$7, $15, $25, $50, $100 for a Wine: What’s the difference?

Wine Business Monthly’s Cyril Penn reports in the San Francisco Chronicle that we are buying more expensive wines than in the past.

For the record, in this calculation "expensive" equates to $15 and a above. Without seeming like a snob, which I realize is hard at times for me, that doesn’t strike me as "expensive". However, in the overall scheme of things (that "scheme" being what most people tend to spend on wine) $15 is "expensive".

According to Cyril’s reading of AC Nielsen reports, $15+ wine sales grew 41 percent between January 2004 and October 2006.

In my mind this trend must correlate to higher levels of disposable income in American’s pockets. It might also relate to an slowly increasing price structure for wines that had been near or beneath $15 per bottle.

I went back and took a look at the average price of a wine that I buy. Note this is what I buy, not what my wife buys. She tends to drink wine more regularly than I and is more frugal. My average bottle is about $25. What’s remarkable is the really amazing quality and variety of wines one can purchase at that price. A recent scanning, for example, of Winebid.com brings me wines from across the globe, well aged and new, sweet and dry, for about $25.

At retail I’ll go over $50 for a bottle of wine on occasion but for that price I’m looking for an experience. I’m looking for something different, or at least something that promises me something I rarely get to taste. That’s harder to find, but perhaps only because I’ve tasted through a number of wines over the years.

What does it take for me to spend over $100 on a bottle of wine? I’m looking for something that is rare. Something that delivers not just unique sensual experience but something that speaks to me about place, culture, history and my own personal circumstances. I don’t have need for this kind of experience often. What’s interesting thought is I almost never PLAN to seek out this experience through wine but rather am presented, surprisingly, with the circumstances.

I’m not sure what a person who is moving from regularly spending $7 for a bottle of wine to $15 for a bottle for a bottle of wine is expecting from their additional $8. Perhaps what they have is simply hope. I don’t know.

What I do know is that this trend toward folks paying more for wine is good for wine industry. I just hope it pays off for the consumer too.

7 Responses

  1. John - January 19, 2007

    As regular purchaser of under $15 wines, I think there is a BIG difference between $7 and $15. There are some pretty good wines in the $10 to $15 range. It’s the difference between cheap wine and inexpensive wine.

  2. John Lopresti - January 20, 2007

    As with any range of retail products, familiarity with your preferred purchase bracket’s options can yield a thrifty, novel, and educational experience. In the under-$20. range is one part of the spectrum harboring delights from imports when measured against domestics. Another fruitful approach is knowing your wineries and winemakers; sometimes in our part of this world famed ultrapremium producing county a buyer obtains a small lot, like a 733 case run which I sampled last week. Usually, as Tom kindly characterizes it, a $15. gamble is a near sure miss; consider the $15. gem I tasted from the vicinity of Sonoma Valley; it advertised on its label its composition as a vineyard blend from head and spur vines trained low to the ground. Its finish was excessively sweet, but the paper chromatograph proved some of those stubby plants had old thick wood, and although most certainly every component of the blend was defective, the round tannins and deep color evident from the old wood part of the mix gave the wine more character than $15., but perhaps $15. was the appropriate price point. I could have bought less residual sugar though in a younger fruiter wine in an import from a natural-certified growing methods region in Iberia for $11., and consumed fewer stabilizing additives; but it was worth the experiment to see what old vines and their current winemakers are producing in Sonoma Valley. Wholesale certainly a $10. price for that would have been ample.
    I think part of the strategy for the midrange wines $10.–$15. now is to offer more than the generic jugwine flavor of most inexpensive BuckChuks, a path for people to begin to realize what vineyard denominated wines represent. I think people with adequate incomes to explore the $20.+ wines already know a lot, and thanks to people in the distribution part of the industry, have wide choice. A key, I have found, in our little town, is having several smart wine buyers who keep the local shelves interesting with new lots, intermixing the selection with a few sound and rare but inexpensive wines to which the buyers have access.
    It always makes the trip to the Healdsburg large grocery store more enticing though, as Healdsburg does a lot better than our little town currently, and the $48. wines are sitting on the shelf in endless rows instead of in the lockup; though even here locally the lockup in the grocery store has taken more to being populated with baccarat and the like, and less involved with wines.
    The only problem with wines which cost >$15. is once you try them turning back is about impossible.

