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Sorry, Fred, lots of wines are worth more than $10

43 comments

It’s time somebody replied to Fred Franzia’s claim — repeated endlessly in interviews and again the other day — that “No wine is worth more than $10” and various permutations thereupon.

It’s a good line, and Fred’s a good showman who knows the value of controversy. But let’s put this one to rest, along with other shibboleths such as Obama’s death squads, the birthers and the moral superiority of the Republican Party.

Some wines are worth a lot of money. Why? For starters, there’s the law of supply and demand, which you’d think Fred — a shrewd businessman — would understand. If everybody wants Harlan Estate, and there’s only so much of it to go around, then it’s worth whatever price people are willing to pay. By the same token, if everybody wants Two Buck Chuck, and there’s enough of it available for everybody who wants it, then it’s worth exactly the two or three bucks you pay at Trader Joe’s. (ABC News online reports that Fred is about to sell his 500th millionth bottle of TBC, so evidently there is a lot of it to go around.)

There are other reasons why some wines cost a lot. Viticulture at an estate like Harlan, which has winding vine rows set on steep hillsides that are picked by hand, is expensive, whereas Fred’s Central Valley vineyards, which can be miles long and utterly straight, can be cheaply harvested by machines. Fred eschews expensive new French oak; Harlan doesn’t, and that also pushes the price higher.

I could go on and on about why superior viticulture and enology makes superior wines. But we now come to the crunch of the argument, which needs to be addressed squarely. Is any wine worth more than $10?

The answer is obviously, indisputably, uncontestedly yes.

Fred, at his Bronco Wine Co., makes a lot of wines that I give “Best Buys” to, which is a strict bottle price-rating formula we use at Wine Enthusiast. Brands including Forestville, Forest Glen, Crane Lake, Silver Ridge and Harlow Ridge routinely score between 83-86 points and cost below $10, which automatically gives them a Best Buy ribbon. I applaud these wines and Fred’s other brands because they’re priced at a level everyone can afford, and Fred deserves huge credit for helping make sure that consumers can drink clean, sound wine at a good price.

But let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no difference between a ForestVille Cabernet Sauvignon and Shafer Hillside Select! I mean, come on. Now, it may well be that Fred prefers to drink his own wines over any of the world’s great, expensive bottles. That’s his privilege. But it’s just incorrect to say that no wine is worth more than ten bucks.

It kind of reminds me of a tasting at Beaulieu about 6 years ago. Joel Aiken, the winemaker, had opened every bottle ever made of Georges de Latour Private Reserve and invited a pretty stellar audience, which included Robert Mondavi and Ernest Gallo. After we went through them, Joel asked people what they thought. Mr. Mondavi stood and eloquently praised the wines for their beauty, elegance and longevity. Then it was Mr. Gallo’s turn to have his say. He said (I paraphrase from memory) “I don’t like any of them.” He added that none of them measured up to Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. I remember wondering if he really meant it, or if he was just trying to shock the audience (which he did). And it may be of some interest here that Ernest Gallo was Fred Franzia’s uncle.

There’s one more reason why some wines are worth a lot of money, and it tends to get overlooked. It’s the psychological satisfaction of drinking a great wine that has a story behind it. Not just any story (“I got this Two Buck Chuck at Trader Joes!”) but something that makes the person who serves the wine, and his guests, happy to know about because it stirs the imagination and intellect. The story could be as simple as “This is Lafite.” It could be “I own a share in the chateau.” Or “My Dad bought this for me on the day I was born, to open on my 21st birthday.” Or “Parker gave this wine 100 points.” Or “I’ve followed every vintage of Sloan so I’m really looking forward to the new one.” Or “This is the new wine from Heidi Peterson Barrett, and I love her style.” Cheap wines tend not to have stories because they’re industrial products. They get the job done, which is their purpose in life. A great wine, on the other hand, is so much more than simple organoleptic impressions, or something to wash down food with. It involves thinking and feeling and emoting and loving and remembering and contemplating and, yes, conversation. These are attributes of great wine as much as are barrels, and for them, we pay a premium. That is why many, many wines are worth more than $10, and sometimes, a lot more.

  1. Steve – it’s kind of nuts that Crane Lake can score between an 83-86… I’m sorry man, but that wine sucks at any price…

  2. Fred’s line is no more or less than an ingenious sound bite. Of course it’s not true that no wine is worth more than $10. We live in a world where the only undeniable truth about value is that anything is worth exactly what people will pay for it.

