The wine dilemma — does cost equal quality?

Barolo 1859

As I travel around our stores and talk with wine drinkers at every level of experience, there are a few questions that invariably come up, one of the major ones being – Does cost really equal quality with wine?

            It’s very easy to be wow-ed by the higher-priced wines. Licking our lips, we stare at the bottles of Ch. Lafite-Rothschild (at around $800 a bottle) or Penfold’s Grange (at about $400) resting securely behind glass in a temperature-controlled room or unit in our local ABC Wine Country wine store.  We squirm with anticipation at the Roederer Cristal Champagne or the Gaja Barbaresco or the Diamond Creek Napa Valley Cabernet, and try to imagine how good these wines can be; how wonderful it would be to have the ready cash to be able to buy them on a regular basis, or even just once, just to say we’d done it! Could they really be so much better than the $12 wines we drink most evenings?

Well, of course the answers to these questions will be largely subjective. If you happen to have a few million dollars to hand and you truly love Petrus, then yes, the cost will probably equal the quality to you. On the other hand, if your pocket and taste preference runs to a California Hearty Burgundy, probably it will not.

The fact is that while all of the wines I mentioned in the second paragraph (plus the Petrus, of course) are truly superb, a wine’s cost is not so much an indicator of quality as it is an indicator of rarity. Think about it – a renowned vineyard or winery can only grow so many grapes and make so much wine in any given vintage. It’s not like a distillery or brewery where if you’re running low you simply buy more ingredients and make more (with all due respect to the differences in hops, barley, and their origins). If you want to purchase and taste the results of a given harvest from a particular vineyard, and enough other people want to do the same, then you’ll have to pay their price.

But it’s important to remember, too, that wine is a living thing, and just as most people wouldn’t choose just one kind of music to fit all of their moods, or expect all of their friends to think and act exactly the same, so different wines fit different occasions. (I have a friend who wants every wine to be a Mahler symphony – big, bold, intense, and grand. But surely wine, like music, should be chosen to fit the mood or requirements of the moment. I don’t always want to sit for two hours pondering the universe of a Mahler symphony. Sometimes I prefer the light airiness of a Bach Sarabande, or the mellow sadness of a Frank Sinatra ballad, or the aggressive rambunctious-ness of Audioslave. So it is with wine, too.)

So by all means buy that bottle of Clos de Vougeot if you can afford it – its very rarity will turn the moment into an occasion. But remember that there are many mid-priced and even downright inexpensive wines of excellent quality that are perfect for everyday drinking – wonderful fresh and crisp young whites that sizzle on the tongue and are perfect for the patio or as aperitifs; delightful dry rosés that pair perfectly with warm sunshine and lunchtime meals; and pleasant easy-drinking reds just made for outdoor grilling or easygoing consumption with friends.

It’s all in the eye of the beholder!

Bill Stobbs, Wine Supervisor, West Coast

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