Be It a $10 Wine, or Much More, the Judgments Come Free

Of all the undying clichés about wine, perhaps the one I hear most often is, “There’s no correlation between price and quality.”

As with so many platitudes, a germ of truth supports it. For example, it’s certainly correct to say that higher prices do not guarantee better wines. And one could rightly conclude that a $30 bottle is not necessarily better than a $10 bottle.

But while I can easily gather a dozen $30 bottles that will be exponentially more interesting wines than the same number of $10 bottles, I would have a hard time doing the reverse.

There is a correlation between price and quality (though I can point to many exceptions), and that relationship changes depending on the price range.

For example, the price-to-quality correlation is far easier to demonstrate when comparing bottles priced at $30 and $10 than it is at $300 and $100. In that stratospheric realm, price depends on variables that might have little to do with the wine, like status, fame, and supply and demand. In the lower echelon, the cost is more often a result of the economics of site and production, which can directly affect the quality.

Here at Wine School, our business is to challenge things we assume to be true about wine. Not in a belligerent manner, but we challenge nonetheless because so much of what people believe about wine is untested by personal experience. Rather, we may believe something because it’s repeated often or because it appeals to certain biases.

The relationship of price to quality in wine is tricky for many reasons. Among them: Who wants to spend more money than necessary on anything? Higher prices for, say, cars, are easier to justify because of tangible attributes. Anybody can notice the virtually silent state-of-the-art engine, the track record of craftsmanship and the baubles and ornaments added as options.

But in a glass of wine, who can see the sweat equity of a well-farmed vineyard, or the laborious cellar work of a patient vigneron? One bottle’s the same as the next, and besides, they all contain the same key ingredient, right?

Many people who dispute the relationship between price and quality in wine have vested interests of one form or another. Fred Franzia, who has sold hundreds of millions of bottles of Charles Shaw, also known as Two-Buck Chuck, has often said that no wine is worth more than $10, a self-serving mantra aimed at selling the next hundred million bottles.

Less obvious are those who repeat the cliché in order to rationalize their own choice not to spend on wine. They are often quick to brandish the snobbery card at those who assert that many wines are worth more than $10 and are often far superior to the cheaper bottle.

As a society, we understand that spending on most consumer goods often depends on one’s priorities. Some people see audio equipment as simply a means to listen to music. Computer speakers or the earpieces that come with their phones are good enough. Others are fascinated by high fidelity and wish to luxuriate in the rich bass notes and perfectly modulated treble that come with expensive equipment. It’s mostly understood that these are personal choices, not windows into one’s soul.

I’m not sure we can say the same about wine. Too often, those whose priorities do not include spending on wine are eager to portray those who do as chumps and suckers. And vice versa.

Forgive the rumination, but over the last month we have been drinking red wines that cost under $10, an exercise that brought a lot of feelings to the surface.

“Ten bucks is more than I would pay for any bottle of wine,” one reader, Ajax, said. “All the supposed differences among wines boil down to one thing only: snobbery.”

Another reader echoed this point. “I really wonder why Americans pay so much for their wine,” said Greg of Amsterdam. “My partner finds good wines all the time, usually on sale at three bottles for €10.”

As usual, I suggested three wines for us to try. They were: La Vieille Ferme, Vin de France Red 2019 $8, Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2018 $9 and Los Vascos Colchagua Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 $9.

For the prices, these were all decent wines, straightforward and unpretentious, made without artifice. The producers made no effort to dress them up with flavorings like oak chips, intended to convey the veneer of more expensive wines that had been aged in barrels of new oak.

Nor were they sweet, another tactic for covering up the shortcomings of poorly made wines. Remember the Apothic Red we tried in our exploration of supermarket wines in 2019?

La Vieille Ferme has long been an inexpensive brand offered by the Perrin family, owners of Château de Beaucastel, a renowned Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate, among other properties. This was made of a typical Mediterranean blend, grenache, cinsault, carignan and syrah, mostly but not entirely from the Ventoux area in southern France, hence the Vin de France notation on the label. Roughly 2.5 million bottles are made annually.

It was juicy, dry and well-balanced, with peppery flavors of red and black fruits.

Los Vascos is also part of a big company. It’s the Chilean outpost of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild, owners of the storied Bordeaux estate Château Lafite Rothschild. It’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon from the Colchagua region of Chile. More than 3 million bottles made annually.

It was fuller and richer than the Vieille Ferme and discernibly cabernet sauvignon, with soft flavors of spicy fruit and herbs.

Of the three wines, I thought the Masciarelli had the most personality. It was made entirely of the montepulciano grape, with sweet-bitter aromas and flavors of juicy red fruits and flowers. About a half million bottles are made each year, and the owners make wines from only the Abruzzo region of Italy.

These are all simple wines, and nothing is wrong with simplicity. We sometimes get caught up in the idea that complexity is always better. Complexity may often be interesting, but when the occasion is simple — a weeknight pizza or burgers — sometimes you want a simple wine.

“What do I think makes it inexpensive?” said Amy of Alaska, a devotee of La Vieille Ferme’s white. “It’s not fussy. You don’t have to think very much about it when you just want to drink some wine!”

Other factors keep prices down. The large quantities of wine produced make it easier to economize on farming and winemaking. None of these wines come from prestigious areas, so you are not paying for real estate or status.

You also don’t get much transparency about who’s farming or making the wine, or how the vines are farmed. That’s important to me, as I want to know the details about the viticulture, the production and the people involved.

You do get a regional sense of place. La Vieille Ferme tastes like a red from the south of France or the Southern Rhône. The Masciarelli tastes like a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and Los Vascos tastes like a South American cabernet. That’s to be applauded in such inexpensive wines.

These wines have their fans, especially La Vieille Ferme and the Masciarelli.

Dan of Austin gave a thumb’s up to the Masciarelli. “I’ll still look for more inspiring wines and expect to pay a lot more,” he said, “but this wine was a pleasant surprise.”

Inspiring was the key word here. The wines are simple and easy, as they ought to be. They might be among the best wines you can find at the price. But I didn’t find them particularly inspiring or joyous, either. They did not spark much emotion in me, something that I want to feel in a wine even if it is simple.

That’s why, for me, the best values in wine require spending a little more money per bottle, $15 to $20. At that range I find plenty of inspiring wines.

That’s not everybody’s priority. If you are happy with these bottles, for whatever reason, that’s terrific. But if you want a little more excitement in a bottle of wine, your best bet is to spend a little more, with qualifications.

You will want to find a good wine shop, and you will want to make informed choices, even if that means asking a merchant for advice.

Because spending more often buys a better wine, but it’s not an ironclad deal.

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