be brand-centric.  The beer drinker picks one brand and variety - and even the packaging - and buys nothing but that - 12-packs of Bud Light, for example.  Or the wine drinker who favors only one brand and variety over all others - and seeks out only that brand, for the lowest possible price.  Or the spirits drinker who buys his preferred brand in gallon jugs and the discount liquor store, never thinking to try something new and different at all.

Mono-centric drinking like that is, to me, somewhat scary, as it turns the experience of drinking, which can be a ritual, social occasion, a beverage, and yea, a way to get fucked up, into just the latter - a drug source to be purchased in bulk at the lowest possible price and consumed in mass quantities.

Don't be afraid to mix things up.  And with wine these days, you can afford to.