Is expensive wine better? The general attitude I’ve encountered is an implied, but obvious yes. I’ve heard it a few times from my clients that they’ve found a direct correlation between the cost of a bottle of wine and their enjoyment of it.
There are a lot of factors that can push the price of wine upwards, but “good wine” isn’t reserved for the wealthy, and a price tag is not a foolproof guide for picking out the right bottle. There’s just more to it than that. I’d like to share a few paradigms to consider when thinking about which wines are worth your money.
First and foremost, it helps to know about the producer. The truth is, a lot of New World producers have mortgages, or buy grapes from another grower, or even buy juice from another winery! Because these producers don’t own their production, there is a high minimum they have to charge in order to cover their costs. Of course, this doesn’t automatically discount the quality of their wine. A lot of these non-producing winemakers like Michael David and Dave Phinney still make good (even great) stuff with purchased product. These New World winemakers’ ownership status influences the price of their wine. On the other hand, there are numerous small- to medium-sized producers in the Old World (think Italy or Spain) that own every part of the process. They’ve been making wine on that land for 8 generations, and there’s no outstanding debt or pressure from investors to do things a certain way. While this also doesn’t guarantee quality, it certainly changes the way winemakers think about making and pricing their wine.
Regardless of ownership status, winemakers also decide the kind of wine they want to make. Most winemakers want to make a quality product within their means that people can enjoy. French Beaujolais-nouveau, for example, is not supposed to be splurged on, stored, and savored on a special occasion. It’s supposed to be opened and enjoyed ASAP! The winemaker is not going to pull out all the stops for those bottles, like they would for a must-age Brunello.
Secondly, price depends on the seller’s intention. Are you getting wine from a gas station? A snobby wine shop in Uptown? A Chinese restaurant? Each seller sets his own prices based on the experience they want to offer. For example, there are restaurants out there that cater to expense accounts, and have a little (or a lot!) of wiggle room when it comes to pricing wine. A higher price tag doesn’t automatically mean the VP is ordering better wine, it just means the restaurant is charging that much more for that experience. A few places consciously choose a different pricing method, which also has pros and cons. Lamberti’s wine prices (especially on the higher-end stuff) are lower than the usual restaurant markup, because we want you to drink the good wine. Some of our top bottles are priced close to retail.
We would rather open those top bottles than store them away. The number on the menu can be adjusted depending on the intention of the seller. The time and care that went into choosing the right wine is more important.
Finally, and most importantly, why are you drinking the wine? There are so many wine options out there, you have the choice to pick a bottle that’s just right for the kind of night (or afternoon or brunch or nightcap...) you want to have. Sometimes picking up a $7 bottle of “Red Blend” on the way home is just what the doctor ordered. Other occasions might call for something else. Breaking out a very expensive bottle of wine for Tuesday night chicken and rice with the family doesn’t guarantee a better meal.
When you shop for wine, keep these paradigms in mind. Your money is worth spending well. Most of us can agree that a $20 of Napa cab tastes better than a $12 box of “RED.” But, keep in mind that the price of wine is the result of winemaking, the seller’s intention, and your selection, it’s not a direct indicator of quality. Making a high-quality wine requires a lot of time and effort. Spending a lot of money doesn’t guarantee a high-quality wine.
Regardless of what it costs, I hope y’all break out something special this holiday season, and enjoy it with someone you love.