Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Wine under $10 sucks. Should we care?

Earlier this year we learned from the Wine Market Council that men in their 20s aren't drinking much wine for two reasons: 1) they're broke, and 2) craft beer and cider are more interesting under $10.

The numbers reflected what most restaurant diners have realized for some time.

The night before I heard some of these stats for the first time, I was staying in Sacramento for the big Unified trade show. I didn't feel like a fancy meal so I went to Broderick Roadhouse for its pretty good burger. I'm a wine lover; I prefer a glass of red wine with my burger. Their wines by the glass, all for less than $10, were corporate and boring. Instead, I had a pint of a locally made apple-pomegranate cider that the server was enthusiastic about; the fruit is all organic and he had met the producers. And it cost $7.

You've had this experience, right? A glass of interesting wine costs $15 now, and might be from a country you've never visited, while you can get a quirky, artisanal beer made in your neighborhood for $8. It's not enough to make me a beer drinker, but I understand what 20-something men are thinking.

And it's not just in restaurants.

I'm sorry to write this, especially for my friend The Wine Curmudgeon, who specializes in reviewing wines under $10, but almost all of them suck now.

Let me define "sucks." For under $10, you can expect a bottle of wine that tastes like fruit not found in nature. It won't be spoiled or oxidized. There will be nothing wrong with it. But it will be so boring you could fall asleep and face-plant into the glass.

As recently as 2007 I wrote an every-other-week column about wines under $10. I found plenty of delicious wines in that category, though nearly all were exactly $9.99. I'm glad I don't have to write this column now.

The psychological barrier of $10 has not changed over time. But its value has. If you want to brag about how you bought great $10 wines in 2000, so did I; that's $13.75 now. Because of inflation, $10 in 2007 was $11.42 in 2014. Heck, even $10 in 2010 was $10.86 in 2014.

This is the problem with wines under $10: every supply -- bottles, corks, labels, ink, you name it -- goes up every year, but the psychological barrier remains in place. Producer margins are pretty tight for $10 wines; they can't easily absorb 86 cents in additional costs without bumping the retail price up a buck.

As I said, there's nothing wrong with the products for sale on the supermarket wine shelves for under $10. But they're products. You can buy some wine brand with a funny name made in giant tanker vats from machine-harvested grapes from wherever the economy is weakest. Or you can buy a cider fermented with Trappist yeast. For people who want something interesting, there's no contest.

The question is, should we care? Does it matter? It's not hurting Big Wine Business; Gallo is thriving, not suffering, in the new environment. And I'm not sure it hurts smaller producers to have more people recognize that they have to spend $15 or more for a bottle of wine.

I ran into one of my favorite Napa Valley producers, Dan Petroski, on Saturday at a place where people were spending $1000 a bottle for Cabernet without a second thought. He's a critical darling, not just from me, and makes some of the hippest wines in Napa Valley for his own label Massican. They're the types of wines you might think 20-somethings are drinking, like his Annia, a blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Chardonnay. They're not super expensive: Annia can be had for under $30.

But he surveys his customer base, and his average customer is a 46-year-old man, he told me. People in their 20s might think his wines are interesting, but they don't yet buy a lot of $30 wines.

What happens in 20 years? When I lived in Japan, I read an essay about how Japanese youth just didn't respect work ethic like their elders, and it was going to lead to a societal breakdown. This essay was published in the early 1950s; all those 20-something rebels became the bowing, smoking, hobby-less salarymen that built Japan Inc. Maybe today's craft beer-loving young Americans will discover wine when they can pay for something good. But who knows how good and widely available craft beer will be in 2035? Maybe you'll be able to order a second bottle by drone.

I'd like to have your thoughts. Is this a situation the wine industry needs to address? Should wine lovers worry about the fact that wines under $10 suck?

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Eron Rauch said...

I think one of the economic realities is that for most people under 35, real wages haven't actually gone up in ten years. So as those previously $10 bottles are now $13, $14, $15, they eat up an ever larger chunk of the same paycheck. In real terms, I love wine but now I mostly buy it at various sales and clearances from good wine shops where I can get a little extra edge for my dollar even though I don't get to pick exactly what I want to drink (it's easier to tailor my meal to the wine than visa versa). Also, I and my fiends certainly buy way less wine while dining out than we used to since with the typical 3x or 4x markup anything above those $10 grocery store products can cost as much as the rest of the meal for two at even a solid restaurant. As an aside, if you want to look at what runaway wine prices can do it might be worth study places like Edmonton, Canada where because of various factors, wine (and most beer) is priced proportionally massively higher than in most major metro regions in the US. It might be curious to see if there is proportionally more home brewing, etc.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Eron, coincidentally I'm going to be in Edmonton at a wine fair next month, will ask about it. I know that Canadians drink more wine per capita than Americans, but I don't know much more about Canada's wine market than that.

allaboutwine said...

ya its right one

Jeff Siegel said...

Good points, as always, and thanks for the kind words. I wrote something about this in January, when I released the 2015 $10 Hall of Fame (http://bit.ly/1AfgQ1T): "In this, there’s a chance that cheap wine could become nothing more than what it costs, and what it tastes like won’t matter nearly as much as it does now."

Fortunately, there is still plenty of value in Spain, southern France, and Sicily. So it's not quite as bad as you fear. Having said that, the perception problem you note may well exist. It's not like Domaine Tariquet is in every grocery store in the country, while lots of craft beer is.

kschlach said...

Just a technicality, but cider is legally wine...

W. Blake Gray said...

The nitpicking troll is in the house!

Michael said...

There's actually been deflation since 2010 given the USD/EUR rate and the massive decline in oil costs. Combine that with the increased level of direct imports from solid retailers and I'd hazard a guess that you can drink a lot better for $10 today than you could 5 years ago.

Here, do this... go to klwines.com, login so you see all the hidden prices, sort by price ascending and have a look. You can easily find a couple mixed cases of really nice $10 wines... even chock-full of 90+ point wines from major critics if one needs additional validation.

kschlach said...

So, I'm a nitpicking troll because made an incidental, yet factual (and admittedly nitpicky) comment? I don't know how I was trying to bait you at all. I think it is very interesting how cider delicately teeters between the beer and wine worlds. I apologize that I've offended you, Blake.

W. Blake Gray said...

You didn't offend me, Kyle, because if I couldn't read your writing without a sense of humor, I would be ... you.

kschlach said...

Wow, Blake, such vitriol. I'm hurt.

So, if I am supposed to read more with a sense of humor, where is the humor in your post? You raised a lot of good points that I agree with. Quality and price discrepancies between wine and beer is an issue the wine industry may should address. I think cider is a great example of how the wine industry can make a bridge between less expensive craft beer and wine.

Mark Andrew Sinnott said...

Kyle... dude... less starch in your underwear or something. Even I realized Blake was joking around with you when I read it. And yeah, it was kinda funny.

kschlach said...

Mark, I admit I didn't read being called a troll as a joke. I apologize to Blake if I missed the humor in that comment.

Unknown said...

Wine is the outcome of fermented grapes. Everything else is an alcoholic beverage. I can out-nit any of you pickers.

Unknown said...

When seeking out "good value" (<$10) bottles of wine, consider lesser well known but in no way lesser well-made grape varieties.


Pinot Blanc from Alsace (France).
Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg (CA).
Sauvignon Blanc from "California."
Riesling from Columbia Valley (WA).

And "field blend" red wines comprising a mashup of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah and Carignane.

Blake contributed an article on the subject to the Los Angeles Times "Food" section some years ago: