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Wine Suggestions, Pairings, Evaluations, and Value

What Constitutes a Quality Wine

I had to start somewhere, so what better place than trying to help people understand why some wines are so very expensive. After all, how many times have I heard someone say “I would NEVER spend $100 on a bottle of wine!”. Well, I have spent many times that amount….many times.

Okay,let’s talk ever so briefly about prices at retail versus prices at a restaurant. On average, wines are marked up approximately 30% from wholesale to retail. So a bottle of wine that costs the retailer $30 will cost you about $40 plus tax. On the other hand, most restaurants mark their wines up at least 100%...really! So that $30 wholesale wine
appears on the wine list at $60. But wait! There are a few restaurants out there that would list that wine at $90, hoping that some shmuck who didn’t know any better would buy it. Oh well. There are a few restaurants where the are encouraging wine purchases by reducing the mark-up. You should patronize them. In another post I will talk about what wines to buy in a restaurant, and which ones to avoid!

Now, back to wine quality. It has long been known that France produces a lot of really good wine. There are several reasons for this:

-          Terroir
-          Talent
-          Self-control

Terroir is a French word that has no direct translation. It refers to the 3 elements of grape-growing: soil, rainfall, and temperature. There are certain places where grapes grow well. In fact, specific varieties of grapes thrive in different climates. The best vineyard properties are the most expensive.

Talent refers to the skills of the people who farm the vineyard and make the wine. This involves not only how to best farm the vines, but also when to pick the grapes and how to process them into wine. And talent as you know costs money.

Self-control is the quality that many grape-growers lack. Simply stated, the fewer grape clusters on a vine, the higher the quality of the grapes produced. This is more art than science. By pruning (removing/cutting) grape clusters when they first appear, more nutrients are available to the remaining clusters. For century’s grape-growers in Italy, Spain, and other countries grew as many grapes as they possibly could. Then they produced as much wine from these grapes as they could. The results were more often than not weak, watery wines with little character. You may have quaffed some of these. Do you remember Chianti in a bottle with straw around it?

By significantly reducing the grape harvest, the winemaker dramatically improves the quality. However, the cost is high. They may be able to produce only 30-40% as much wine. This is one major reason why quality wines cost more.

Wine-making is truly a science. The facilities at a winery are very expensive. There are laboratories where the wine is tested for, among other things, sugar content. Some wines are aged in stainless steel tanks while others are aged in oak. There are even some wines stored in concrete vats! Oak is the most expensive storage medium and has a significant impact on price. You will often see write-ups on wines that mention storage in “new” oak. This means that the barrels are new, not having been used previously to age wine. Some wineries buy the used barrels for re-use. Take a trip to Napa Valley and see all this for yourself. If you’re lucky, you can find a cooperage to visit. Look that word up! You don’t get it all without a little effort.

I guess I should mention “vintage” wine at this point. A vintage wine is made entirely from grapes harvested in a specific year. A wine bottle labeled 2004 refers to grapes that were harvested in 2004 (even though the wine wasn’t released to the public until 2006). Winemakers who produce bulk wines are not concerned with vintages…they are simply trying to balance wine production from year-to-year while maintaining the same quality characteristics (aroma, taste, texture) and price. Harvests vary due to conditions, so bulk producers will store wine from one year to be blended with the next year’s harvest. They will also buy grapes from other growers.

Quality winemakers are constantly rolling the dice. They are betting everything on each vintage. There are even occasions when a winemaker refused to release a vintage because it was so bad. But there are many others who should have held back and didn’t.

One other factor in the price of wine is scarcity. While this usually plays a smaller part, sometimes it is significant. For example, Chateau Petrus is a French Bordeaux (a Pomerol made primarily or entirely of merlot grapes). The production is very small and the wine usually retails for $800 or more upon release. Older vintages often sell for $2,000-$3,000 PER BOTTLE! I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying many vintages of Petrus and can honestly say that it is not worth the price. It is delicious and can be an extraordinary wine in great years, but the cost is entirely based upon supply and demand.

On the other hand, Joseph Phelps Insignia (California blend of cabernet sauvignon with merlot and cabernet franc) produces 10-15 times more wine than Petrus and retails for $150 (more or less…the current wine market is volatile due to the economy). This is one of California’s premier wines and is readily available if you know where to look for it.

One other wine I will mention is Screaming Eagle (another California cabernet). This is a “cult” wine sought by many, but purchased by few. The production is very small and the price upon release is usually $350 or more. Most people buying this wine consider themselves “investors” (IMO). I know one individual who has bought a case every year for 6-8 years, but has never tasted it. Totally beyond me!

I hope I’ve enlightened you a little about wine quality and price. I could write a book on this subject alone. Suffice it to say that not all $100 wines are worth the price. But many of them are. Yet some people find it difficult to spend that much on a bottle of wine, and that’s okay. But if you really enjoy wine, then you may want to consider buying that bottle of Insignia for a special occasion. What I do is buy the wine upon release, then let it reach its full potential in my wine cellar. Older vintages of wine can be very expensive. So a wine I bought for $60 (retail) may be worth $140 when I drink it. That makes me happy!

In another post I will discuss terrific wines at value prices. BTW, if you enjoyed this post, let us know. If this kind of stuff puts you to sleep, tell us what would interest you. One more thing….I was drinking Blue Moon tonight!

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