The cover story for the current issue of the Wine Spectator states that we are currently in a buyer's market for wine. Because of the current economic downturn, drinkers are spending less on individual bottles of wine, but buying more wine than ever. From my perspective, as a retailer, that is both good and bad news. Sure, I'd prefer that people bought more mid-range wines than say the best buy brands that seem to be the current rage. Fortunately, more solidly-made wines are being sold today, than at any other time in recent memory. Wine technology being what it is, it's fairly easy to find inexpensive wines that deliver plenty of up-front flavor, and that go well with simple fare. But what I find a little unsettling is that a lot of wine consumers are ONLY willing to buy wines under or at, let's say $10.99. So, what do you actually get at that price point? For the most part, you get grapes sourced from non-appellation designated regions (e.g., California, Southeastern Australia, or French Vin de Pays); larger crop yields; youthful, unoaked wines, or if oak aging is required, the substitution of expensive oak barrels, with oak chips or staves, that are suspended in the fermentation tank to impart some level of oak flavoring. Essentially, you are getting alcoholic grape juice, somewhat lacking in structure, nuance or complexity of flavor. Of course, it can and in most cases does taste good. And, if you are happy with that, great!
What I am proposing is taking the next step, and asking you to select wine that hover in the $15.99 range. It's not a huge monetary leap, and the dividends are noticeable. Here you often do get wines that are appellation specific; aged in oak barrels, albeit for less time that what normally passes for "reserve" wines; lower crop yields; therefore, higher levels of concentration; and probably, more hands on wine making. I remember seeing the Jacob's Creek winery in the Barossa, and marveling at what seemed to be more akin to a petrochemical plant than a winery: a veritable forest of stainless steel fermentation tanks, catwalks and pipes everywhere. Although Jacob's Creek wines are tasty; I'd rather drink something from a more modestly-scaled enterprise. It only stands to reason when you're producing such vast quantities of juice, you're going to end up with something perfectly adequate, but far from stellar. If nothing else, you'd better have a very rigorous quality control system in place when it comes to grape selection, since, in all likely hood, you're sourcing grapes from a lot of different growers, with varying degrees of quality.
So, next time you decide to pick up a bottle of Red Truck California Red for $9.99, pick up a bottle of the Hook & Ladder Sonoma County, Russian River Valley "The Tillerman" Red Wine, instead ($16.99), and you'll get twice the wine, and a great finish.