    But we all owe Fred some credit for reinvigorating the notion of wine value in conversation. I think it has prompted many people to question how much over $10 wines are worth. The answer I keep hearing among wine drinkers I do tastings for is that over $40, the taste differential is not usually of consequence. In other words, sure, $40 wine tastes “better” (to some) than $10 wines do, but $80 wine tastes about the same. And Fred’s real point is that cheap wine tastes just fine, thank you, and he is correct. On top of that, remember that if you plucked 10 people off the street and gave them a chance to sample both a $75 Napa Cab and Forest Glen Merlot, the majority will prefer the Forest Glen, period, because it is just plain easier to sip.

    As for your premise that the “story” has something to do with a wine’s value, under-$10 wines can have great stories, too. In fact, the way Gallo has used smart blending to create and evolve Hearty Burgundy is in itself a story. I am also reminded of what someone in the trade told me a long time ago: it is a lot harder to make a million cases of good $5 wine than it is to make 100 cases of $100 wine. Different wines, different stories.

  3. Dude, well I’ve trashed it on occasion but also have given 5 Best Buys over the years with scores of 83 and 84. At 5 bucks a bottle, it is what it is.

  4. Steve, I agree with your conclusion but not sure I buy into the logic. Two of your three reasons for expensive wines are, at base, variants of the “greater fool” theory: (1) Because there’s so little made, but I’m one of those who can afford it, whatever it costs; and (3) The wine may not be worth it, but it’ll give me a great excuse to tell a story.

    Your second reason rings right: some wines are legitimately more expensive to make. Though reasonable people might disagree over the point where that extra expense stops purchasing what’s inside the bottle and begins to purchase the winemaker’s lifestyle.

  5. There are advantages to being older than the average blogger. I have had the great pleasure of seeing Ernest Gallo says the same thing about price to Robert Mondavi in front of hundreds of people.

    It was said with a chuckle, of course, but it did not matter. It was said and it was meant in the way King Freddy of Franzia means it.

    Gallo later turned to Mondavi–same event–and commented on an old and very good Cabernet, “why pay hundreds of dollars to drink this old stuff? I sell wine that does not need twenty years to age out and for a lot less money”.

  6. Charlie, we must both have been at the same event. It still makes me chuckle.

  7. Joel, well I said that there are psychological reasons for liking an expensive wine. It may be a variant of the “greater fool” theory, but it’s a real part of human nature and one I wouldn’t want to change even if I could.

  8. Steve hit the nail on the head and then Tish drove it straight into the floor. It’s up to Fred Franzia to not only protect, but promote what he creates. Who wouldn’t do the same for their own creation? Both levels of pricing, the high end and the low, have their benefits. Steve did a great job of hitting on what makes a high priced wine, high priced. What Fred has done is make wine available for even the emptiest pocket. His remarks about higher priced wines aside, I do acknowledge that his model has opened up wine to the masses. That’s a good thing for when a percentage of the masses then becomes involved in wine and trades up over the years.

  9. Dylan, let’s hope in this economy the masses really do trade up!

  10. Dylan–

    I would argue that King Freddy has not opened up wine for the masses. The masses were there. King Freddy just lowered the floor.

    It was the Gallos, long ago, who opened up wine for the masses. Oh, and the Sebastianis, Martinis, Christian Brothers and some other folks that perhaps should not be overlooked.

  11. Steve,

    Great post. I’m glad to see someone point out the folly of Mr. Franzia’s broken record marketing strategy. I have to admit that he’s engaging; I laugh every time I read one of his quotes in print. But I’m also saddened because as even I’m laughing, some neophyte out there is going to believe him.

    He has to make his money on quantity because he doesn’t produce much (if any) quality. I agree with Dylan that this can be a good thing because it helps make wine more accessible to the masses. But I also hope that more wine professionals will take your tack and speak out in such a manner that encourages the masses “trade up.”

    In essence, what Mr. Franzia has done is brought the “big box” store mentality to the wine world and used showmanship as his primary marketing tool. In that regard I found it interesting that he’s a relative of Ernest Gallo, because I thought for sure he was the spawn of a Sam Walton/P.T.Barnum hook-up.

    Steve, your post made alot of great points but I think you nailed it for me with…”It’s the psychological satisfaction of drinking a great wine that has a story behind it.” That statement eloquently and efficiently encapsulates the driving force of my passion. Look, what is or is not a great wine is very much decided on an individual basis, but when I find a wine that I think is great, it’s just that much better if I can see the history in the glass. I think alot of folks out there would say the same.

    Thanks Steve.

