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Why wines range from $2.99 to $250 or more
© by April Eichmeier
When I exercise, I watch food TV shows. I get a kick out of the irony between battling my hips while learning how to become every 16th-Century man's dream. A woman on the machine next to me doubted the wisdom on TV, so she asked me what makes a wine worth a mortgage payment, when, for heaven's sake, some are less than a good six-pack.

It struck me - why do some wines cost more? After I gave her the quick and dirty on wine prices, I got off the d*mn machine and got right to the computer.

Price is determined by a myriad of factors - each factor has its own pull. Although this list is not exhaustive, here are some of the factors to get you started.

Grape quality. In the cornfields of Iowa, high yield is good; in the vineyards, high yield is bad. When a vine yields lots of grapes, the flavor in the grapes tend to be less concentrated, thus the wine tends to be less flavorful. Jug wines, which are plenty, are made from vines that produce plenty of grapes. More expensive wines come from vines that produce small amounts of grapes. You may hear the term "vineyard management" the term for how vines are coaxed to yield a desired quantity.

Weather. A sunny, warm summer generally means well-matured grapes. A wet and cool summer will stifle maturation. Wines made from immature grapes will be of a lesser quality, and generally less expensive. The weather at harvest is important as well - a deluge of rain at peak maturity will water down grapes. These variances are why wines are labeled with the "vintage" (the year). This is what oenophiles mean when they say "a good year in Wherever."

Slope. Some of the best wines are made from wines that grow on slopes that face south (or north in the Southern Hemisphere). Slope allow for drainage; southern (or northern) exposures get the most sunshine (important at night, too, for the soil stays warmer longer which is good for the roots).

Quantity. Simple economics; a matter of supply and demand. A wine that is easy to get will be less expensive than a wine that is hard to get (like Screaming Eagle anything). Some wineries limit release just to take advantage of this phenomenon. Sometimes an easy-to-fine wine receives good press - people clamor for it, supply goes down - and prices rise (1997 St. Suprey Cabernet comes to mind).

"Reserve." Sometimes a winery will "reserve" a wine before releasing it, allowing the wine to develop more complexity. Logically, this makes the wine better and (therefore) more expensive. You may have noticed that wine from Italy or Spain is older when it reaches the shelves - to the Italians and Spanish, holding the wine is part and parcel. Americans tend to want immediate return on investment. (Incidentally, Europeans are releasing their wines much earlier than they used to.) Beware, though, "reserve" has no legal meaning in the United States.

Single-vineyard. Don't ask me the logic behind this, but you're gonna pay more for a wine that comes from one specific vineyard (ahh, yes, the "The X Vineyard") rather than a blend of vineyards. I'm relatively sure that this is part marketing, part careful vineyard management.

Last, and certainly not least...

Name. Fine - I said it. You're going to pay more for your wine, vino, Wein, or vin from a well-respected, well-established, well-known winery, cantina, Weinkellerei, or chateau. Just like you pay more for designer jeans than the plain ol' store brand. Don't let a name fool you, there are some great wines that are not as well known, and remember that some wines with great names may be overpriced. A reputable wine retailer will price fairly, however.

Now I'm going back to the Stairmaster, this is, after a glass of my single-vineyard, high profile wine made from low-yielding vines on a slop that faced south. Maybe I won't make it back to the Stairmaster.

April 25, 2001

To contact April Eichmeier, write her at aeichmeier@hotmail.com.

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