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Is the price right? 

Spend your wine dollars with sense

So you're at the grocery store perusing the shelves for a decent bottle of wine. You're in the mood for something red, maybe a Cabernet. As you scan the Cab section, you notice there are at least a couple dozen options, ranging in price from $4.99 a bottle to $69. Aside from $62.01, what's the difference between the bargain basement Cab and the top-of-the-line model? Does a wine's quality always increase in direct proportion to its price?

Not exactly. While quality does play an important role in wine pricing, there are lots of other factors involved. Such as:

Origin. If the grapes were grown in a special vineyard, that adds prestige to the wine (normally labeled "single vineyard"), the price will rise.

Production. Is the wine made in a rustic cellar or in a costly state-of-the-art facility? Does the aging take place in pricey French oak barrels or less expensive American oak?

Rarity. The harder a wine is to find, the more valuable it may become.

Demand. It's economics: the more coveted the wine, the more the winery can charge. This is probably the most crucial factor in the pricing game.

Competition. Wineries often set their prices according to what their competitors are charging for similar products. This can help elevate consumers' perception of the wine's quality.

Vintage quality. If a wine region has a stellar growing season that results in better quality grapes, they may raise prices for that year. But the opposite is also true.

Here's how Tom Shelton, president of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, uses these factors in the pricing process: "I start with an assumption of high quality from a vineyard and winemaking point of view," Shelton explained. "Then I consider previous prices and our position in the market compared to benchmark competitors," Shelton says.

The final test comes when he tastes the wine, along with Phelps' winemakers, to determine how it stacks up against previous vintages. Factor in the demand for Phelps wines, and voila!

Putting pricing to the test
Does a pricey wine always taste better than a cheap one? To find the answer, I subjected a crew of wine guzzlers to a little experiment. We tasted four different 1999 Cabernet Sauvignons, ranging in price from $11.99 to $45. With the bottles safely obscured inside brown paper bags, we sampled the wines and privately ranked them according to our favorites.

Amazingly, we all ranked the wines in exactly the same order. When we took the bottles out of their paper bags, we found that the priciest wine was not the best. Our collective favorite was the Sterling Cab, which sells for $24.99. After that came the Estancia ($11.99), Dunham Cellars ($45), and, finally, Hogue Cellars ($10).

The lesson we learned? While price may reflect a wine's quality, it's no guarantee of good taste. The cheapest bottle on the shelf may very well be the one that tastes best to you, and there's nothing wrong with that. The joke is on the suckers who won't condescend to drink anything less than $50 a bottle.

Sterling Vineyards 1999 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) : Spicy cigar box aromas and juicy berry flavors. Medium-bodied with balanced tannins.

Estancia 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) : Fruity blackberry/currant aroma and concentrated jammy flavors. Smooth and tasty.

Dunham Cellars 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) : Sports blackberry and raisin aromas and flavors. Smooth tannins make it easy to drink, but it's real pricey.

Hogue Cellars 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon ($10) : Raw, scratchy tannins overwhelm the fruit in this bottle. Could improve with age, but right now, steer clear.

Tina Caputo is a San Francisco-based wino who supports her nasty habit by writing for wine publications. Comments? E-mail, write Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605, or call 1-800-341-LOAF.

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