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Nov 2, 2011 02:18 PM

Another idiotic "cheap wine" story in Slate

To save everyone some time, this rehashes the same tired following ideas:
- most people can't tell the difference between "cheap" and "expensive" wines
- the price of wines varies widely
- if you spend a lot of money on wine, you will spend a lot of money (a syllogism of breathtaking obviousness


What I don't understand about these pieces is that wine is singled out, as if it is alone among products where some sort of "myths" must be "debunked" to spare the poor consumer from buying more expensive products.

In virtually every product category, a more expensive alternative exists whose attributes may not be that important to the "average" consumer. A few that immediately come to mind:

Clothes - $10 Target shirt vs. $500 Gucci shirt - Both still are shirts
Watch - a Rolex and a Timex keep time equally well
Car - Both a Chevy Aero and a Ferrari can drive at highway speeds
Restaurant Meal - Basic nutrition can be had for $12.99 per person at TGI Friday's, or $500+pp at French Laundry...
Golf clubs - I'm not really a golfer, but I understand you can spend $1000s on these
Audio - More like wine in that the improved attributes of the high-end products may be less obvious to some people

..and so on. Yet there are never articles that say, "Don't buy expensive clothes" or "don't go to expensive restaurants"? Yet it is no more obvious that if you don't really care about, say, watches, you probably shouldn't buy a Rolex. The degree to which the "better" product is "better" is only likely to matter to those who are heavy users of the product and who care more about them.

The fact that there are great bottles of wine that are inexpensive to very inexpensive is not exactly a secret. There are also some pretty amazing food experiences you can have for not much money, and unless you're Tiger Woods, you can probably play just about as good of golf with some cheap clubs as some more expensive ones. But it doesn't mean that ON AVERAGE the "more expensive" products aren't actually better in some ways, and it doesn't mean that the person for whom whatever difference in quality exists is wrong for perceiving, or indeed, enjoying that difference.

... ::end rant:: :)

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  1. Jonas,

    Thanks for sharing. As a wine educator I find only around 2% of people actually taste wine. If you don't smell it and move it around in your mouth there will be little difference in quality between a cheap wine and a great wine. These articles and studies are filled with flaws and too many variables are changed. I have done plenty of cheap vs. good wine experiments and as long as people follow the tasting process most people can tell the difference. I think too many bloggers are dumbing down good wine and making people think that you don't ever need to spend over $10 which is just silly. I don't always want to eat at Taco Bell sometimes I like to do fine dining.

    1. Utterly stupid article.

      While not all, for example, $50 wines merit that price, I have yet to taste a $9 wine that tastes as good as a well crafted $50 wine. If you can't taste the difference, then you should definitely buy the $9 bottle, but I can taste the difference. Just like there is a difference between the tea dust that is used to make inexpensive tea bags and hand-picked leaves. By the author's calculation, I guess all tea should cost 5 cents as well. Luckily good tea is cheaper than good wine, but as to wine, I would rather drink a good bottle of wine twice a month than a mediocre bottle every night.

      P.S. The saddest thing about the article -- and what is left unsaid -- is that the article is a celebration of big industrial agriculture because that is what produces the $5 bottles of wine (and the cheap tea dust).

      2 Replies
      1. re: omotosando

        That's another excellent point. I suppose in Europe it is a bit different, because there is much more production per capita and more consumption per capita. I understand that a lot of vin ordinaire or table wine over there may really be just excess production from smaller estates. I realize that is to a limited degree the case in the U.S., but if you're talking about the very inexpensive category the writer suggests (1 to 2 Euros, or three to five dollars) the only options I am aware of come from Gallo, Bronco aka Charles Shaw, and a very few others, all of which are exactly the type of industrial agriculture to which you refer.

        1. re: omotosando

          Why do you debase yourself by calling the article "utterly stupid"? So, you can taste a difference that many others can't. What's the big deal? The article did not even state that there were no differences between $50 dollar bottles of wine and $9 bottles. The author's thesis was that one may not need to spend $15 for an inexpensive bottle when you might find one for well under $10.
          As for your comment about big Ag, I agree with your sentiments. Wine is only one relatively small component of highly industrialized food production. I hope you are consistent in your behavior, and make sure that you only eat food that has been raised humanely, pesticide free, and where workers are paid fairly and treated well.

        2. They probably all write these articles so they can score some wine for free, or have it reimbursed. Since they don't think there's any difference anyway. Just a thought.

          1. While I have been very surprised (and in a good way), at some inexpensive wines, I would never rate any above "good wine." OTOH, I have experienced some "great wines," but never at "bargain basement" prices.

            Like the dining analogy, I have had some wonderful food, at very low prices, but have never had a "great dining experience" at those places. Best fried shrimp that I have ever had, was at a little stand in Gulfport,MS, with a Grade D sanitation rating (I did not know there was anything BUT a Grade A, until I went there). However, the total dining experience was not worthy of 3 Michelin stars, where some other restaurants (fried shrimp have not been on the menu) have definitely been up to the the rating and the price for me.

