Wine: Beauty is in the Eye of the Sipper?

The wine industry may be having an identity crisis. I came across two articles recently, on either end of a very hot debate: Should we drink cheap wine?

When drinking cheap, do you pay less because it’s a low quality product? Or have we been erroneously convinced that low price and high quality are mutually exclusive?

Brian Palmer’s article “Drink Cheap Wine” cites some very interesting changes in the pricing of wine in recent decades. In 1995, 59 percent of wine purchased in the US was sold for under $3. By 2006, it was down to 29 percent. During this period in which wine consumption was increasing rapidly, so was the market share of higher priced wine, with wines over $14 more than quadrupling their share.

Palmer goes on to explain that recent studies have revealed that “our appreciation of a wine depends on how much we think it costs.” Such studies reproduce what Ernest Gallo (who helped popularize wine among Americans) experimented with casually: people will favor wines they are told cost more…even if the products are exactly the same.

Furthermore, Palmer refers to the “piles of studies” that show that the average wine sipper can’t distinguish between cheap and expensive wines in a blind taste test. According to Palmer, it’s the elite connoisseurs with trained palates who have designated which traits entitle a bottle to more money. Traits that us regular folks likely won’t notice, and won’t necessarily find desirable.

Palmer asserts that if you can break yourself of the “psychological quirk” of equating high price with high quality, “you’ll save a small fortune.”

But don’t go buying out Trader Joes’ supply of $2.99 Charles Shaw just yet. Jon Bonné offers a counterargument to Palmer’s claims in a conspicuously titled article, “The False Promise of Cheap Wine.” Bonné asserts that cheap wine is just that, cheap. The reason why Charles Shaw is able to keep its “Two Buck Chuck” moniker is because its makers cut costly quality and substitute cheap shortcuts.

These shortcuts include such additives as “Mega Purple” (sounds gross, right?) which darkens the color of red wine, gives a sweeter finish and makes an inconsistent product taste more uniform. The practice of adding Mega Purple makes a product more akin to soda than wine.

Bonné calls out Palmer’s article specifically, stating, “And that, ultimately, is what the ‘Drink Cheap Wine’ brigade is advocating: industrial wine that is the equivalent of a Big Mac or Velveeta.” Bonné states that we are buying more expensive wines, not because of manipulation by the wine industry, but because Americans’ tastes for wine has matured.

So which is it? I say somewhere in the middle.

Palmer makes a good point in his article by questioning whether “good” has any objective meaning. I’ve had good and bad experiences with both cheap and expensive wines alike.

While I may have to sift a bit through the world of cheap wine to find one I want to buy again, a cheap bottle be just as likely to cater to my preferences as an expensive bottle.

Of course I expect expensive wine to deliver a high quality experience more frequently than cheap wine. But will paying $25 and beyond guarantee that I will actually like it? Is it worth it to shell out more money for an expensive bottle, when there’s a cheaper bottle I like just fine?

While I don’t want to be drinking Mega Purple, affordable wine isn’t all terrible. Especially not to my novice palate. I’ll continue to make cheap selections cautiously. And I’ll continue to buy whichever wines are pleasing to my unique taste preferences, cheap or expensive.

But I don’t think I’ll ever shun cheap wine entirely, à la Bonné. I may gamble and lose on cheap wine, but at least I’ll have bet a small wager.

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One thought on “Wine: Beauty is in the Eye of the Sipper?

  1. Steve Noufer says:

    I agree. it’s somewhere in the middle. There’s no question that our perception is colored by the cost of the wine. However, I think there is some correlation between quality and price. Not a perfect correlation, which is why I’m always on the prowl for the high quality cheap wine.

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