Fred Franzia, the head of Bronco Winery (the world's largest winery) once famously said, in a New Yorker interview, that there is no reason any bottle of wine should cost more than ten dollars. While some wine purists cringe at this concept, his wines - even his "two buck Chuck" Charles Shaw wines, have garnered many awards and have scored very highly in blind taste tests. Take the label and the price tag off, and the experts rate reasonably priced wines as high as, or often higher than, some exotic and expensive wines.
So why do people pay a lot of money for wine? Status, in part. It is a big deal to make a big show out of ordering a $50, $100, or $200 bottle of wine, having it decanted at the table and then making a big show out of sending it back.
I had a friend who did that, and it was fun, to order a different bottle for every course of the meal. And of course, the restaurant owner loved him, as he was making a 100% markup on every bottle he served. Everyone should do that once in life. Maybe twice. But it is not something I make a habit out of.
And just as expensive entrees are often placed in the menu to make the ordinary entrees seem reasonable in price, so are expensive wines placed on a wine list, to make the more plebeian wines seem like bargains. But that bottle of wine that cost "only $26" at the restaurant, retails for $18 at the wine store across the street, sells for $12 at the wholesale club, and likely the restaurant owner paid $10 for it, in case lots.
Because of the "snob factor" and also the staggering cost of wine, a lot of people don't drink it, preferring instead, beer or mixed drinks. Beer and cocktails are easier to understand - you see the same, limited number of brands out there and it is easier to pick something and then know what to expect, once it arrives.
Here are a few inexpensive wines (all under $10 a bottle, some well under) that are remarkably good, I think, regardless of the price. These are table wines, of course, meant to be drunk, not kept as a talisman in your cellar. Anyway, here is my short list:
Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel: I know what you are going to say - "I hate those sweet pink wines!" But Zinfandel is not a wine, it is a grape, and "White Zin" has sullied the reputation of the Zinfandel grape to some extent (Disclaimer: Unless you like sweet wines, then, that's your bag, baby! There is no "wrong answer" in wine, just what you like or don't like).
But the Zinfandel grape, when made into a red wine (by leaving the skins on) makes for a very nice, dry red, with a mouth feel that smacks the back of your tongue. The first time I had this, it was like, whoa, tasty! Good with cheese and crackers, or red meats and even Italian food.
This is a Californian wine, and supposedly the grapes come from older free-standing "head trained" vines (or, as they say on the website, inspired by it). Either way, it makes a definite impression, and apparently I am not the only one to notice. When I go to buy this, the stock is usually depleted.
About $7-10 a bottle, depending where you buy it.
Trumpeter Malbec: Malbec wines are making a big hit these days, and Trumpeter is not a bad example of it. It is an Argentinian wine, and many very good an inexpensive wines can be had these days from Argentina. I believe we pay about $5.99 a bottle for this, making it an exceptional value. Like the Zinfandel, it is dry and good with food.
There are a lot of other good Malbecs out there, including Cigar Box Malbec which is a little more costly and perhaps a bit drier. It comes with a twist cap, but at this point, I think most consumers are closure agnostic. Particularly in the table wine market, the type of closure is really irrelevant to quality, and some of the best wines in this market these days have twist caps, and some of the worst still use corks. A cork is not an inherent sign of quality or price.
Rio Seco Malbec isn't bad, and is $4.99 a bottle at the wholesale club. One hesitates to buy wine that is so cheap. But when you get it home, you are pleasantly surprised that you can get "so much, for so little." You could spend $20 on a bottle of wine and be bitterly disappointed. When you find a good $4.99 bottle, you feel like you robbed a bank.
Jaume Serra Cristalino: I previously wrote about this excellent sparkling wine (Cava), which costs less than $7 a bottle. Simply stated, this is the best-tasting dry sparkling wine in the sub-$10 category, and even bests other sparkling wines costing far more. Move over Frixnet. Forget about Korbel! For less money, you can get something so much better!
Vendange Chardonnay: Serious wine drinkers don't even consider white wines to be wine at all. And perhaps there is some truth to this. But white wine, in the summer time, can be refreshing, and it is great with sea food (although a good read works with fish, and cold beer and shrimp are a great combination as well!). And likely, your friends will drink it, and it is very popular with women.
Many like a sweet wine - I have a friend who loves a particular brand of box wine which is on the sweet side for my tastes. Another friend lives on Barefoot Pinot Grigio, which tends to make my jaw hurt, probably due to the sulfites or something.
But for me, I like something a little drier, and spending a lot of money on white wine is sort of pointless. The best bargain around is the Vendange Chardonnay, which is sold in a two-pack of 1500 ml bottles for $11.99 at the wholesale club. This is the equivalent of $6 for a large bottle, or $3 a bottle for a 750 ml bottle. This is cheaper than two-buck Chuck.
If you are having a party for the "ladies who lunch" or perhaps an art gallery opening, this stuff will fit the bill nicely. Also a nice wine for a day at the beach, or with a light lunch.
Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon: Concha y Toro is another one of those Mega-Wineries, this one in Chile, which also has emerged (along with Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand) as a great source of inexpensive, yet well made wines. They have a number of brands, including their less-expensive Frontera line, which comes in 1500 ml bottles. The Casillero del Diablo is a very nice wine to serve with dinner that won't set you back very much.
These are all very good wines, but mostly table wines - nothing you would "lay down" in the cellar for years to age carefully. These are wines meant to be drank and drank often.
There are plenty of other, similarly-priced wines out there. Of course, again, it is all a matter of taste and whatever works for you is "right?" - right?
The point is, you don't have to spend a lot of money to enjoy some of the finer things in life. And in fact, often the enjoyment is greater when you spend less. A good wine at a bargain price is like a gift from God himself.