No wine worth more than $10?
Fred Franzia’s been getting a lot of print for his belief that no bottle of wine is worth more than $10. Eric Asimov weighed in on this the other day, suggesting that cheap wine is more likely to be insipid than expensive wine. Last Fall, the British newspaper, Telegraph, reported that some “Judges taking part in Decanter magazine’s World Wine Awards” argued that “£6.99 should be enough to buy what [the judges] would consider a ‘decent’ bottle in a British shop.” [(That would be about $10.80 at today’s exchange rate.] Above that figure, the judges concluded, “the differences were more about ‘individual taste’ than quality.”
Wow. If this is true, then Petrus (you can buy a bottle of the 2004 at Wally’s Wine & Spirits, in L.A., for $1,249.99) isn’t any better than the Kirkland Signature 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, from Alexander Valley. It cost $11 and I gave it a Best Buy (the review will be published in Wine Enthusiast in the Aug. 1 issue).
What are we to make of this? The relationship between price and quality is the most profound question facing the wine industry today. I recently met with a California winemaker to talk about his wines, which I did not particularly care for. This is an uncomfortable situation for a critic. But he’d asked me for the unvarnished truth, so I gave it to him. He took it well, then added, “Well, it’s all about individual taste, isn’t it?” In other words, it wasn’t that his wines weren’t good, it’s just that I didn’t care for them.
The wines weren’t flawed in any way — not spoiled or tanky or bretty or V.A.’d or undergoing a secondary fermentation or anything like that. I faulted them for being overly sweet and lacking the acid-tannin structure for balance. (They were from a warm region near the Delta.) Anyone who follows my reviews knows I don’t like that style in California wine. The fellow then said I appear to have a European palate, and asked if it’s fair to hold California wines to a European standard which is in general drier, earthier and less alcoholic.
I think it is fair. (We could also have a discussion on whether “dryness” and “Europe” are synonomous.) It’s true my palate was initially informed by European wines. Early on, I developed the idea of “dryness” as a lofty goal toward which a table wine should aspire, more or less the way a citizen should aspire toward being law-abiding. Dryness is a virtue, in my mind. (Of course, I exempt certain wines that are off-dry, like German Riesling.)
But obviously, there are millions of people out there who prefer a soft, fruity table wine with a little residual sugar. Are they wrong? No, they’re not.
Which brings us back to Mr. Franzia’s contention that no wine is worth more than $10. Maybe no men’s suit is worth more than $100 at The Men’s Wearhouse, and no car is worth more than $22,000 for a Camry. Still, many men still like to buy Armani and BMWs, if they can afford them. This is a topic we’re going to be talking about for a long time, and never resolve.
More interesting than resolving it, though, is the fact that this conversation is taking place, and in a serious vein. One hundred years ago, it could not have; nobody would have dared suggest that a bourgeois Bordeaux could be as good as a First Growth. Even twenty years ago, in egalitarian California, there were clear distinctions drawn between pedigreed wines and common ones. The commoners aspired to be pedigreed, and the pedigrees charged prices the commoners could only dream of. But here we are, in the 21st century, with a new, skeptical generation coming up. These are transformational times, and these questions of price and quality are the right ones to ask.