HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU PAY FOR WINE?

7 RULES TO FOLLOW WHEN SHOPPING FOR WINE

Patrick, posing for a comic book shot of a confused wine shopper.

As a college kid I cashiered part time in a grocery store, and I remember a married couple spending an hour or more meticulously recording our store's prices in their spiral notebooks. They did this at least once a week.

I nicknamed them Parsimoniouses (as in, Mr. and Mrs. Parsimonious).

Back then, there was no such thing as a smartphone or an app that could scan bar codes, so I can't think how the Parsimoniouses might have comparison shopped any other way than with pen and paper. But I remember wondering, Don't they have anything better to do with their time?

To me, time is worth a ton of money. But even if it wasn't, I can't imagine driving further to save a few pennies on frozen peas, or worse, driving to several different stores in order to take advantage of the lowest possible prices on a number of items, after already driving to each store in order to index all those prices in the first place! What about the cost of gasoline? Wow.

Sometimes when I watch people shop for wine, or hear them talk about shopping for wine, I'm reminded of the Parsimoniouses.

Wine shares many similarities with other products, and there are some smart rules of thumb to follow when comparison shopping, but it's important to bear in mind how wine can be different, even unique.

To me, time is worth a ton of money.

Otherwise, like the Parsimoniouses, you're just wasting your time.

Wine's perceived value varies widely. Few can afford the extravagance of a Chinese mining mogul mixing a champagne like Cristal with orange juice every morning in order to wash down a powdered white rhinoceros horn smoothie.

The rest of us tend to settle on some price point we're willing to drop for an everyday wine, and we keep in mind approximately how much more we're willing to spend for a special occasion wine.

Income plays a role, but not as significant a role as you might imagine: I know lower-income middle class and retired folks who spend large percentages of their disposable income on wine, and I know wealthy folks who comparison shop as doggedly as the Parsimoniouses, determined not to feel ripped off.

So, what should wine cost?

To solve this puzzle, begin by thinking of a bottle of wine like a restaurant.

  • Can you tell the difference? If I can't tell the difference between Burger King and the French Laundry in Napa, I certainly won't spend hundreds of dollars on the French Laundry. And I shouldn't.

  • Do you care about quality? Wine is precisely the same as food, when it comes to quality. If you care enough about quality, you won't eat at Burger King and you won't drink mass-produced jug wines.

One of the biggest mistakes shoppers make is thinking that wine isn't like food when it comes to quality. They'll lovingly prepare an organic locally-sourced vegan meal and then serve it alongside a $2 Cabernet from World Market or Aldi. Understand: most low-priced wines are intended to taste the same every vintage, just like a Whopper is made to taste the same every time you visit the BK drive-thru.

One of the biggest mistakes shoppers make is thinking that wine isn’t like food when it comes to quality.

RULE #1. When it comes to quality, wine is just like food.

RULE #2. Drink what you like.

I'm not saying you shouldn't drink a $2 bottle of wine, and I'm not saying you shouldn't eat fast food. By all means, eat and drink what you like. Be happy! But don't brag about your McRib to someone who just paid $30 for a plate of locally-sourced free range ribs at a high-end restaurant, as though you're the smart one because of how much money you saved.

RULE #3. Price matters, but barely.

Very generally, I would say red wines under $10 of good quality are almost impossible to find.

Some can be found under $20 (more about that below), but the majority of inexpensive wines are mass-produced using methods surprisingly analogous to meats and processed foods.

Between $20 and $30, many red wines of great quality can be found, but you have to know what to look for.

Over $30, it is not guaranteed that the wine is of great quality, and if you can't tell the difference in taste or if you don't have some other reason for spending the money, you're wasting your money.

Over $100 or $150, you need a great many years' experience tasting wine for your palate to discern the truly exceptional qualities justifying that price point. Or, you're just buying a name, like Louis Vuitton. (It's an excellent purse, huh?)

We belong to the Talisman wine club in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County; they produce only small-production, single vineyard Pinot Noir priced between $35 and $90. We not only appreciate the wine's exceptional quality, but we've been to the tasting room and seen photographs of each of the farming families who lovingly cultivate the grapes in different vineyards all over Sonoma County. So there's also an emotional attachment driving us. Given all that, we like Talisman's price points. We don't expect others to agree.

White wines usually cost less to make, meaning that less can be charged for them. So they are not lower-priced because they're less popular or less satisfying. When it comes to beautiful white wine, we like to say the only difference between white and red is that white doesn't stain your sweater.

In fact, star South African winemaker Eben Sadie vows never to sell his whites for less than his reds, because he detests any notion that white is less special than red.

The only difference between white and red is that white doesn’t stain your sweater.

So if pressed for the ideal white wine price points, I would subtract about $5 from each of the above price points. But these numbers are rough enough that without the other rules of thumb below, they're next to useless when comparison shopping.

RULE #4. You can't trust these words on a wine label: "organic" and "natural."

