How To Separate Cheap Vino From Value Wine
When it comes to wines, there are really only two kinds of people – those who don’t like it and those who haven’t educated their palate yet. All jokes aside, though, one of the most common problems any oenophile will face is having expensive tastes. Wine, good wine, is rarely cheap, and if it’s cheap, then it probably won’t satisfy a trained palate (yes, it sounds snobby, but it’s true). So, what you want to do is find the best bang for your buck, and there are a few ways to separate cheap wine from value wine.
How Cheap Wine Is Produced
Use Bulk Wine
When speaking of consumer wine, one of the first things that comes to mind is bulk wine. For those of you not in the know, bulk wine is pretty much what it sounds like – mass-produced booze that’s shipped in large containers, rather than smaller packaging such as bottles or cans.
In places like California's Central Valley, there are a lot of vines. The growing conditions are hot and the soil is very fertile. That means there are a lot of big, often plump, grapes. These big grapes produce lots of juice. This isn't the highly concentrated, quality juice produced by small vineyards. This is watery juice with lots of sugar.
The vineyards and wineries here work together to create some very cheap California wine. This is created in large factory-style wineries that are designed to churn out truckloads of cheap wine. These trucks are sent out to other wineries.
Upon arrival, the vino is repackaged under the name of the receiving winery or blended with some existing wine. This allows for very cheap California wine that appeals to the masses. Bulk wine typically gets to more consumers faster, and at lower prices.
On the flipside, the bulk of it (pun intended) is devoid of any subtleties, chiefly because of the production process that cleans it of all the yeasts, sediments and bacteria (so, pretty much everything that lends flavor to the wine). This is good for health inspectors, but not so much for oenophiles.
Changing Color and Taste With Wine Additives
This brings us to our second point – how big wineries alter wines through additives. Producing cheap wine on a scale that can satisfy the thirst of millions of consumers starts with huge vats, where it’s treated like a lab-kit. Is the Cabernet Sauvignon tannic enough? Add a measure of tannin powder. The Merlot over there is too boozy? Add some water. The Zinfandel in vat 3 lacks flavor? Pour in some oak chips or a bag of oak sawdust, that should do the trick.
Note that the most common additive is sulfur dioxide, which goes a long way to preventing oxidation (oxidized wine tastes flat). On the flipside, throw in too much of it, and you’ll have a wine tasting of used matches.
Mega Purple Wine Additive - Introducing "Frankenwine"
The most famous and controversial additive is simply known as "Mega Purple". You can probably guess what this does to the wine. The cheaper wines tend to come from cheaper grapes. Cheap grapes don't impart much color. They also tend to have a higher water content. The wine created from cheap grapes can be thin and watery. That can be tough to market.
Enter superhero Mega Purple. This additive is essentially a wine concentrate make from very deeply colored red grapes. The concentrate is strong in both color and flavor. Makers of cheap wine can add a few dashes of this stuff and voila, deep red wine with fruity flavors.
Examples Truly Cheap Wine
Two Buck Chuck
One particular example comes to mind when thinking about the assembly-line wine is the Bronco Wine Company’s flagship booze – Charles Shaw, aka Two Buck Chuck. If you’re even half-interested in wine, you might recognize the name, but for those of you who don’t, this is a cheap wine made chiefly from California grapes.
It used to be sold at the incredible price of, you guessed it, two dollars (the actual price today may vary from state to state, but it’s still cheap as dirt). Theories abound as to how exactly Charles Shaw wine lives up to the Two-Buck part of its name – they’re harvesting grapes mechanically, they’re growing the grapes outside of Napa, they nabbed a boatload of airline wines at next to nothing after 9/11… the list goes on.
Just like Coca-Cola’s recipe, we may never know the truth about it, but Trader Joe’s keep driving in the Chuck, and it keeps finding its way into the shopping carts.
Three Wishes Wine
This is the low-end wine from Whole Foods. Three Wishes wine is made by The Wine Group. This is the same winemaker behind brands like Cupcake, Franzia (box wine) and slightly nicer wines like Benzinger.
The price point (around $3 per bottle) for Three Wishes puts squarely in the realm of cheap wine. When you add up the costs associated with bottling, labeling, and shipping this wine, it's hard to imagine what the grape juice cost. We have to assume there are a fair amount of additives to make this taste like wine.
Finding Value Wine
Wineries That Are Clearing Space
There are ways to nab a great quaff at bargain-basement prices, the chief one being in the right place at the right time. Namely, from time to time, you’ll hear of a big name brand (think Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine) acquiring an independent winery. When this happens, small wineries must clear out old inventory to accommodate for the change of practices (new orders, amped up production, things like that).
You can also try to time your purchases to coincide with new vintages being bottled. When a smaller winery empties the barrels, they need a place to store the newly filled bottles. That can create a real space issue. You don't want to be working on top of stacks of wine cases. These wineries will try to move large quantities of wine. This means you can find great value wine at cheap prices!
Smaller vintners are able to make more nuanced, flavor-rich wines than bulk producers, so when their bottles are on clearance, you should definitely stock up.
Out Of Favor Varietals (grape types)
To continue, it’s important to mention that out of favor varietals are often cheaper. This should be rather obvious, but plenty of folks tend to overlook the fact – everyone just goes for Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay for their whites or Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot for reds.
However, there’s a whole world of varietals that are just as good – instead of Cabernet, try going for Malbec from Chile or Tempranillo from Spain. There are hundreds of grape varieties around the world. Many of them can be turned into wonderful value wine.
We recommend finding a nice wine club like Plonk Wine Club. They are experts at finding overlooked grapes that make excellent wines at modest prices.
Yet another way to find value wine is to go for négociant wines. To get everyone up to speed, this French term refers to merchants who source their grapes or even finished wines from small growers, then bottle them in their own facilities and sell wholesale on the market. It used to be that the merchants and their wines weren’t as highly regarded as vintners who grew their own grapes, and they remain so even today, to an extent. For this reason, you might be able to find a reasonably priced wine from a négociant winery that would normally cost much more sold with a prestige winery label.
The trick here is to check where the grape was sourced, not processed. For example, you might find a red that claims to be from Napa but tastes more like it's from San Joaquin. That’s because the négociant bought the juice from a farmer that grew and crushed it in the San Joaquin Valley, and then brought it to Napa to process it.
We recommend the 90+ Wine Club if you are interested in Négociant wines. They source juice from vineyards that have produced 90+ rated wines for other wineries. They bottle it under their name and save you a bundle.
Wine Regions No One Has Heard Of (mostly)
And even if you insist on quaffing Pinot Noir with your braised duck, you can always check the appellation and go for a region that’s off the beaten track, so to speak. Napa is not the only valley in California that grows grapes, you know. Who’s to say? Maybe you haven’t yet tried your favorite grape
All in all, the difference between cheap wine and value wine is fine when it comes to the price point. You can probably get away with paying as little as $20 for a decent drop, but if you go $10 or southwards, there’s no way your palate will thank you.
You’ll still get hammered, though, but that’s really not the point of wine, now is it? As haughty as it sounds, wine is meant to be more than a drink (and less than a meal), tasted and savored. As R. L. Stevenson put it: “Wine is bottled poetry.” Admittedly, it’s an acquired taste, but once you dive into it, you’ll be tasting symphonies.