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Dec 3, 2008 08:24 PM

Why can't Americans have good cheap wine?

I'm not a regular in the Wine board (I've posted elsewhere on CW) but I've been reading responses here about inexpensive wines, Trader Joe's, etc.

Having traveled in Europe, one thing that has always struck me is how available really GOOD cheap wine is there. France comes to mind, of course, but even the Czech Republic, which I get to visit on business. I remember French supermarket wines at about 4 bucks, really interesting and sometimes made from unfamiliar grapes with unusual (to us) flavor profiles, In the Czech Republic you can go to a "vinoteka" and they'll fill you up a plastic liter bottle with something bulk but decent for next to nothing, or you can spend a bit more on something like a botttled Moravian Tramin, totally delightful. The rock-bottom bar wines there are thin and acidic, however.

I guess it's the difference in our cultures. It's as though Europeans believe everybody has a right to nice wine, even if you can't spend a lot. American sub-$10 wine, including the jugs, is so often uninteresting, maybe even flabby, flat or unbalanced, and even many standard imports are not that great.

A possible exception: I imagine the situation in California is similar to the European, just because you're so close to the wine-making areas, yes?

I remember grousing about this to a friend whose response was, "In Europe, wine is a sacrament. Here, it's just a business." That was his take on it, anyway.

Not many great wine shops where I live. There's no TJ around here...I should get to the Manhattan store, but it's a schlep. I do get to Warehouse on Broadway when I'm in town. The best I can do near home is a big store in Elizabeth, NJ. There's a Portuguese community there, and the Portuguese (and Spanish) wines are some of the best bargains. And not just vinho verde (too distinctive, I feel, for everyday use) but decent dao, douro, palmela, and others. They range from $4 on up, and some of those $4 wines are just fine. I've bought them by the case.

Would like to hear your thoughts.

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  1. Even in California it is hard to find good wine for less than $10 or $15 a bottle.

    1. I was reading a Chowhound post about buying "cheap" wine up in New England.
      Somone suggested buying "closeouts" at supermarkets while up there so I went to the local Shaw's ,Hannaford's,and Price Chopper's while in Maine and I got an assortment of "closeout" labels,almost all of them from producers in California(which seems to have a glut of vineyards) but couple were Spanish and Portugese wines as well.
      The prices ranged from $1.99/bottle to around $5.00/bottle.
      I didn't know what I was getting but I bought around a couple dozen or so bottles of Merlot,Pinot,and other reds.
      We've been sampling these "off-brands" and we've been surprised also to find out how much decent wine can be had for such low prices.
      I'm not saying that these wines are the best we've ever had but for day-to-day wine drinking these wines rate very well with us.
      Your comment about Portugese and Spanish wines being some of the best bargains was really accurate as those wines were both inexpensive and very good to us.
      Now that I know some of the brands we like I too will be buying "by the case" when we get up that way again.

      4 Replies
      1. re: catnip

        I've done that with the supermarket specials a few times too, particularly on longer trips to SC. I don't know why, but my local shops from Brooklyn, and now Princeton, don't have the supermarket specials even in their wine sections. The larger wine shops, like Canal's, which is similar to Sam's Wine & Spirits in Chicago, might, but I haven't seen it--yet.

        TJ's is fine, but in Manhattan it is such a zoo and so poorly maintained that you'd rather spend more elsewhere. A French friend was impressed with 2 Buck Chuck, but then didn't understand why the local wine shops in SF had nothing else at the same price point.

        S. American wines really are a great deal--many perfectly good bottles are $6-10.

        Some of my favourite American wines which used to be $7 (ie Rancho Zabaco and Ste. Michelle sparkling) are now in the $12-25 range.

        In '94, there were some good wines at Nicolas (their regional labels) in Paris for 20FF ($4); with the conversion to the Euro, decent wines at similar prices have been harder to come by.

        So yes, they can be found, but you have to look for them.

        1. re: Caralien

          Caralien, any specific suggestions for those S. American wines? The ones in the sub-$10 price range (that I can find around here) range from generic to dull (Xplorator, Santa Rita, Concho y Toro, etc.).

          1. re: comestible

            I really like Los Vascos, but that may be a bit pedestrian for you (no sarcasm intended). I have a tendency to try everything until I find something I like, then buy the store out over the course of a few months until I find that my current wine (or sparkling) is no longer being shipped to the US, or available in my region, or would be too much of a pain to get because I'd have to drive 50 miles each way to pick it places with more restrictions on alcohol due to antiquated blue laws, the selections tend to be worse. But keep trying, then buy a case or more of what you like, and keep trying. (oh the joys and banes of finding a good daily wine!)

