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Cheap wine, or wine snobs (long)

14 years ago

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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