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No wine worth more than $10?

25 comments

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.

  1. Steve,

    Why would you necessarily call German Riesling “off-dry?” Certainly there are trocken wines produced there. Why is that level of residual sugar acceptable in Riesling but not in Pinot Noir? If you go back 100+ years Burgundy wines tended to possess residual sugar (and often had higher alcohol levels, if Richard Olney’s book is to be believed).

    I am not saying that I agree or disagree with you…but I often think our particular wine preferences are just as much a product of our times and that putting them in the context of “classic” or “standard” box we are ignoring historical realities.

    The difference now is that questioning norms is ingrained in wine-thinking and changes which often took generations are now occuring on a much more frequent and regular basis.

  2. Hi Adam, I don’t think that trocken wines characterize Riesling’s nobility in Germany, but that’s just my opinion. You are right in that standards seem to change over time. I read that 150 years ago, Yquem was considered appropriate to drink with the roast beef, but no one would do that today. So it is just a matter of preference. My preference is for dryness and balance in wines. I’m not saying a dry wine is better than one with some residual sugar … just that I prefer it.

  3. Steve I get that you are asking a serious question about quality-to-price, but your reason for doing so – Fred Franzia’s tag line – is not serious.

    Fred is a cohort of Ernest “I don’t want most of the market, I want ALL the market” Gallo. Franzia’s tag line is nothing more than self-serving marketing speak.

    Regardless of any particular wine’s intrinsic worth, based on one’s own personal biases, the extrinsic value of many wines exceeds $10/bottle. As I commented on Eric’s blog, I have wines where my cost of goods alone is $15/bottle due to expensive grapes, production methods and packaging, and long residence in inventory. Regardless of what Fred Franzia or anyone else thinks it is worth, these wines have to retail for around $60 for us to stay in business.

  4. Hi Steve-

    Great Blog!

    Just an FYI regarding your stated taste preference for wines the are “Dry” and/or have no “Residual Sugar” …

    I have first hand knowledge of wines (not my own) you’ve reviewed unfavorably, noting that they are “Sweet”, which when subsequently lab tested have had so little actual RS present as to be virtually undetectable.

    So it appears the Dryness/Sweetness can be in the eye of the beholder.

  5. Lee, yes, I’ve written extensively about this over the years: Why a wine that supposedly is “laboratory dry” tastes sugary sweet. I’ve had many explanations given to me by winemakers — too many to list here. What can I say, if a wine tastes sugary-sweet, for whatever reason, then it’s out of balance and simple, and my score will reflect that.

  6. I relate wine to fashion. Are the raw materials for haute couture really worth more than the raw materials for a Gap shirt? No. It’s the talent, the reputation of the designer, the demand of the public that creates the price canyon between the two.

    No wine, factoring in all the expenses and a standard profit margin (if there were such a thing), would be worth more than $XX. I’ve heard it suggested that the number is $13, which is crazy-low. Whatever the number is, certain wines will always skyrocket above it for the above-mentioned reasons.

  7. Gretchen,

    I worked in clothing retail during college. We learned a bit about the fabrics that go into the different garments. So a pair of high-end designer jeans WAS more expensive to produce than a pair of Lees or Levi’s. This was because the type of denim used was more expensive and more durable – never mind that the bolt of fabric was cut in a manner to optimize fit and drape of the finished garment – which resulted in more unused/wasted fabric.

    I think that there is a lot of sense to this “no wine should be worth more than $XX” thinking, but I don’t think that cut off is in the double digits. Just like with Girbaud or Ralph Lauren jeans, there is a point in wine where you are paying 1) for the brand, and 2) for the demand placed on the wine.

    All that said, I recognize that certain ways of growing and producing wines are considerably more expensive than others and the asking price is warranted. Paying several hundreds of dollars, retail, for an ultra-desirable bottle of wine is a matter of economics. It’s not my economic reality, though. I wish all these iconic wines were within my financial reach….

  8. I have always thought from the first time I heard that remark about no wine should be worth more than $10.00 was strictly a throwaway line from Franzia when challenged about his “two buck chuck”. I find it quite humorous that it has created so many tracks. This is a guy who went through school with Michael Mondavi and I was told they are still very good friends. There is no question he loves pulling peoples chains. I think he used the ten dollar number because unless I am wrong one of his labels sells around that price point.