Most of us understand that the word "natural" on food labeling means pretty much nothing at all. You won't have any problem finding "natural" candy corn online this coming Halloween.

I can't claim the word "organic" is much better. When it comes to meat and dairy, I pay attention. Maybe I shouldn't trust it in any context. But the best way to explain why the word "organic" on a bottle of wine is mostly a meaningless marketing word, is to hear it explained by Nick Palumbo, owner and winemaker of Palumbo Family Estates in California's Temecula Valley AVA.

I'll paraphrase.

An invasive insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter (Homalodisca vitripennis) originating in the humid American South continues to threaten vineyards and other crops outside its natural range because it carries Pierce's disease, a bacteria that over time prevents the flow of water and nutrients into the leaves and fruit of a victim plant, ultimately killing it.

The sharpshooter can be prevented with an agent similar to the agent used on a dog's coat in order to destroy fleas. It's not harmful to the wine, and it isn't a synthetic chemical pesticide, but it also prevents the use of the "organic" designation. If instead the winegrowers used arsenic to kill this and other pests, well, arsenic happens to be a naturally-occurring and completely organic compound—and as I'm sure you know, it's toxic to humans, their pets, and most other vertebrates.

The glassy-winged sharpshooter: enemy of wine.

Organic wines aren't necessarily bad. But they're not necessarily good either. When I asked Palumbo what sets his wines apart, he said, "We do what we say we do." In other words, there's no funny business under the radar of regulators and inspectors. If he has time, he's happy to answer any question about his methods.

That's why it's as important to know a winery's story as it is to know a meat processor's story. Wine is just like food, and you have to understand what the various items on the label actually mean.

RULE #5. Whenever possible, know the winery's story. Ask an expert, look it up, or look for clues on the label.

Sometimes we eat bad food that tastes great. Sometimes we drink bad wine that tastes great.

Sometimes you'll see a clever article online arguing that wine doesn't vary enough in quality to justify paying more. It's simply not true. Whenever you can, trust your own research or a wine expert to educate you.

Patrick and I use the word "artisanal" to describe the wineries we most treasure.

Here's what we believe a true artisanal winery looks like: The owner and (or) the winemaker lives on the property, or nearby. The winemaker oversees the cultivation of the vineyards, or trusts farming families to grow the grapes. You can make a bad bottle of wine with good grapes, but you can't make a good bottle of wine with bad grapes. And so the winemaker takes great care when selecting not only the grapes, but also the barrels and other equipment.

Artisanal vineyard managers use every natural means at their disposal to deter pests: everything from plastic owls to owl-houses, from which owls hunt by night and red-winged hawks hunt by day.

You can make a bad bottle of wine with good grapes, but you can’t make a good bottle of wine with bad grapes.

Whenever possible, the winemaker uses methodologies that do not involve artificial additives, whether he's decontaminating a tank or balancing his wine's acidity. Making the wine is his passion, not merely his paycheck. He'll spend as much time and money as he can making his wine with integrity, without toiling in bankruptcy or poverty. And by the way—a growing number of winemakers are "shes"!

How can you tell if a wine fits our definition of artisanal? Visit the winery if you can. Look it up online. And, the label may offer some assistance; for example, by law estate wines are made only with grapes cultivated in that winery's own vineyards.

A single vineyard wine is much likelier to be high quality (and higher priced).

Low-yield vineyards are those in which the grower painstakingly removes clusters from each vine in the spring and early summer, so that the vines will concentrate flavor in fewer clusters. Typically the lower the yield, the better the quality, and the greater the expense.

Hand-sorted means grapes were hand-harvested, then someone stood at the sorting table watching the grapes go by, using their hands to pick out any undesirable clusters. Many low-priced wines aren't sorted at all: a harvesting machine gobbles up all the grapes, along with leaves, branches, insects, spiders, rodents, birds, snakes, and other critters. A machine will separate much of the leaf and stem material. A machine will then press the grapes and critters into juice. A machine will then pour the juice into a giant tank.

No, the pieces of critter do not change the taste of the wine.

And it isn't that machines make wine unhealthy. The point here is that any winemaker going to the time and expense of hand-sorting almost certainly performs many other quality controls.

Sustainable means that the winery is working to eliminate its carbon footprint, for example by using solar or wind to produce its own energy sources. Again, sustainability is no guarantee of quality, but it's a clue about the winery owner's priorities. Some wineries even minimize their electricity consumption with a method called gravity flow, in which the juice flows down from point to point in the winemaking process without the use of an electric pump.

Red wine aged in new French oak barrels means the winery spends $800-1200 on a barrel that can only be used once to make just 22 cases of wine. After that it's not "new" anymore, and its impact on the wine is reduced. Mass-produced wines with oak flavoring acquired it either with the use of some mysterious chemical additive, or because oak chips floated with the wine in giant artificial tanks during fermentation. (Sidebar: barrels greatly influence the flavor and quality of wine, but that'll require another post.)