  12. Amen… Quantity does not equal quality…. ever in my life…

    When I watch people hand harvesting, hand sorting, physically punching down wine, gravity flowing wine from one place to another, etc., there’s no competition between that process and that wine.

    Nice try, but I’ll never buy the theory. I wonder if Fred’s ever tasted a Delia Viader wine?

  13. I have been selling wine at the wholesale level since 1967, not in California.
    Every time I hear Franzia’s now famous quote, I keep thinking he had a twinkle in his eye and I would be willing to bet he loves pulling wine geeks chain. My understanding is he and Michael Mondavi went to UC Davis together and remain the best of friends. I can’t speak from personal experience, but it was told to me by a mutual friend of theirs. Obviously when land sells for 300 grand an acre compared to 8 thousand an acre, there is a valid reason for that price differential in the finished product. He just must love to get all that free exposure to his wines, courtesy of that, shall we say, infamous statement.

  14. I plan on doing a taste off of some Bronco wines mixed with the higher priced spread per Fred’s challenge and similar to the Press Democrat event.“We challenge any Napa Valley winery to a blind wine tasting with consumers and we’ll win more than a majority of the time.” The “tasting panel” will be composed of grape nuts and nouveaus, in other words, the broad spectrum of people who drink wine as consumers not Grand Poobahs. We’ll see.

  15. John Morphis says:

    I am a home wine make and tru some bottles are worth more then 10 but not by much even if you pay 4000.00 for a ton of premuim wine grapes and the yeast chemicals bottles corks and closer the bottle will come out roughly aroung 10.00 to make so why do the charge 80.00 to 500.00 for a bottle other then the BS marketing sceam the wine people have in place.

  16. Cost does not set price. Please, let’s stop promoting that myth.

    The market (supply and demand) set price. Given that price, the cost determines the profit (if any).

  17. Morton Leslie says:

    One of the things people pay for is the integrity and reputation of the winegrower. A winegrower that has paid millions in fines to stay out of jail and was banned from the industry for five years for deception will have a rough time convincing anyone to pay more than a couple bucks for his wine.

  18. grassfed_beef_guy says:

    Steve you never touched on the Republican death panels and so on. Look, Freddy is one of the largest growers around, and he makes a lot of wine. There is quite a bit of fixed cost in any winery, but at his scale, and with robots and machines doing most of the work, there is really no comparison to a small winery. My grandfather always said that “it takes a lot of footprints in the vineyard to make really good wine.”

  19. I always enjoy Mr. Fred’s chain yanking of wine geeks, as he is good at milking it to the max. And I agree with ‘Tish’ regarding why we should question how much over $10.00 wines are worth…particularly California wines.

    And, this is a point I have never understood. Why would I want to pay $40.00…$80.00…$100.00+ for Califonia ‘fruit juice’ when I could buy really great (and far superior in my opinion) French and Italian wines for that money…?

    On that premise…I am somewhat inclined to agree with Fred Franzia.

  20. Dear Grassfed Beef Guy, I need to be careful about mixing politics in a wine blog. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I revisit the death panels and Republican Big Lie tactics. The Big Lie worked for Hitler, so why not Grassley, Gingrich, Palin, Limbaugh and other fascist-minded power-hungry liars?

  21. Vincent Roquebert says:

    I strongly believe that there is no correlation between the pleasure you get and the price of the bottle. All is a question of environment, mind set, company, food pairing, and taste.

  22. Behind the hyperbole, there are serious issues to be examined…

    From the News Hour with Jim Lehrer:

    DAVID BROOKS: “So I will say, first, there is no death panel in the bill, full stop. That is for sure.

    But if we’re going to get serious about cost control, we are going to have to have serious discussions about the amount of care and the expense of care we give at the end of life. That’s just a fact.

    JIM LEHRER: Forty percent of the cost of health care…

    DAVID BROOKS: And so if you want to call it a “death panel,” call it that. But it’s about having serious discussions about care at the end of life. And we’re going have to have those discussions.

    So, in some weird way, I’m pro-death panel. I want to have those discussions, whether it’s one on one or just as a society.

    And this is a fundamental problem, I think, with this whole process. We have to have serious discussions about who’s going to lose in all this, because we’ve got a runaway system. And every time you make a minor suggestion, a hint of a minor suggestion, or in this case not even a hint, just a fallacious exaggeration, people go crazy. So how are we going to get the system under control?” …

  23. lgking–

    Wines are worth what people think they are worth. You may not like CA wines, but apparently lots of people do.