  9. Wines that sell for $20-50 are usually less consistent than wines sold for $10-15. I say this not only from personal experience, but from bad cellar practices at small wineries that I’ve seen. There are plenty of great wines between 20-50, but I see a lot of people over-charging for small production wine that would have been made better at a larger operation with people who knew what they were doing. Just my opinion.

  10. Obvious Fred has never spent any time making wine. Its damn hard work 10 dollars a bottle is insulting.

  11. Jim L., Mr. Franzia does enjoy pulling people’s chains, but I don’t doubt he’s sincere about the $10 remark. It’s a legitimate point of view to take, especially from an older generation and, with all due respect, from an Italian-American whose ancestors probably made and drank their own wine for generations. (Please don’t accuse me of ethnic slurs, I’m just describing reality.)

  12. Jim Lapsley says:

    The interesting point to me in most of the comments above is that the writers seem fairly sure that “quality” exists and that they can recognize it. Over the past decade economists have studied wine and many studies seem to conclude that consumers are consuming “extrinisic” qualities (label, package, reputation, etc.) more than “intrinsic” qualities (fruitiness, acid, etc.). Moreover some recent studies, such as the one about the judges at the California state fair, call into question the reliability of “informed opinion.” If an expert can not reliably reproduce his/her opinion, how can we begin to discuss quality?

  13. This is just another one of those publicity stunts that people/businesses use to get attention when no one cares about them or they are not really doing anything worth talking about. I know for a fact that one of Mr. Franzia’s #1 label priorites this year in to build the sales of a label he owns – Domaine Napa. Domaine Napa sells for about $17.99 (chard) to $25.99 (cab of merlot) but, here is the catch… his company is forcing everyone to sell the label to the on-sell trade. This will help protect him from his “no bottle is worth more than $10″ BS. Wine writters…please lets see some more creativity on your part and start using this artical space for something interesting.

  14. Jim, your point is exactly why I wrote: “The relationship between price and quality is the most profound question facing the wine industry today.” We’re sailing into uncharted waters. Will it be what goes around, comes around? Or will it be completely transformational? I don’t know.

  15. the value of wine can also be related to the value of music. audophiles and coltrane, autotune and britney spears. one argument is, whatever gets you dancing! another is that i’d sure pay $1000 to see Coltrane play (he died before I was born).

    economist should not talk about art or music or wine appreciation. let them handle the books and production/efficiency side of things. the finer things in life should not be calculated.

  16. Last October I was fortrunate enough to spend a month with my family in Spain (2 weeks) and Portugal (2 weeks). These are both somewhat developed 1st world European countries.

    I can’t begin to tell you how many bottles of great wine we (read I) went though at 3-4-5-6 Euros a bottle. 10 Euros was a real splurge. Particularly in Portugal…I just kept getting knocked-out by how many good wines I was able to drink at such fabulous prices.

    I left that wonderful experience thinking…this is the way life should be everyday…and how rediculous a good part of the US wine industry is.

  17. lgking: I hear you.

  18. @Jim Lampsley:

    Some people are more informed than others.Thus they are better suited to conduct specific investigations.

    I see this in all walks of life. For instance, in my daily job I see psychiatrists doing studies to validate the utility of functional brain imaging (when they don’t understand the fundamentals of imaging) and diagnostic imaging specialists trying to find correlations between scan findings and what they think are clinically relevant symptom clusters or makers (when they don’t understand neurobehavioral medicine). Throw the Cartesian dualism (mind is separate from brain) fallacy on top of that and nobody can agree. This extrapolates nicely to wine issues.

    An economist who has a superb palate (which is to say, great sensory acuity and “resolution” coupled with the brain power to make sense of the things their sense tell them) and truly understands winemaking and wine itself across the global spectrum is best equipped to investigate the relationship between price and quality. Although I must admit that the subject is muddled by overpriced and overhyped wines that offer no more than Two Buck Chuck.

  19. “Although I must admit that the subject is muddled by overpriced and overhyped wines that offer no more than Two Buck Chuck.”

    Arthur – Um… do you know any overpriced and overhyped wines that offer LESS than Two Buck Chuck??

    In my fervid and biased imagination, Two Buck Chuck is served in the Eighth Circle of Hell.