A wine's label may also boast small production—this is important because like most manufactured products, wine is most profitable sold at small margins in high volume.

Artisanal winemakers control the flavor and alcohol level of their wines by harvesting their grapes at just the right time during late summer or autumn, while a mass produced wine's flavor and alcohol level can be controlled by tossing in sugar (called "chaptalization"). Flavor can also be manipulated by the addition of a wide variety of chemicals, many of them synthetic—which is disconcertingly analogous to the way companies manipulate the flavor of cheap processed food.

The word "family" is another word used to confuse consumers. In Nick Palumbo's case it really is a family-owned and operated winery. But there's nothing to prevent someone living thousands of miles away from a huge mass-production facility and slapping the word "family" into the name on the label.

RULE #6. Notice the wine's origin.

It probably makes sense that different wine regions around the world produce different types and quantities of wine, and that these different regions can also differ in quality. What's not well understood by the average consumer, however, is that these regions differ less in quality than their reputations would suggest. Translation: they differ less in quality than they do in price.

Just like clothes, sometimes you're paying for the label more than anything else.

Napa is the best example. Expect to pay more, particularly if it's Cabernet Sauvignon. An acre of Cabernet grapes from Napa is worth many times more than an acre of grapes from anywhere else in California, and while that's often deserved, it doesn't mean you can't find a gorgeous Cabernet from Chile for one-third the price. On the other hand, that's not to say there isn't something unique and gorgeous about a high-end Napa Cab that few other winemakers working in other regions can ever hope to produce. The point is: can you tell the difference? If you can, how much do you care? And can you put a price tag on how much you care?

Good French wine tends to be more expensive than others, for a couple of reasons: (1) French law dictates that winemakers cannot "do things" to their wine the way American winemakers can. They're not even allowed to water; it's called dry-farming. And if the label says the wine is biodynamic, that means the farmer is following an old European practice of treating a vineyard as an ecosystem of interrelated parts not to be manipulated by artificial means, nor with animals or substances alien to the appellation (like arsenic, or yaks).

Admittedly there isn't much difference between "biodynamic" and true "organic" practice, but the USDA label cannot be trusted to measure true organic practice until the feds institute more aggressive regulation.

(2) High end French wine, like high end Napa wine, tends to be more in demand, particularly in Chinese high society, which drives up the price artificially. Compete with your fellow buyers as you like.

Chances are, if you find a wine for $30 you love from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Chile, or a lesser-known region, you're buying a fantastic wine. That's one of the best rules of thumb we've got, because we've found it to be more reliable than not.

RULE #7: That "best price" app on your phone isn't telling the truth.

We know folks who use a bar code scanner app on their smartphones to show them the average price of a bottle of wine. What's wrong with that?

(1) In retail some products are loss leaders, meaning that a retailer will sell them at a loss in order to get you into the store (or into the online store). They're hoping you'll buy something else in addition, or instead. Generally only large corporate entities can afford to take a loss on some percentage of their products in order to dominate an industry and drive out smaller competitors. And only large corporate entities can afford the kind of expensive software that will manipulate pricing on a minute-to-minute basis the way the airlines do. The result of these practices? Deceptively low prices that are figured into the average price you see popping up on your phone.

"So what?" you may be asking. I'll tell you what:

(2) Some of the loss leaders mentioned above are listed at a low price, but out of stock, again to entice you into the store in search of other super deals. But that doesn't mean the wines were priced the same when they were in stock.

And:

(3) If the wine is less than half as expensive in France or Germany, especially in the case of European wines not needing to be shipped overseas, that price is also figured into the average price you see popping up on your phone. So that Gran Reserva Rioja available in Lisbon for $12 is not going to cost you $12 unless you buy a plane ticket and fly to Lisbon.

And:

(4) The kinds of high quality, low production wines we're talking about may have only one retail outlet offering them. For example, the wine shop in Sacramento offering the wine at a super price can only be considered a good baseline if you're willing to drive there and pay less. And again, the wine may be out of stock.

So really smartphone price apps are only useful for wine if you're comparing the prices of mass-marketed fast food wines. Who knows? You might save a dime or even a quarter. But isn't your time worth more than that?

RULE #8: Make it a journey instead of a shopping list item.

If you read this far, you clearly love wine. I weep for the souls who treat wine like a shopping list item alongside "milk" and "ibuprofen."

There's a world of wine out there. Chances are, your palate has not fully blossomed and realized its potential. Chances are, many wine regions, each with its own wine and its own cuisine and its own story, await your discovery. Join a social wine club. Start one! Or, buy a plane ticket.

If you're not having fun, the wine's being wasted.

Even if you enjoy absolute certainty about what you like, even if you don't want to try new things, you can still educate yourself about what you do like, and the different wineries that make it, and how those wineries produce what you like in different ways.

Stop worrying so much about what happens to be on sale at the Piggly Wiggly.

Salut!