Educate Yourself So You Can Find The Best Wine
You want to buy the best wine for the money, but how? Where can you find great value wine?
If you’re reading this article, it’s a safe bet that you have purchased a bottle of wine at some point—perhaps at a restaurant or wine shop, or even at a winery. It’s also a safe bet that at some point you’ve wondered if you’ll have to take out a second mortgage to support your habit (that hint of salinity I’m picking up in my 1er Cru Puligny-Montrachet is probably just the tears I cried into my glass when I checked my bank statement).
Given that the more wine we drink, the more refined our palates become, we have to ask several important questions if we are to be fiscally responsible wine consumers: why is this grape juice so expensive? Who decides what I will pay? And how can I continue drinking delicious, quality, interesting wine without losing my shirt? (Figuratively. If you literally lose your shirt, I can’t help you there, but maybe that third bottle wasn’t the best idea). To sum it up, you want to find the best wine at the best price. We want to help you on your quest.
Let's start with the easy part. What are the costs associated with making wine?
What Costs Go Into Making A Bottle Of Wine (and where can I skimp)
One of the biggest costs associated with grape production is the land on which the grapes are grown; given the importance of “sense of place”, or terroir, in the best wine, selection of land is also one of the most important decisions a producer can make.
Of course, not all land comes at the same price. While in the budget-and-bulk-wine-focused Central Valley, CA you can find vineyard land for $20,000 per acre, in prime Napa Valley vineyard land can easily fetch over $300,000 an acre.
Winemakers are proud of where their grapes come from. You will notice the name of where the wine grapes are grown prominently displayed on bottles. Grapes with specific vineyard names tend to be more expensive. Wines labeled "California" tend to be less expensive. A wine with a "California" designation can use grapes from anywhere in the state.
Given the initial land investment or the cost of contracting for prime land or grapes, these costs are often compounded because the best grapes are generally treated with more care before, during, and after harvest.
Choices such as organic/biodynamic farming, planting density, hand-harvesting, and using top-of-the-line equipment at the winery, just to name a few, can all affect the cost of the final bottle.
Another often-overlooked cost is the price of oak. Oak is important in winemaking; aging in oak develops texture, stabilizes a wine, adds aromatic complexity and character. Logically, new oak barrels assert themselves more onto a wine than do barrels that have already been used several times.
In general, higher quality grapes will be more flavorful and well-structured and do well with the assertiveness of new oak. However, purchasing new oak barrels year after year is a huge cost for a winery.
Quality new oak can cost upwards of $500 per barrel, and top-quality French oak will run you as much as $4,000 per barrel. Say a mid-sized winery has 1,000 barrels and rotates out 30% for new oak each year; this means that beyond the initial investment for barrels, each year the winery needs to budget for 300 new barrels as well.
These costs directly translate into a higher cost per bottle for the best wine that is aged in new and/or high-quality oak.
Lower cost red wines are often aged in steel containers. Winemakers will add pieces of oak to the wine as it ages. This will impart some oak qualities to the wine at a lower cost.
4. Other Winery Overhead
Other costs on the production side include employee salaries, packaging (bottle weight, cork quality, label design, etc.), and marketing.
Marketing is a major expense for some wineries. They focus their efforts on creating eye-catching labels and in-store displays. Beware of wines that have overly slick presentations. The winery may be compensating for below average wine with over the top marketing.
What Else Impacts The Cost Of Your Wine
The Three-Tier System
All of the above combined, however, will still only get us a fraction of the way to the final cost of the bottle you consume. Where, then, does the rest of the cost come from?
To understand this we need to be familiar with what is called the “Three-Tier System”.
After prohibition was repealed in the US in 1933, a multi-level distribution system was put in place to provide control of the market, prevent monopolies and brand favoritism, and to ensure tax revenue from alcohol sales. While the details were left to individual states, in most cases the structure looks largely the same:
- Tier 1 is production (wineries, sometimes importers)
- Tier 2 is distribution (importers, suppliers, distributors)
- Tier 3 is the consumer-facing tier (retailers, restaurants, bars etc.)
While a discussion of the advantages, disadvantages, and relevance today of this system is cause for a whole series of articles in itself, what can definitively be said is that since each entity involved in the three-tier system needs to turn a profit, then with each step in the system the cost of the bottle will increase.
Say you see a $100 bottle of wine on a restaurant wine list. A winery may have sold the bottle to the distributor for $21 at a moderate profit margin, and in turn, the distributor will have sold the wine to the restaurant for $35. The restaurant then, at an industry-standard markup, can sell the wine in its list at $100.
As there are more costs involved with wine service in a restaurant vs. wine sales in retail—service staff, glassware, wine lists, rent for a larger space, etc.--restaurants use a higher markup than retailers, but you could still expect to see this bottle on a retail shelf at around $55.
It is easy to see how costs can add up and, given the vast amount of wine available on the market and the often-confusing factors that determine value, consumers may tend to make quality decisions when purchasing based on the final price of the bottle. In reality, the best wine isn't always the most expensive.
