What exactly is the relationship between price and quality? Seriously…
Before I wade into the thicket implied by my header, let me bring to your attention this little spat from across the pond, in which the spokesman for Britain’s third largest supermarket chain accuses the editor of Decanter of being a “snob” after the editor, Guy Woodward, told the BBC there’s a “huge amount of difference” between bottles of wine that cost only 2 British pounds apart, with the more expensive being the better.
The tiff lit up British twitter boards with the ferocity of a royal wedding (well, almost), forcing Woodward to explain what he really meant. On The Telegraph’s website, he said that, at the average price of £4.60 paid in Britain for a bottle of wine (about $7.50 U.S.), “the chances of getting an interesting wine are slim.” Although he had praise for certain cheap wines, including a Rioja, Woodward remained unapologetic. “But these wines remain the exception rather than the rule…”. Continuing, Woodward calculates that “If the price of wine were to rise, producers would be paid a decent wage to reinvest in their vineyards, we’d have better wine [and] people would learn to appreciate it…”. It’s the price wars, with all their deep discounting, that rage in Britain, as here in the States, that keep the cost of wine low, and thus the quality–or so Woodward says.
Is he right?
Well, readers of this space, as well as those familiar with my reviews, know I have long argued that the correlation between price and quality isn’t as neat as you might wish it to be. Often as not, I’ll give a winery’s standard bottling a higher score than its pricier reserve. In big blind tastings, such as the ones that the Napa Vintners arrange for me, I’ll often rate relatively inexpensive wines ($25-$40) equal to, if not higher than, super-expensive cults. I love giving a Best Buy to a wine when it conforms to Wine Enthusiast’s price-rating guidelines. And even when it doesn’t, I’ll give a coveted Editor’s Choice to a wine that out-performs for the price.
But in general, I’d have to agree with Guy Woodward: it is awfully hard to get a great bottle of wine for $7.50. Or even $10. Not to say it’s impossible; it can be done, especially nowadays, when negociants like Cameron Hughes are able, somehow, to buy expensive, well-grown wines at big discounts from producers, who can’t sell it. This is why there are so many great Napa Cabernets lately in the $20-$30 range.
But $20 is not $7.50. At that price point, you have to do your homework very carefully–either that, or you just can’t be too fussy. The wine price wars are fought as fiercely here as in Great Britain, perhaps even more so, driving quality down to an acceptable bottom rung, below which not even the most aggressive producer dares to sink, lest the consumer reject his wines in droves. I have frequently defended the big, mass producers for giving Americans what they want and can afford–but let’s not pretend that these are quality wines. I will claim Guy Woodward’s words for my own: Under $10 or so, “the chances of getting an interesting wine are slim.”