    Beyond that, the fiction that CA wines are all “fruit juice” is no more true than the misinformed “death panel” claims of Sarah Palin. What is clear to me is that you have never tasted the wines of Gary Farrell or Jim Clendenon or Marimar Torres or Freestone or Fort Ross or the new wines coming from places like Benovia, Bjornstad, Pfendler, Anaba. There are plenty of racy, brisk. layered wines in CA. Too bad you don’t know about them. You are missing out on good wines because you have generalized them all into a very narrow and misinformed corner.

    Like what you like. No one will argue with that. But you do owe it to yourself to have an informed palate.

  24. I challenge anyone to identify the varietal in a two buck chuck red wine. I’d say the same for the white wines, but Chardonnay is too easy to fake.

  25. Rui Bastos-Amaro says:

    My wife only lets me buy wines below $ 25.00 a bottle. There are plenty of excellent wines available for all tastebuds at that price range.

    Highly priced wines do have to do the laws of demand but also the laws of demand are created in the consumers minds by results generated by wine critics — whom may or not be influenced by the winery story surrounding the wine being criticized or some financial agreements. Basically, the demand may result from great PR and lobbying from the winery.

    The way I look at it; a bottle of wine is 2 kilograms of grapes the rest is a story.

    By the way, I am a true “garagist” and I can make wine that I personally enjoy, using new French oak barrels, great French glass and a 2″ natural unbranded cork for $ 8.41 per bottle with wonderful fruit from Lodi.

  26. George Parkinson says:

    Steve,
    Great piece. You said it all when you mentioned supply & demand. Fred is speaking to a large consumer base that wouldn’t ever pay $25 retail for any bottle of wine. That base is larger every day in this economy but dollars aside, there is no mistaking quality levels in wine. The search for perfection is why oenophiles are willing to pay for our perception of a great wine no matter what the score or price.

    oh yea, the wine I had with my dad before he passed and the wine that was made the year my daughter was born, that’s priceless too.

  27. Merlotman says:

    Wow, All fired up are we? Steve great blog, and a subject that will live on forever, The Majority of our consumers still want to know where the Charles Shaw winery is, What time are visiting hours at the Crane lake tasting room? So much bulk wine and so few labels to put on them. Wines are like snowflakes…….all different. Enjoy the handcrafted wines while you can, The Franzia of the world are flooding the market with bulk juice with no soul, no passion.

  28. Joel – winemaker’s lifestyle? Really? I live in a crumbling little house on the decidedly declasse side of Sonoma, drive frugal, older cars, fly coach when I can afford to fly at all, have had one vacation in 25 years, can’t afford health insurance for my family (with or without a death panel) and put in a minimum of 60 hours a week. Some lifestyle. You must be thinking of the lifestyle of some winery owners, who have made or are making lots of money outside the wine business.

    John Morphis – $10/bottle in direct cost of goods is a bit on the low side. Our average is more like $15/bottle. And FYI the difference between being a home winemaker and running a winery business is another $5-$15/bottle – in marketing and other SG&E costs, taxes, debt service, etc. And because of distributor and retailer markups, the price I actually receive for my produce is something like 40%-50% of the price you see on the shelf, or 20%-25% of what you see on the wine list. Welcome to the real world.

    What is astonishing is that the Franzias and their like can run a profitable business selling bottles at $2-$10! My hat’s off to them.

  29. Steve,
    He might have a point if he’s speaking about bulk wine. There are clear differences between wines that show a sense of place and those mass produced. I would pay $20 or more for wines made with passion, small production and attention to detail. You can dump all the cookie cutter wines into a landfill.

  30. Hi Charlie,

    Thanks for the response. I come 13+ years sales & marketing on a supplier/wholesaler level in the wine industry (Califonia based)…so maybe I might have heard (and even tasted) some of the wines you mentioned…

  31. By “No wine is worth more than 10 bucks” Fred means no one should pay more than $10 to enjoy a wine with a meal. It’s only wine; why pay more than a six pack of beer.

  32. Did you ever see Gary V’s review of Two Buck Chuck…basically the Shiraz was wine and decent…the other varietals were not even wine or something like that. Fred is a blowhard and full of it. Thanks for telling him he is basically full of it.

  33. Over the years I have held similar arguments about wine’s quality to price relationship. I usually draw the auto analogy. I could easily get across town in a Ford Focus, but drive an E320. Why? It delivers infinitely more pleasure. I wonder what Fred drives?

  34. There is no question that Fred’s wines are not worth more than $10. What is more interesting is the media fawning over his pronouncements that his “ocean of swill” winemaking approach has any comparison to hand-crafted, single vineyard, single appellation wines. After noting that both types are wet and contain alcohol, the conversation is over.