With a bit of education and practice, however, we can train ourselves to make quality judgments about a wine based on the juice itself.
How To Judge Wine Quality
There are 5 main factors to consider when tasting a wine for quality: balance, length, intensity, complexity, and typicity. The best wine will score high on all of these measures.
Balance: The individual characteristics of a wine being in harmony with one another. When you taste a wine, does it feel “flabby” or have a “hot” sensation on the palate? If so, the alcohol is likely out of balance with the acidity.
Alcohol, acid, tannin, body, and sweetness are all examples of structural characteristics that work together to create a well-textured wine, and they must be in balance with one another. Likewise, the flavors themselves must be in balance; a wine that is all earthiness and no fruit will not be in balance.
Length: Refers to the “finish” of a wine. A high-quality wine will linger on the palate, revealing its complexities and giving you time to ponder its personality.
Intensity: Could perhaps better be stated as “clarity”, as this is not to say that delicate, elegant wines cannot be of a high quality; quite the opposite, in fact. But they must still have a certain intensity of character—the flavors will be clear, not watered down, and sure of themselves.
Complexity: Refers to all the different characteristics of a wine you can perceive—generally referring to aromatic/flavor complexity.
A wine that only tastes like, say, cherries, may be pleasant but not super interesting. A wine with aromas of black cherry, plum, baking spice, tilled earth, and mushroom will provide much more nuanced enjoyment.
Typicity: Does the wine taste like where it came from? One of the reasons we enjoy wine is because it speaks to a particular time and place. A California Cabernet Sauvignon from a hot vintage should not taste like a French Pinot Noir from a cool vintage. If it does, something has probably gone wrong.
Look Here For Great Wine Values When You Buy
Being armed with the knowledge to recognize quality is paramount, long-term, for deciding what you like and how to get value for your money. Before you have an opportunity to taste a lot of wine, however, it can be difficult to know where to get the most bang for your buck. To help you on your quest, here are a few of my favorite wine regions to find phenomenal value:
Lodi, California: We are happy that Lodi's wine country has remanded a relative secret all these years. The anonymity has allowed the local wine quality to increase without a corresponding increase in prices.
When people do know of Lodi, they generally they generally know about Zin. That means you can find amazing deals on any other varietal. Love Napa Valley Cabernet? You can find similar quality in Lodi at a quarter of the price.
Portugal: When most people think of Portuguese wines they think of Port; sweet, fortified after-dinner wine. What most don’t realize is that Portugal makes a stunning variety of world-class dry wines as well, and at a fraction of the price of many better-known wine regions.
Barolo lovers should look for reds from Bairrada; those who like Bordeaux-blends may find the dry reds of the Douro region to be of interest; Sauvignon Blanc drinkers will adore the whites of the Vinho Verde region in the north.
Loire Valley: If you love the French style of wine—minerality, elegance—Loire is a region that offers a huge variety of generally well-priced wines. From dry to lusciously sweet whites, to rosé, to red, the Loire Valley has a lot on offer. One tip: when buying Chenin Blanc, especially from Vouvray, it can often be hard to tell based on the label what the level of sweetness will be. Best to ask.
Beaujolais Cru: When many people think of Beaujolais, they think of fruity, bubblegum-ey Beaujolais Nouveau. This is a shame because there is a whole other world of Beaujolais out there called Beaujolais Cru! This wine comes from one of the ten Crus, or villages, of Beaujolais, and tends to be made in a style more similar to red Burgundy, emphasizing the earth, structure, and complexity of the Gamay grape.
Italy: Yes, Italian wines can be very expensive (think Piedmont, Tuscany). However, there is a dizzying variety of wine made in Italy—in fact there are over 350 recognized grape varieties! Look outside of the well-known regions for value: Campania and Basilicata have powerful, earthy reds based on the Aglianico grape; Lazio and Umbria produce some solid alternatives to Super-Tuscans; and Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia are loaded with aromatic white wines of incredible quality.
More Ways To Save Money On Quality Wine
Beyond looking for certain regions for value, you can also get creative with how you buy and consume your wine.
While I urge consumers to be respectful of a restaurant’s policies on corkage, if buying wine from a restaurant wine list is cost-prohibitive, you may consider going to a BYO restaurant.
Additionally, many consumers are now buying wines online (some state-by-state restrictions may apply) or from wineries through direct-to-consumer programs. Increasingly, online “flash sales” are popping up as well.
That said, the personalized experienced you get when you shop at a local retailer or have a sommelier assist your selections at a restaurant is a big part of the experience for many consumers and rightfully so. If you enjoy this value-added experience, as I often do, then by all means enjoy--and feel good that you know where that money is going!
There are some online wine stores that are doing a good job creating that personal touch. These stores typically have a chat feature. The person on the other end of the chat is a wine expert who is trained to assist you in your search for high-quality wine. The online wine superstore, wine.com offers a live wine expert to help you as you shop.
Purchasing wine can certainly be a confusing and often frustrating process. Fear not! Armed with knowledge, a thoughtful palate, and a sense of exploration, everyone can enjoy quality wine—all without losing your shirt (unless you’re into that).