            I'm sorry that I can't be much help.

            1. re: comestible

              At Canal's today, there was a bargin bin section with wines ranging from $4 (Australian, 4 varieties) on up. In Metuchen, at the A&P, there was another good wine we found for $4, tried it, went back and bought a case (there were dozens available), but 2 weeks later, the store was out. I can't recall the name, but it's all trial and error. We have a tendency to keep a spare "acceptable or experimental" bottle in the trunk during the summer during road-trip season (I know, poor storage). Our current favourites are in the $12-18 range, but I'm always willing to try the cheaper bottles (and occasionally boxes, although I much prefer bottles), and if undrinkable to me (even if acceptable to husband), will become part of the marinade for another meal.

        2. I am very doubtful that the economics of $4/bottle wine in the store
          can be worked out in the US, and I have also a hard time
          believing it works out in Europe. The cost of buying the land,
          planting it, growing the vines and tending them year round,
          equipping a winery, storing the wine, buying barrels, bottling,
          selling and distribution is rather steep. Since I am familiar
          with France, one difference is that the vineyards and winery are probably
          treated as a sunk cost there and the winery is passed from generation
          to generation. Most US winemakers are first or second generation
          so are still in the startup phase. I suspect also that estate taxes
          create a much bigger hurdle on passing wine businesses from
          one generation to the next in the US.

          One other large difference is that small wineries seem to be
          able to find distributors in France. The US distribution system
          becaue of large distances and scale seems stacked against
          small wineries.

          All this being said, if you live close to a wine producing area
          in CA, there are always deals to be had when wineries try
          to push out the older production to make space for their new
          bottlings. In Amador, I have seen Bray sell his sangiovese
          or zin for $6/bottle (normal price is about $17/bottle) to
          move his old stuff out. These are not great wines, but very
          decent every day table wines. But I view those as special
          close-out situations. As far as I can tell, to get a decent
          return on investment, winemakers need to sell their
          wine $12-$15/bottle and up.

          This is also a free market. I may be offended to see
          unspectacular Napa cabs selling for $75/bottle,
          but if the winemakers can find buyers, it means they
          are right. After all, why should they leave money on
          the table?

          1 Reply
          1. re: bclevy

            You're absolutely right to be doubtful of the economics of 4€ wine in France. There is some perfectly okay table wine around 4€ per bottle, of which a very large amount comes from regions in the south-west; if you were paying attention to the news last year, that's where the winemakers were in revolt last year, demanding that something be done about the bulk wine prices because they were going bankrupt.

            I have noticed those wines creeping up in price, too. So it's likely they'll end out at something more like 6-7€.

          2. In a nutshell: American market tolerates higher prices when it comes to alcholic beverages, and this is not restricted to wine.

            A couple days ago in Italy, I was charged 3 Euro for a Campari at the bar in a one star Michelin restaurant. Same drink in the US in a similarly starred placed would have costed 4 to 5 times as much.

            8 Replies
            1. re: RicRios

              Hmm...I'm not so sure at all about this being tolerance for high prices.

              I once sat with a brilliant winemaker and businessman, and he went through, point by point, the cost of producing wine. There's almost no way -- with the price of land anywhere in California -- to produce wine for under $10 a bottle. Sure, you can buy your fruit from Modesto, but

              You would not believe the costs of land, agriculture, barrels, bottles, workers, tanks, fencing, bonds, insurance, advertising -- it's unbelievably high. I look at my own winemaking spreadsheets, and man oh man the cost of things is so high.

              Now, in contrast, and to agree with you, there is "cachet inflation." Trophy wines, cult wines, popular wines, trophy spirits, yes, are priced high, at what the market will bear. High-priced wines are impervious to economic downturns; in fact, wines above $65 have actually increased in sales.


              1. re: maria lorraine

                I hear wht you and others are saying here Maria and I agree with you about the cost of producing wine but many i markrets are selling wine at $2.00-$6.00/bottle here and I can't figure out,given the cost of production,how they can sell the wine for those prices--- and the retailer still has to have a mark-up!
                Wine makers can't be "dumping" wines in these quantities just to get rid of them.
                There can't be that much of a glut of wine in the markets to make the price ofthe wines I mentioned so cheap.
                Anyone have an opinion why such wines are being sold so cheaply?
                Am I missing something?

