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Bargain Wines and the Dirty Little Secret About Terroir

Wine author George Taber. Credit: Cliff Moore

Wine author George Taber. Credit: Cliff Moore

For wine drinkers, these are the worst of times and the best of times. It’s the worst because wine prices have exploded in recent years, especially when it comes to French prestige wines. The entry of wealthy Chinese into the market has pushed up the prices of those rare wines to astronomical levels. Who would have thought that Lafite would be selling for $1,500 a bottle? I fear that my tongue will never again be blessed with the wonderful experience of a Mouton or a Richebourg.

At the same time, though, it’s the best of times because the world’s wine surplus, which is driving down wine prices, is unlikely to evaporate anytime soon. In addition, the quality of bargain wines is better than ever. Not everything out there is great, but much is outstanding.

Average, run-of-the-mill wine is better than ever before thanks to several major developments in the wine world. The first is that there are now very few technical secrets in winemaking. Technology flows at Internet speed from vineyard to vineyard. There was a time when the French had a lock on the world’s knowledge of how to make great wine. But today at dozens of enology schools around the world, students are learning new and better techniques. Young winemakers now routinely work two harvests a year, thus speeding up their professional development.

Terroir? Winemaking has gone global

The biggest benefactors of all this transfer of technology are the world’s hot wine regions. They have long been able to produce massive amounts of fruit, but until recently had to accept the tradeoff of low quality. Thanks to new technology such as drip irrigation and night harvesting, regions like Mendoza, Argentina, or the Central Valley of California are producing huge harvests with better quality.

Winemaking in the past century has spread from its European roots to just about every part of the world except the North Pole and the South Pole. Wine is made in every state in the U.S. Just in the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the wines of Croatia and Colorado on their home turf. Connoisseurs looked with disdain on the wines of California until May 24, 1976, when some upstart winemakers from Napa turned the world upside down at the Paris Tasting. The Californians had simply copied French best practices and adapted them to the growing conditions nature gave them. That experience has now been repeated in many other countries.

Winemakers turning out $100 bottles or $1,000 bottles, though, have to keep preaching the myth of terroir to keep up their prices. They have to spread the belief that their grapes come from a unique spot of earth that has perfect growing conditions. The dirty little secret is that really good wine can be made in many places.

For the past four years, I have been working hard in the vineyards of bargain wines. I’ve tasted some terrible products, but they have been exceptions. The wines that average people drink on average days have improved. They may not be the wines you want to serve at a wedding or a golden anniversary, but they are perfectly fine daily wines. In the business they are known as Wednesday wines because that’s what people regularly drink on a Wednesday night at home when no one is looking. In my book “A Toast to Bargain Wines,” I listed some 400 Wednesday wines selling for less than $10 a bottle, and dozens of what I called splurge wines that go for less than $25.

Bargain wine lovers: Here’s an eye-opening blind tasting

I regularly do blind tastings with friends to help educate anyone with an open mind about undiscovered gems. I had such an event on a recent weeknight. As part of a charity auction, I had offered to do a wine tasting at my home on Block Island, R.I., which is located 12 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. After looking around my wine cellar, I decided on a tasting of Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot and picked three in each category.

The four tasters were regular wine drinkers, but not connoisseurs. They enjoy all sorts of wines, but one woman admitted that she bought more expensive wines to give as gifts than what she drank regularly. She said she drinks mostly $10 wines.

The wines fell into three categories: inexpensive, moderately priced and expensive. The three Sauvignon Blancs: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3); Clos Floridene Graves 1999 ($26); Moraga Blanc 2007 ($65). The three Merlots: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3), Château Reignac 2000 ($18); Plump Jack 2004 ($52). I had bought the Charles Shaw wines in New Jersey, so my Two Buck Chuck was Three Buck Chuck. The French-style wines were generally blends, but with a predominance of Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot.

My guests tasted both the whites and the reds before I let them know the results. In the white category, three of the four selected Charles Shaw as their favorite. Among the reds, there was a tie between Charles Shaw and Château Reignac. I was not surprised because I’ve now done similar tastings dozens of times, and the other results were similar. In a blind tasting average wine drinkers seem to prefer inexpensive wines. So why do people buy $100 or $1,000 bottles of wine? I don’t get it. Are they really just buying the label?

We then discussed the results and the implications while drinking a bottle of 2000 Vin de Constance, one my favorites dessert wines, in part because Napoleon asked for it on his deathbed. There is story in every wine bottle.

Photo: George M. Taber.  Credit: Cliff Moore

This week’s Zester soapbox contributor, George M. Taber, is the author of four books about wine. His latest is "A Toast to Bargain Wines." His first one "Judgment of Paris" was about the famous 1976 tasting where unknown California wines topped the best France had to offer.

  • Tom 8·21·12

    I’m sorry, anybody who tastes Two-buck Chuck against serious wine and can’t tell the difference has a dead palate or has been hornswoggled. From time to time somebody puts up a tasting like this–I remember one where they put red dye in the white wine and got a bunch of self-appointed experts to start talking about “graphite” and “mushroom” taste in these “red”wines. Sure, you can fool people, and ho ho ho, especially if you get them drunk enough. But if you think you can tell me that Two-buck Chuck is indistinguishable from Volnay or Chateau Latour or even decent Chianti, well, you’re just woofin’. That’s fraud.

  • Tom 8·21·12

    Oh. I should add that there are indeed plenty of delicious inexpensive wines. Plenty. Two-buck Chuck not being among them.

  • Brad 8·22·12

    These results probably say more about “average wine drinkers” than they do about the wine. We have friends who “drink wine regularly” but their idea of a good bottle of wine is Yellowtail Shiraz, which to us tastes like someone poured vanilla extract in to give it that oak-barrel flavour. We don’t have expensive tastes, and rarely pay more than $25 a bottle, but I live with a French woman who knows wine and she values depth and complexity. We can find it in some $10 table wines, but it requires a lot of trial and error and frankly we’d rather spend the extra $10 to get something that has a better chance of being enjoyable. I will say, though, that we’ve occasionally spent more (say $40 to $60/bottle) on special occasions and rarely felt it was worth it except in the case of a lovely Mersault and an exceptional Barolo.

  • liam o k 8·22·12

    I’ve heard of surveys that show McDonald’s coffee preferred over Starbuck’s; Assuming these surveys are honest, it goes to show that, as they say, there’s no accounting for taste.

  • isabella 8·30·12

    My thought is simpy if you enjoy the wine it’s good if not, it’s bad. Just like art. It’s a personal taste. Let’s not be snobs about this very insignificant issue.

  • Brad 9·2·12

    @Isabella: this isn’t about snobbery, though. Millions of people like to eat at McDonald’s and consider that to be “good food.” And on one level, it is. I’ve eaten at McDonald’s and enjoyed some of those meals. But if you simply say McDonald’s is good food and leave it at that, you’re putting a Big Mac on the same level a home-cooked meal made with fresh ingredients, or a gourmet meal prepared by a master chef.

    It’s more about developing a sense of appreciation rather than an anxious connoiseurship. Sure, there are lots of decent wines for $10, and there’s no reason to think you have to spend $40 or more to get a good bottle of wine. But if you take time to get to know wine and try lots of different varieties, learn how to taste it, etc., your tastes start to develop and you start to value qualities that aren’t often available in the cheaper one-dimensional wines.