  3. Dr. Debs - January 21, 2007

    Not surprisingly I have a lot of reactions to this issue! As someone who considers wine to be a purchase that goes with food 99% of the time, the cost per bottle I am willing to spend on wine has to fit in with my overall food budget as well as my other budget priorities. My average wine cost per bottle for 2006 was $13.29. I drink a glass of wine with every dinner. Every now and again we have a special meal with a special wine. But there is amazing quality and range in wines under $20, which is what is necessary if the US is to build a wine culture like that of Europe where wine is seen as a component of a meal, and not as a trophy. At this time, some of the best wines to go with food come, not suprisingly, from Europe. I strongly disagree that once you have a wine over $15 it is hard to go back to wines under $15. You just have to broaden your horizons, drink unfashionable varietals, deepen your knowledge of wine producing regions, and experiment. Happily, a failed $8 experiment is far less likely to turn you off wine than a failed $30 experiment. The problem with domestic and Australian wines under $8 is that they are often artificial-tasting, homogenous, overly-manipulated, and heavily oaked. If wine makers stopped trying to make $8 wines resemble $45 Napa cabs and Australian Shiraz, it would be a positive decision for wine consumers.

  4. KaySyrah - January 23, 2007

    As an avid wine fan and active wine consumer, to me there is nothing more gratifying than finding a good, or better yet, great bottle of wine for under $15. Now some might argue that no GREAT wines exist under $15, but I would say just look at the results of the SF Chronicle’s 2007 Wine Competition. The two whites that tied for Sweepstakes winner, i.e. the BEST whites of nearly 2,000 entered, are both under $15 bottles! In fact, you can find the Geyser Peak SB at most retailers discounted below $7.99.
    Having said that, I think there are “bargains” to be found in every price range. Recently, I had a beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stag’s Leap District made by a small Napa producer, Jocelyn. Retail? $24.99, and I’d put that bottle up against any of its rivals from that area at $60+.
    Somewhere along the line many wine consumers were lulled into believing they had to spend more to get better quality wine. Perhaps it’s the wine media’s fault–after all one now primarily sees in the mainstream wine media reviews for wines priced over $30, $40, $50, as if that’s what consumers spend for everyday wine. Of the hundreds of reviews in my Wine Spectator every month, I’d hazard a guess that fewer than 10% come in at under $15.

  5. John Lopresti - January 28, 2007

    Debs: I have to agree with your qualification of the merits of the pricepoints both above and below the threshold of $15., though, for those under, the best approaches include breadth of experience and knowledge of the trade, as well as the history of individual vineyards and the storied chronicles of certain winemakers and their winery owners. I was shocked, for example, that a stubby old vines red was let ferment on ‘indigenous’ yeast, giving the resulting wine its unusual range of unaccustomed flavors and aromas, the very worries Amerine and Ough as well as many other researchers and teachers warned would result. Maybe some day TomW will write about his experiences with respect to the advanced modern technologies for yeast. I admit to being part of the conditioned consumerist public that thinks a cool fermentation and Montrachet strain are the only way to produce a long lived wine. To me, the guarantee of quality in selecting among many nice over $20. wines is a likely reason for the growth in that part of the sales spectrum. It is more work to find quality at a lower price, and when one’s income and appetites accommodate the priceyier choices, one tarries less at the wine shelf, and continues to the rest of the grocery store and arrives home with the supplies sooner than would be the case if many back labels needed perusal. Time, too, after all, is at a premium in our society.
    Note to TW: congratulations on interview with Santa Rosa business column last week.

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