                1. re: catnip

                  Fred Franzia insists he's making a profit on Charles Shaw -- aka "Two Buck Chuck" or "2BC" -- and knowing the Franzias as I do, I believe him.

                  Furthermore, although standard markups would indicate that 2BC has a case one wholesale price in California of $16/case, there is no doubt that Trader Joe's is paying substantially less for 2BC than that. My guess would be closer to $12 a case, for the sale of multiple truckloads at a time (minimum three), max. discount, and a freight pick-up allowance (i.e.: Bronco doesn't deliver, but TJ's picks up the wine themselves).

                  AND it's profitable for ALL concerned.

                  1. re: zin1953

                    2BC is a special case; they're buying bulk wine with booboos on the bulk wine market, and using reverse osmosis machines and such to clean up the wine. The wineries unloading the bad batches are probably doing so at a loss, and through the miracle of blending, technology, and perhaps a few artificial flavors (someone must buy from those catalogs my parents get in the mail!), 2BC ends up as something the public will drink in huge volume.

                    1. re: SteveG

                      And they do so at a profit! ;^)

                2. re: maria lorraine

                  >>> There's almost no way -- with the price of land anywhere in California -- to produce wine for under $10 a bottle <<<

                  Maria, I've never disagreed with you so much in a single day! What's happened?

                  IF what you say is true, ML, then how does everyone sell their jug wines so cheaply? Clearly they are UNDER the equivalent of $10/750ml retail . . . what about all the Côtes-du-Rhônes, Languedocs, and other wines from France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal that are under $10? (And that includes much higher freight costs!) Let alone South America and Australia . . .

                  OK, say we restrict this JUST to California wines . . . on the BevMo website (to cite just one example), they list 647 wines from the US which retail for UNDER $10 . . . and trust me, BevMo is making a profit at that price!

                  It is VERY MUCH possible to make wine for under $10 a bottle . . .

                  1. re: zin1953

                    Total agreement with you on the price and value of European wines.

                    Good California wines grown on land that is not owned and barrel-aged, a different story. A wine can and is made more cheaply by an older, established company, but the land is owned, vineyards have long been planted, use of oak is minimal, cheaper labels, established or piggybacked distribtion, etc -- all keep costs low.

                    1. re: zin1953

                      You missed the Modesto caveat in Maria's post...

                3. It's no secret as to why there is no "good, cheap wine" in the US . . . THERE IS!

                  BUT . . . . (and it's a BIG BUT!)

                  First of all, although unrealistic in today's pricing, long ago the US wine industry broke prices into several categories, based on the retail price per 750ml (standard) bottles. These are: under $3, $3-7,$7-10, $10-$14, and $14-25, and $25+.

                  No one (IMHO) can touch California wines in the lowest category. But how many people here are actually buying jug wines on a regular basis? But jug wines regularly beat the pants of French so-called "zip code" wines and their equivalents from other European countries.

                  It's when one moves UP the price scale that the US falls short. As I have often said, the best wine bargains -- even today -- come from Europe. The cost of production here in the US is much higher than in Europe for "affordable" wines (say, sub-$15 -- maybe even sub-$20), and as a result one needs to spend (again, IMHO) closer to $25-30 or more for a wine from, say, California, Oregon, or Washington to find a wine of equivalent quality from Europe -- especially Spain and Portugal! -- that costs in the $12-20 range.

                  Just my experience . . .

                  12 Replies
                  1. re: zin1953

                    "The cost of production here in the US is much higher than in Europe for "affordable" wines . . . "


                    1. re: Chinon00

                      Americans like to think that no matter what job they are doing they should be getting paid $30/hr or more to do it. There are a lot of low skill jobs that go into taking grapes off the vine and turning it into wine on your table. In order for these winemakers to stay in business they have to pass that cost along to the consumer. So in the end you pay more for your wine.

                      In economics it's called the money illusion. You hear people talk about raising minimum wage all the time. That raises production costs for companies across the board. Those costs get passed on to the consumer and eventually the cost of everything goes up. In the end, the raise you just gave Joe Worker means nothing because he has to pay more for consumer goods. Maybe this is a conversation for a different forum...

                      1. re: jpc8015

                        But French labor costs are some of the highest in the world.

