But it’s not the super wealthy who are driving the industry’s profits. Wine that’s priced between $4 and $7.99 per bottle brings in more revenue than any other price bracket, with bottles over $25 bringing in the lowest overall.
Discount retailer Target has definitely noticed this trend. They just launched California Roots, their own line of $5 wines featuring a variety of reds and whites. Target’s press release for the vino promises “just the right blend of incredible quality and amazing value” for their customers.
The announcement has drawn comparisons with Trader Joe’s own range of ultra-cheap wine. Charles Shaw, popularly known as “Two Buck Chuck,” costs just $1.99 a bottle. Despite its popularity with Trader Joe’s customers, wine that cheap doesn’t make much of a dent in the market’s profits—which could explain why Target priced their bottles slightly higher at $5 each.
There may be a disparity in price between the finest and the most consumed wines in the world, but can the same be said for quality?
The Science and Psychology of Taste
When sommeliers (professional wine experts) taste wine, they don’t just drink it down. They observe the wine with their nose and eyes; they inhale while the wine is in their mouth; they hold it on their tongue for a specific amount of time.
This correct method of wine tasting was designed to take full advantage of the way we experience and process flavor. All of these tricks help the brain to fully analyze the various complex flavors of wine.
Don’t feel bad if you can’t taste the hint of chocolate in that merlot. Unlike the average consumer, sommeliers have specialized knowledge that allow them to detect subtle flavors and explain them in terms of intensity and balance.
However, despite their expertise, sommeliers’ alleged abilities have been scrutinized, with the most infamous example being the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976.
The event, which has since been renamed the “Judgment of Paris,” was a blind tasting competition involving some of the world’s most accomplished wine experts. However, the judges repeatedly failed to predict factors such as region, even mistaking Californian wine for French.
The inconsistent and often inaccurate assessments from the judges at that tasting highlighted a big issue with the tasting process: subjectivity. How can we rely on the science of taste tests when the data itself is expressed through personal opinion?
What’s even more intriguing is the correlation between actual cost and assigned value. Does the way we think about wealth affect our experience and perception of quality? Surprisingly, rapper 2 Chainz may have the answer.
GQ produces a regular video series aptly titled “Most Expensivest S***”. Host 2 Chainz explores the world of outrageously priced luxury items, from $2 million cars to $100,000 dogs.
Lavish food and beverages make a frequent occurrence. In one episode, 2 Chainz is invited to try gold-coated “billion dollar popcorn.” Like most of the dishes on the show, the popcorn is indeed coated in real, edible gold leaf. That must make it worth a lot of money, right?
Not exactly. Gold leaf isn’t cheap, but it’s certainly not worth as much as you’d think. One gold bar can produce an entire football field-sized sheet of gold leaf. That bucket of popcorn is little more than an expensive gimmick.
That’s not to say that expensive wine has to contain literal gold to appear valuable. But the analogy could still apply to a number of factors in the makings of a high-end bottle.
Josh Brachfeld has worked in the wine industry for three years, both on a retail and distribution level. He has a certified Level 2 qualification from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and is set to start Level 3. Suffice it to say, he knows a thing or two about the industry.
In his experience, retailers only tend to stock what sells. An expensive wine that doesn’t taste as good as it costs isn’t going to keep being ordered. But he does think that the status of certain labels can influence consumers.
“For example, go look at Opus One or Armand de Brignac,” he says of two champagnes, both of which retails for $300 on average. “They sell, and having tried Armand de Brignac I can tell you it’s a monumental champagne. But no wine is realistically worth that much. With aged wines, the price comes from the age, or has to do with the quality of the vintage.”
What’s in a Drop?
Jana Kreilein is a wine blogger and export manager for German wine label Weingut am Stein. She’s worked in the industry at various levels, including harvesting. According to her, quality wine begins on the vine.
“Winemakers that care enough about their product to cut back yields—which results in much more aromatic fruit—hand harvest, and make a proper investment in the aging process are generally making quality wines,” she says.
This preservation of quality means fewer additives and less filtration are required, resulting in a more natural final product.
“When the grapes are healthy and are harvested at their optimum ripeness—hand-harvesting will ensure proper sorting of the different levels of quality and maturity—a lot less cellar work is required,” she says. “This is the minimal intervention approach, which I think is fantastic!”
These methods can be expensive, which means discount winemakers tend to cut costs here. For Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck, for instance, this is done by using cheaper farmland and replacing human labor with machinery.
Kreilein isn’t a fan of these shortcuts. Not only does hand harvesting ensure proper sorting of the different levels of quality and maturity, but it also supports sustainable wine production.
“Making wine that way is of course going to be more expensive and riskier,” she says. “But if you want an honest example of quality you’re definitely going to be paying more than if you pick up a less expensive, mass-produced wine that is suspiciously consistent from vintage to vintage because it is pumped up with wood chips, chemicals, and mega purple to mask unwanted flavors and add color.”
According to Brachfeld, some labels don’t even grow their own fruit. Many cheaper wines are actually blends of excess wine bought from other estates— some of them prestigious. For those winemakers, it’s a way to avoid diluting their profits.
“If I put too much wine out under this label, the perceived value will drop, and also, retailers may start demanding to pay a lower price,” he says. “So what do I do with a bumper crop? Put them in a different blend under a less expensive label, or sell them to someone who does.”
Brachfeld says that while some labels are open about this practice, it’s a commonly held secret in the industry.
“It’s not something people want to talk about. Why buy the $25 wine when you can get the off-label for far less?”
This means that even if you’re a total cheapskate with wine, there’s a good chance you’ve been drinking a better quality label than you thought. Considering Target doesn’t actually own any vineyards, this is most likely how they can afford to sell their California Roots line for such a low price.
Is Expensive Wine Actually Better?
It makes sense that luxury wines aren’t stimulating the wine industry as much as you’d expect. After all, people who earn enough money to justify such lavish expenses only make up 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Does that mean that cheaper wine can be better than more expensive varieties? Well, that depends on your definition of “better.” One thing’s for certain: The price label on a bottle of wine is by no means indicative of how good it tastes.
After a two-week-long blind taste test in 2016, a wine produced by discount supermarket chain Aldi was deemed the best rosé in the world. A bottle of Aldi’s Exquisite Collection Côtes de Provence Rosé 2016 costs £5.99—that’s just over $8.
Even Trader Joe’s ultra-cheap wines have received surprisingly favorable reviews (well, not all of them). Of course, those pleasing flavors might have more to do with any number of additives than the quality of the actual fruit and how it’s farmed.
Lots of cheap wine may taste better thanks to additives, but that doesn’t mean they’re high quality. As Kreilein says, “Quality in the vineyard leads to quality in the glass.” And when you don’t know which vineyards the labels are getting their grapes from, it can be even harder to discern that level of craftsmanship.
So can cheap wine still be high quality? It really depends on the label. Who knows? That $5 bottle of Target red might come from some of Napa Valley’s finest vineyards.
Then again, it could also contain a cocktail of tasty but troubling additives.
For the amateur wine connoisseur on a budget, Kreilein has an insider tip for getting a quality drop at a low price:
“The price of Burgundian Pinot Noir is skyrocketing due to vintages that suffered severe frost damage in 2016,” she says. “Instead of looking for a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, I think it is a great time to start looking more towards Germany for their extremely promising ‘Spätburgunder‘ (German word for Pinot Noir), which you can get for a fraction of the price.”