    The upside of wine’s “cheapo” movement is that newbies will become curious and try to understand and explore wine versus simply drinking. Wine is more than a beverage, it is an indication of culture. Sadly, $2 Chuck is a bit too reflective of the culture in the USA at the moment.

  35. lgking–

    Your response leaves me wondering. If you have tasted the brands I mentiioned, do you consider them to be fruit juice as opposed to wine? If so, that’s fine. It’s your opinion, your palate and I offer no argument.

    But, unless you can be more clear about your meaning, my original statement stands unchallenged. There are plenty of CA wines that are balanced, layered, complex, ageworthy and capable of holding their own in blind tastings with wines from other places–even when tasted by the knowledgeable folks from those other places.

    Bruce, thanks for the simple truth. We spend our money on whatever gives us pleasure. I have a kid who makes more than I do, and good for her, who drives a Mini-Cooper and does not care to spend a penny more on cars than that. She has a second home in wine country. I have a much nicer car than that and prefer to travel for vacation as opposed to going to the same place regularly. King Freddy of Franzia is not driving a Mini-Cooper–and I will bet dimes to dollars on that one. Besides, if you were selling milliions of gallons of under $10 wine, would you be walking around telling folks that you are drinking Screaming Eagle for breakfast?

    Mr. Owen, congrats on your winery. But please do not denigrate anybody’s palate. Maybe today’s TBC drinkers will never buy your wine or subscribe to anybody’s wine publication or enjoy a fancy bottle of expensive Napa Valley “fruit juice”, but our industry is made up of everyone including TBC drinkers. One thing is for sure. If they are drinking TBC, they are not drinking Coca-Cola–not that most of us do not all drink Coke or its equivalent at some point.

  36. I teach WSET courses and am required to show classes a broad range of wines so included in one recently a $2 ’08 Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon.
    I have to confess there was such a chemical stench coming off the wine that I couldn’t force any into my mouth. A student was braver and convinced me to try a sip and I was pleasantly surprised – it was considerably better than the nose had indicated – in fact a significant commercial achievement: getting a bottle of fermented grape juice on the shelf for $2, regardless of margin, is quite a feat. Having said that I hope another bottle does not pass my way again. Some of best wines of my life (like Roumier Bonnes Mares) have had such purity and beauty on the nose that that alone was worth the price of admission – which was far in excess of $10 – and I continue to savor those memories while shuddering at Shaw. I spoke with a winery rep yesterday who was pouring a Gewurztraminer (the front label contained no mention of the variety, only the back label did) and he said that was because most people couldn’t pronounce Gewurz and would be put off by the word on the front label. My advice to him is the same as to Franzia: we have to move up, not trade or dumb down.

  37. After reading the headline of the day RE: Casella (Yellow Tail) suing Fred for label infringement, he may need to raise the price of some of his “value” labels to deal with the legal expenses…..

  38. Sorry, but I disagree. Not that wines can be worth more than $10, but rather with your assertion that somebody needs to reply to Fred. This is just like the lawsuit from Casella, exactly what he wants – more free publicity. He doesn’t need to advertise because people keep responding to his “digs”.

    Vinmac- he’s already been to the Supreme Court over Napa Ridge, didn’t affect his prices one bit.

  39. BradK – The 2BC Chard tastes more like a Sauvignon Blanc to me. No butter, plenty of acid and pyrazines. I like it more than all other cheap Chards, though on a relative scale that like saying I’d rather eat termites than tree bark.

  40. Mmm…termites!

  41. I’ve been making wine for twenty years, an its very infrequent that I find a red wine under $10 bucks that doesn’t taste like horse piss. Its completely absurd to think that no wine is worth more than ten dollars. In most small wineries $10 dollars wouldn’t cover the cost of the grapes and processing, let alone the packaging and cost of sales. Fred though a hell of a salesman, is also considered one of the biggest scoundrels in the industry, I can’t even count the amount of times he’s been sued, and lost!

  42. I’m in the final stages of developing a new wine glass that makes TBC taste like…Eight Bucks…also makes an $11 bottle of Bogle Zin taste like $20…even rounds off a Toasted Head Chard…will be $6/stem…aimed at the everyday drinker…I was involved for a few years in a boutique cab vineyard overseen by Mary Hall (Harlan), so definitely disagree with Fred…but nothing says we can’t strive to make the low-end wines a bit more palatable… :)

  43. Mike, wow. So will your new wine glass make Harlan taste like ’61 Latour?

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