            Now, when it comes to wine, what sets most inexpensive wines apart from fine wines, or great wines for me, is one of dimension. They often have good things going for them, but are usually one dimensional.If that one dimension is a good one, then great for them. However, other than one high-point, there is usually nothing else going for that wine. When one is talking about a "fine wine," then the layers, or dimensions should be myriad, sort of like peeling an onion - layer upon layer, with each offering up something positive. Those multi-dimensions, or layers, are where most inexpensive wines fall very short.

            Now, like the audiophile equipment, can one tell the difference? That depends on the person. For me, I will gladly pay the price for the enjoyment of either the wine, or the audio equipment. Will everyone appreciate the differences? Hardly. Most people are happy to listen to an iPod with MP3 audio compression. Except in-flight, I cannot stand MP3 compression, and I seem to be almost deaf in my right ear... ! I want my half-speed masters (will accept SACD) vinyl on my Denon, through my rack of Carvers and a pair of Krells.


            5 Replies
            1. re: Bill Hunt

              I am no wine snob by any means but have been drinking mostly red wines for the past 5 years and have visited many wineries. I find it hard to drink wine under $10, it mostly tastes like kool aid or vinegar to me. OTOH I have had quite a few what I would call expensive wines ($30 to $100) that were not as good as some much cheaper wines and I felt were a total rip off, Silver Oak is one that I remember. The sweet spot for me seems to be $12 to $40.

              1. re: pantani


                I like the Silver Oak reference. I use it as an example of a name brand that every one knows but it does not deliver in terms of quality. Give them credit for become the steak house wine!

                For reds under $10 Columbia Crest makes a nice Grand Estates Cab and Merlot.

                1. re: wineglas1

                  Now, and though it is not the same wine, as when Justin Meyer was at the helm, the Silver Oak Napa (not the Alexander Valley wine), I still do enjoy the Silver Oak, even without the Milate family Cab, with the eucalyptus note in it.

                  Does it see featured positions in steakhouses? Yes, but not that often the Napa. Still, and with a grilled steak, it can be a lovely wine. I still have a half-case of the Silver Oak Napa from 1997. That Cab sort of thought that it was a refined Zinfandel, and I still enjoy it. More recently? Well, many things have changed. Today, I'd go to the Milat Family Cabs, and relive past glories, but that is just me.


                2. re: pantani

                  Silver Oak is a perfect example. Really gaudy, overpriced swill that relies on past glories to command the high price.

                  1. re: pantani

                    I am sort of in your corner. While I do love to find good wine bargains, I find fewer, and fewer, but then that depends on the varietals involved.

                    Still, I find that my "satisfaction meter" normally kicks in at about US $20 retail, and usually goes up, with the price - with SOME exceptions.

                    When I encounter wines in an upper tier, that misses the mark, then I take responsibility, and make notes for later.

                    In very general terms, I am looking for wines in the US $ 100 -200 range, but have no problem going well below those figures, but depending on the wines, and the food. Much above, and I need a good reason to do so, but with FR white Burgs, have been known to pull out some stops, cash in a few 401K's, and fortunately, have been greatly rewarded. Still, that ain't an every night thing. Same for some red Burgs too - fortunately.

                    Just this week, we had some lower-end wines, at the hotel's restaurant, and in the B-T-G list, that were just fine. We greatly enjoyed each. That made the trip.

                    For me, there are four levels of wine:

                    Good wine
                    Fine wine
                    Great wine

                    And I usually try to ignore the first designation, which is the vast majority of the product. I tend to concentrate on the "good wine," and the "fine wines," but fortunately do get to indulge in the "great wines," but usually as a guest. Those are the wines, that leather-bound books are written about, and are seldom on MY table - but then I am often a "humble guest," of some, that DO offer such.

                    For me, there are many (though the total percentage is much less) of those two middle tiers, and I love to explore them.

                    Still, if I can find some great, multi-fasceted wines in the "good wine" tier, I am overjoyed. The only area, that I am "keeping score," is with the upper tier - the "great wines," but that is only in my mind. For the rest of it, it's about how much I enjoy the wine, and nothing else.


                3. Jonas, I don't think your analogies work particularly well -- they even contradict your own point. The Slate article was geared toward everyday wines for the average person. My bet would be the average person's stuff tilts more toward Target,Timex, etc. than Gucci and Ferrari. I often wear a classically styled Timex watch -- and receive compliments from people who thinks its a vintage timepiece -- even when I dress in my Boss and Armani duds (personally, I find Gucci to be overpriced and geared toward those who are more interested showing they have money rather than taste). I'm a poor golfer, so I would not spend an astronomical sum on clubs that wouldn't improve my game.
                  When it comes to wine, I'll admit it -- once I spend more than about $35-$50, I can't tell any appreciative difference between that price point and a bottle that goes for triple the cost. Usually, I am very happy with a wine in the $20-25 range. Others, such as yourself, may have more refined tastes. So go out there and spend as much as you want -- the Slate article was not geared toward you. It only criticized a certain "self-appointed elite", who condemn those who have simpler (and cheaper) tastes.