                        1. re: Chinon00

                          But it doesn't count . . .

                          Keep in mind that we are talking about the differences between agriculture and industry.

                          In English, one speaks of the grape grower and the winemaker. One GROWS the grapes; the other MAKES the wine. They are, overwhelmingly, two different people in the US. One may own thousands of acres of land, farm the grapes using modern, expensive tractors, employ dozens of people at harvest (either hand-picked or mechanical), and so on . . . then, the grapes are purchased by a huge winery, also employing dozens of people . . . .

                          IN France, one speaks of "le petit vigneron" -- the little wine-grower. Wine is grown, not manufactured. Most vineyards are less than 100 acres. FAR less. The land is worked by a husband-and-wife, by the father and his son(s), or an uncle . . . often the wine is made in their basement, and later sold to a négociant. The harvest may be done by the family, or by students (along with some migrant labor). If the farmer belongs to a cave cooperative, he trucks his grapes to the co-op, and the wines are made there . . .

                          Costs are much less.

                        2. re: jpc8015

                          *Americans like to think that no matter what job they are doing they should be getting paid $30/hr or more to do it. There are a lot of low skill jobs that go into taking grapes off the vine and turning it into wine on your table. In order for these winemakers to stay in business they have to pass that cost along to the consumer. So in the end you pay more for your wine. *

                          Someone more knowledgeable please correct me if I'm wrong, but I have always assumed that the California wine industry is heavily dependent on migrant labor to work the vineyards, especially during harvest, and I'd be astonished if they're getting paid anywhere close to $30/hr.

                          This article suggests that getting $12/hr in Napa is the "dream job" for these migrant workers and that for most, their wages are significantly less ->

                          As to your second point, this report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that as of 2007, hourly workers at or under the minimum wage made up only 2.3% of all hourly-paid workers in the workforce, and the overwhelming majority of those are in the service industry. So I'm somewhat dubious that minimum wage increases dramatically raise production costs "across the board" or that these costs are automatically passed through in the cost of consumer goods (such as wine).

                          1. re: Frodnesor

                            Agreed. Somehow jpc8015 seems to join a common trend consistent of blaming Joe Worker / José Trabajador for any and all malaises affecting the marketplace.

                            1. re: Frodnesor

                              >>> Someone more knowledgeable please correct me if I'm wrong, but I have always assumed that the California wine industry is heavily dependent on migrant labor to work the vineyards, especially during harvest, and I'd be astonished if they're getting paid anywhere close to $30/hr. <<<

                              Keep in mind that, in most cases, the vineyards and the wineries are under separate ownership. Either way, however, the HARVEST of grapes is heavily dependent on migrant labor. However, for 8-10 months (all year except when preparing for the harvest, and the actual harvest itself), the vineyard workers are employed full-time . . . either by the individual vineyard owner, or by the vineyard management company responsible for maintaining the individual vineyard.

                              I, too, would be surprised at a $30 hourly rate for the AVERAGE vineyard worker.

                              1. re: Frodnesor

                                Well, in Napa Valley if harvest comes in a rush, workers do get well over $20 an hour. Normal vineyard work is considerably cheaper, approaching minimum wage, but during harvest the rate goes much higher because the work can't wait. It's also hot, sticky, grimy, backbreaking, and miserable work.

                                Especially at higher end wineries where they engage in fruit sorting, you can either have attentive pickers who are paid well to do a good job who don't pick bad clusters to begin with, or you pay other people to pick over clusters as they flow past on a sorting table.

                                1. re: SteveG

                                  That article was about 5 years old so I suppose the $12/hr was somewhat dated. Nonetheless I suspect it still holds that Napa in a rush harvest is the absolute top of the market. I'm still dubious that labor costs play a very significant role in the pricing of US wine as compared to other countries.

                            2. re: Chinon00

                              Labor is one big component. Also, land costs -- while they are certainly high in Europe, much of it doesn't change hands, but rather is passed on generation to generation. In many instances, you don't "have to" buy the grapes -- they are grown on your land -- whereas most vineyards here in the US are under separate ownership from the winery.

                              etc., etc., etc.

                              1. re: Chinon00

                                Land is often already paid for in Europe, still on loan from the bank in the US.

                              2. re: zin1953

                                completely agree with Zin's point that as one moves UP the price scale, US wines fall short in the QPR category. its a simple fact that drives me bonkers....IMHO