This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Friday, Jul. 27, 2012 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20120727.php.
Is $20 the new $10?
Since I started writing about wine in the early 1980s, about the only fluid I can think of that has increased in price as much as wine is gasoline; and that, now that I think about it, is a fairly close race.
In my early years writing a wine column for the late, lamented Louisville Times, a local merchant once told me that only the most remarkable wines would persuade most consumers to part with more than $6 for a bottle. Later in the decade, that "threshold of resistance" price rose to $8, then $10; by the end of the millennium people who had objected to $6 wine were now willingly paying $25 or $30 or more for the good stuff.
More significantly, perhaps, from a world in which a wealth of excellent wine could be had for $5 or less, the minimum point for pleasurable vino gradually went up to $7 or $8, then $10, and nowadays - even in the grip of an enduring recession - it's hard to find really excellent wine under $10 or perhaps even $15.
I've always tried to push back against this tide. While I'm never willing to sacrifice quality for the sake of a buck or two, I've largely devoted this newsletter and its parent website, WineLoversPage.com, to the quest for what wine "geeks" like to call "QPR": Quality-Price Ratio, that sweet spot where the lines of quality and value cross at what might be called a bargain or best buy.
It's no coincidence that I launched this publication in 1993 as "The Wine Bargain Page," a concept that endures even if I later changed it to "WineLovers Page" to reflect a broader reach that might take in wine at any level, but still focused on value and a special celebration for the elusive bargain bottle.
With this as background, you can imagine that I clicked right through when Eric Asimov's New York Times wine column, "The Pour," came out this week with the headline "Wine's QPR "sweet spot" around $20?"
Asimov asked, "What's the right price for a bottle of wine? Silly question, I know. All sorts of prices are right, depending on the quality of the wine, the scarcity, the demand and other economic, social and psychological imperatives. Strictly speaking, a wine can be a great value at $10 or $200, though for most of us, a steal at $200 is small consolation, like a $5 million apartment deemed an excellent deal because its price has dropped by half."
So far I was right there with him. But then he caught me up short: "Beyond the realm of the theoretical, though, there are wine bull's-eyes where high values intersect with low prices. On the low end, that sweet spot ranges from $15 to $25; practically speaking, let's call it $20."
That jerked me up short. I'm still laboring under the opinion that $10 is doable and $15 easy. But $20? That's starting to sound like real money. I posted the question on our WineLovers Discussion Group and, somewhat to my surprise, found general agreement with Asimov.
Several wine forum participants pointed out that favorites they consider QPR values have gradually risen from $12 or so to $20 over the past decade, including such goodies as Baudry La Grange and J.P. Brun Beaujolais from France, Donnhoff's QbA from Germany and Edmunds St. John's entry-level wines from California.
Yes, you can still find palatable wine for less. But is "palatable" good enough? Asimov thinks not. "Not for me," he wrote. "I want wine that excites me, that feels so good to drink that one sip urges on the next and the next after that. I want a wine that tells a story of a place and a people and a culture, that is not the predictable equivalent of a franchise restaurant but more like a little mom-and-pop's, where you're not always sure what you'll find but you know it can have the capacity to inspire.
"You might be able to find a bottle like that for $10. But it's rarer than you think. At $15 to $25, though, the odds swing decidedly in your favor. With a little experience, you can find dozens of joyous bottles, plucked carefully from the ranks of the routine."
I couldn't improve on Asimov's advice for finding those elusive bargains: Avoid the pricey, sought-after styles, Napa Cabernet, Barolo or genuine Champagne; even quality Burgundy is largely off the list, he says, although I'm still an advocate of Bourgogne Pinot Noir from the more reliable shippers.
Rather, look for the regions off the beaten track - this is a drum I've been beating for years - looking to the less-sought-after wine regions and grape varieties, or those that shun formal appellation in favor of "vin de table" and its cousins.
Here's Asimov's list of "20 memorable bottles for $20." "To read his full column, click here. (May require a New York Times print or digital subscription).
20 MEMORABLE BOTTLES FOR $20
Asimov has the advantage of working in New York City, with access to perhaps the world's best selection of retail wine. If you're in a wine desert, you might try using Wine-Searcher.com's search engine to plug in a key word or two from each wine name to find vendors.
Wrapping things up, I sought out a $20 bottle of my own for this week's featured wine, and came home with an excellent pick from Oregon, Van Duzer 2008 "Vintner's Cuvée" Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($20.99). Cutting to the chase, this appealing Pinot showed the kind of delicious, intriguing complexity that helps justify the difference between a $10 wine and a $20 wine. You'll find my tasting notes below.
I'll keep looking for the occasional exceptions. Meanwhile, I'd love to know what you think. Drop me an Email at email@example.com to let me know where you find the sweet spot between quality and price.
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Today's Tasting Report
Van Duzer 2008 "Vintner's Cuvée" Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($20.99)
Dark garnet with a clear edge and reddish-orange glints against the light. Fresh aromas of black cherries, bramble fruit and subtle spice lead into a mouth-filling blast of ripe cherry-berry fruit and mouth-watering acidity, with a rational, food-friendly 13% alcohol. There's a lot of action here, but it's held in balance, not over the top; the kind of delicious, intriguing complexity that helps justify the difference between a $10 wine and a $20 wine. (July 26, 2012)
FOOD MATCH: Typical of quality Pinot Noir, it's versatile with a range of fare. The classics are beef, poultry or pork, wild mushroom dishes, aromatic cheeses and wild salmon; we enjoyed it with a summer dinner of fried chick'n and, with surprising success, a caprese salad with Italian heirloom tomatoes and basil from the garden and fresh mozzarella.
WHEN TO DRINK: Made from young fruit for early enjoyment, it's drinking very well now, and I don't see it going around the bend soon, although given that it's four years past the vintage, I'd probably drink up over the next two or three years rather than holding it for the long term. Note that the 2009 vintage is now in the system; don't hesitate to buy it instead.
VALUE: Complexity, balance and palate appeal make a strong case for this $20 price.
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