  20. @lgking

    I agree with you about the great values in Spain and Portugal, I am a big fan of those wines and the great value some of them offer. But as a grape grower in Napa Valley I do take exception to the the comment of “how ridiculous a good part of the US Wine Industry is”. You really need to take into consideration the land values and cost of doing business, when you make comparisons of this nature. I also visited these countries and was amazed at how inexpensive the remarkable meals were in some tiny villages as compared to San Francisco or New York restaurants. I was also amazed that how great some of the little markets in Spain and Portugal were and their fine selections of meats and cheeses paying only $1 or $2 Euros as compared to what I might find at say Whole Foods in California.

    I am surprised that not one comment by anyone so far takes into consideration the cost of land and doing business in California. I live and grow grapes in a very, very costly area. I wish it wasn’t that way and I wish I had the good fortune to be given my land through inheritance or purchased it 30 years ago like some of my fellow vintners, but the reality is if you purchased land (or in my case borrowed money to purchase land) in Napa Valley in the last 10 years and you choose grape growing a wine making as a profession, you are not sitting on “easy street” because you sell wine at higher price points. Which is why I guess Fred buys land in the central valley at $2000 per acre rather than Napa at $250,000 per acre. Now if we want to debate if the wines from the Central Valley or Spain are better than say a Napa Valley or Russian River of if someone feels “they are” or “they are not” worth 10 times the price, then that is a good debate, but to just make a blanket statement along the lines of the US wine industry being ridiculous when it comes to price, really just has no merit, in my opinion. I guess what I am trying to say is there are many, many factors that go into the cost of something and I think a big one is being left out in some of these comments.

  21. Steve, my prediction is that we’re going to see the rise of the middle market wine category happening in the next two to three years. Millenials are entering a phase where I believe they are prepared to start paying more than just “whatever is cheapest” and looking into the price range of $12-$25 for higher quality than they drank prior. There will be a demand at this price range for better quality than the cheaper stuff and greater varieties to choose from. I’m not saying Millenials will be the only participants in this category, but I feel as though they’ll be the catalyst necessary to motivate ventures and resources into that price/quality balance.

  22. @ John M Kelly:

    How about the Coppola offerings found on supermarket shelves – just to begin? Raisin, raisin and more raisin. Then there is the $48(+) bottle of Joseph Phelps Napa cab. Cleaner than the TBC cab, for sure, and showing more distinct and vibrant varietal traits (I am deliberately avoiding the use of the word “character” here). But 48 bucks?.
    Yes, TBC reds are pretty lame (though of variable quality between the cab, merlot and shiraz), the white zin is ridiculous and the sauv blancs tend to be flabby and funky, but the consistent pack leader in that line up is the chardonnay.

  23. t.vierra says:

    “There is nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and he who considers price only is that man’s lawful prey.”
    John Ruskin

  24. James@

    I hear you and understand your position, but I still can not agree. Just because someone is newer to the game and has to pay higher prices for all his costs…does NOT necessarily justify the high cost of the end resulting product.

    Back in the ’80’s I use to work for a guy who did something else all his life and then a friend of his made it big in the US wine industry…and he thought he wanted that too. He bought expensive prime land, and the best winemaking equipment, and built a showpiece of a winery.

    His costs were enormous, and the Chard would retail for around $20.00, and the Cab would retail for around $25.00.

    We use to put on staff ‘blind tastings’ at the winery several times a month. We all would search high and low for wines from every price point and country. At the end of the day, his wines were no better than $10.00 – $12.00 bottles of the other guys.

    So my point is that a wineries ‘high costs’ do not necissarily JUSTIFY some of the rediculous asking prices.

    Most businesses in most industries do extensive market research to evaluate if in fact they can bring to market a product that is both price competetive and good value…and still make some money at the end of the day. I truely do not think this is being done to any great extent in this industry. A lot of people just ‘jump in’ because they want to see their name on a bottle.

  25. Something got lost in the translation. What Fred, my old classmate, must have said and actually means is that you can produce a wine of quality for under $10 and therefore the consumer shouldn’t have to pay more than $10 for a fine California wine. Where costs go up, as with Napa grapes, even Bronco has to charge more. Of his 50 brands, a good eight are priced between 10 and 20 dollars. Logically, this doesn’t change his main premise.

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