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Cheap vs. expensive? Yes, Virginia, there is a difference

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Forbes asks, “Is There Really A Taste Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Wine?”

In three words, the answer is Yes.

Actually, that’s only one word, but I feel it very strongly, so it’s worth repeating 3 times. YES there’s a taste difference between cheap and expensive wine. YES “you really [can] taste the difference between a $15 wine and a $150 wine.” (Most of the time.) And YES, usually expensive wine is better than cheap wine.

I know, I know, all those studies that embarass wine snobs by giving them Two Buck Chuck in a Lafite bottle and then they wet their pants at how good it is. I’ve reported on all of these studies. Heck, I’ve owned up to my own boners: mistaking Pinot for Cabernet, etc. etc. etc.

But if we’re talking about cheap versus expensive, then the point has to be driven home: usually, there’s a vast difference.

The difference is not only in flavor–richer, deeper, more intensely flavored wines–but in structure and mouthfeel–not to mention the absence of flaws. Consider Cabernet Sauvignon. An expensive Napa Cab will (or should) feel like sheer luxury in the mouth. There are no edges, no green tannins, no scouriness. The tannins may be very hard, and often, they are in Napa Cabernets, particularly from the mountains. Still, they’re creamy. “Hard creaminess” may be an oxymoron, but that’s what makes for a great Napa Cab.

The cheaper a Cabernet is, the less rich it feels in the mouth. Richness in texture is really hard to achieve. It starts with viticulture–expensive viticulture. It continues right through the winery, to hand sorting (also expensive), and to the quality of equipment and temperature control, not to mention oak barrels. All of these things cost money. I’m not saying Bryant Family, at $335 a bottle, is ten times better than, say, Louis M. Martini, at $35. (How would you measure “ten times better” anyway?) But the Bryant is clearly better. And both are far better than a Cabernet from Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, which, at $8, is hard to drink (for me, anyway; I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people happily churn it down).

Do I sometimes give less expensive wines higher scores than more expensive wines?  Of course I do. Just because a wine costs $150 doesn’t mean it’s automatically 95 points or better. And just because a wine is $30 doesn’t mean it’s not 95 points.

But those are the outliers, the exceptions to the rule. In general, the more expensive a wine is, the better it is. It’s been true for the Greeks and the Romans, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a hundred years ago, and it’s true today in California.

The problem with an article like the one in Forbes is that it takes a few isolated occurrances–mistakes by “experts,” studies in which tasters were fooled–and suggests they are the rule, rather than the exception. This is a common practice in journalism, where “man bites dog” makes the front page, even if happens only once in a century, while “dog bites man”, which happens every day, doesn’t appear at all (unless it’s a pit bull: pity that misunderstood breed. It’s not the pit, it’s the pathetic idiot that owns it). Sure, you can give a white wine to a blindfolded master sommelier, who then will tell you it’s red, but that proves nothing except that humans are, well, human, and thus fallible.

Happily, though, deception in judging wine quality is rare among professionals (although individual preferences are not). There is a difference between cheap and expensive. In my blind lineups, all it usually takes is a single sniff for me to determine that a wine is cheap, and I’m almost always right. A sniff that impresses me: now there’s something harder to determine. This is because, once quality starts to improve, it does so asymptotically, meaning that the rate of improvement slows down as it rises. This is why a 99 point wine is only marginally better than a 97 point wine and (truth to tell) on any given day, the order could switch. But then, a 97 point wine will never be “cheap.” I could never give a cheap, $6 82 point wine a much better score, on any day of my life, for the obvious reason that it is cheap, tawdry, common, disagreeable. So that’s one way of describing the difference between cheap and expensive: tawdry versus impressive.

  1. A casual wine driking friend of mine recently asked me to “enlighten” him on the difference between good and great and between inexpensive and costly wines. Was it because of those questionable “nuances” that speak of loam, minerality and so on, or was it just clever merchandising and promotion.

    My first response was to advise that much of this depends on 1) one’s financial comfort combined with 2) one’s committment to a working knowledge about wine in general. However, the telling point was to remind him that he used to be an owner of two steak house restaurants. I asked him how did he defend and explain the difference in menu prices between sirloin, new york, rib eye and, ultimately, filet mignon. The response never came back.

  2. Steve’s truisms:
    “YES there’s a taste difference between cheap and expensive wine.” I agree!
    “Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, which, at $8, is hard to drink (for me, anyway; I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people happily churn it down).”
    I agree! I’d rather have grape juice.
    “This is a common practice in journalism (To mislead). . .”
    Yes! Yes! Yes!
    (unless it’s a pit bull: pity that misunderstood breed. It’s not the pit, it’s the pathetic idiot that owns it).
    I agree! You can put the German Sheppard and a host of other breeds in there too.
    Paraphrased: humans are fallible. [and] individual preferences are not rare among professional wine critics.
    I agree!
    “I could never give a cheap, $6 82 point wine a much better score, on any day of my life, for the obvious reason that it is cheap, tawdry, common, disagreeable.” Yet you gave (you won’t like this Steve) Ridge Pagani Ranch 2008 Zinfandel ($35) arguably that kind of description when you scored it 83 points. I understand the high alcohol distraction, but, and I know you don’t give a sh@t what anyone else thinks, even Cellar Tracker averaged out at 90.8, RP 94, and WS’s TF came in at 92 points.
    This is just a thought, take it or leave it, but some reflection for all critics just might be in order; hey, you just might be the only one whose right! ;-)

  3. Patrick says:

    Steve, I agree with both you AND the Forbes piece. Most of the time, higher-priced wines are indeed better. But not always (as you noted). And once in awhile, folks get fooled, as she pointed out. And even more often, people’s evaluation gets influenced by what they’re told about a wine or by the label or price, as those “Freakonomics” guys noted a few years back. All of these viewpoints can happily co-exist, I hope. And thanks, as ever, for a stimulating post!

  4. Kurt Burris says:

    I never want to lose the love of a good glass of plonk. Sometimes something simple and rustic can be delightful. It would not be worthy of 95 points, but it can still be fun. Which certainly doesn’t mean the more expensive wine isn’t better.

  5. Michael Donohue says:

    Ah the old Harry Waugh routine – not since lunch time have I confused Cab and Pinot- but scouriness-wtf? I may some some soapy green idea…

  6. vinorojo says:

    I find the biggest difference is when I am drinking a cheap red it is usually harder for me to come up with descriptors. I’ll usually just say “tastes like sweet red wine”. Cheap wine is usually just void of any unique character. But quality, top shelf wines are usually generous with so many different things layered together that it’s easy to come up with all sorts of descriptors. you just typically don’t find things like forest floor or graphite in central valley plonk.

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