I’m a big fan of metaphors. I guess it’s because they elicit an emotional reaction that enables you to better express how something feels that you have difficulty putting into words.Well, every time I go out to a nice restaurant, I am reminded of the LaserJet printers in my office. You know, the printers that cost as little as $50, until you have to buy your first set of $129 ink cartridges!
Yes, the printer is your meal, the product of ingenuity, creativity and an understanding of what people really want. Unfortunately, the ink is the wine. It is an essential companion to the meal, but it is usually the single most expensive item on your ticket. And just like wine, the ink always seems to run out far too soon.
WITH WINE, MORE IS LESS… MORE OR LESS
Having travelled extensively around the world, I can say with a measure of confidence that my metaphor works far better in America than other parts of the world where wine is viewed much more as a necessity than a luxury item. There are exceptions.
Certainly, in places like France where collectors have created a market for luxury wines that are nearly unobtainable by mortals, you will see spectacular vintages on wine lists that will send you into cardiac arrest, metaphorically speaking. But you will also discover that the house wines and many other offerings on the list are sensibly priced and surprisingly sumptuous.
In America, far too often, budget wines are scarcely a good value. After all, if a wine brings you no pleasure, it isn’t worth a penny.
While most countries produce some form of bulk wine, in America, the lion’s share of affordable wine is produced millions of gallons at a time. Yes, it’s drinkable and even satisfying at times, but it’s far better suited for tailgate parties and backyard barbeques than fine dining at a restaurant or a dinner party at home. We Americans excel at producing things in great volume; whether it’s buying pancake syrup in 55 gallon drums at a big box club store or taking pride in serving umpteen zillion customers under the golden arches. Wine is a massive business in America, and the corporatizing of our favorite adult beverage has divided wine into two camps: cheap, bulk and boring versus exceptional and expensive.
“MEDIOCRE” IS A POLITICALLY CORRECT WAY OF SAYING “BAD”
Now before you accuse me of being too black and white about all this, let me voluntarily admit that there is plenty of middle ground that I am glossing over to keep things simple. However, true wine lovers tend to have a great deal of distain when it comes to mediocre wine. I have one and only one position when it comes consuming wine that I really don’t love or, at a minimum, appreciate… I DON’T DRINK IT AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU! I have devoted the entire second half of my life to helping wine enthusiasts finds great wines at great values. If the price of your wine consistently overshadows the price of your meal and that disparity doesn’t work well with your entertainment budget. It’s time to get a new game plan.
AWESOME WINES HIDE IN THE DARNDEST PLACES!
As the Stones’ hit aptly points out, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need. That statement was never truer than in the world of wine where the wines you really love are easy to sip but hard to swallow from a budget perspective. But that’s not the end of the world. It’s the beginning of an adventure. But here is a multifaceted strategy that is absolutely foolproof:
Cabernet may be king, but there is no shortage of royalty in the family. Hence, if an $80 Napa Cab is on your “If I only could” list, all you need to do is check out some of the other family members.m Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the most popular red wine in the world… a position of prominence that is well deserved. Made right, it is rich in flavor, elegant but complex, strong in character, but gentle as a domesticated leopard. Cabernet is the most popular member of the Bordeaux family of wines from the French wine region of the same name. However, it is a family that has not been without scandal. The family’s history of scandal began when Cabernet Sauvignon was conceived. He was the love child born out of an illicit affair between cousins Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
DON’T TURN UP YOUR NOSE TO THE OTHER BORDEAUXS
At a very young age, Cabernet Sauvignon began to overshadow his famous father and ascend to prominence. Cousin Malbec, the free-spirited member of the family, not content to live in Cabernet Sauvignon’s shadow, defected to South America where he rose to superstardom. And Merlot, once a fierce rival to Cabernet Sauvignon, brought shame to the family when he was ridiculed in an American movie and lost his enormous fan base to arch rival Pinot Noir.
With celebrity comes money and today, quality Cabernets command top dollar… and that’s great news for wine lovers because, even though other family members like Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot possess many of the same distinctive qualities of Cabernet Sauvignon. They usually sell for a less. So when the price of quality Cab forces you to say “no,” another Bordeaux may be the way to go!
THOSE MARVELOUS MALBECS!
Can you name the French expatriate that has given a huge boost to the economies of Argentina and Chile? You might just find the answer in your wine cellar… If you happen to have one.
Napoleon was a French General who nearly conquered the world. But the latest French conqueror is neither loathed nor short in stature. In fact, this French native’s rise to “grapeness” has been celebrated, and used for celebration, all over the world… especially in South America. Any Guesses? Let’s just say he was no match for his French Bordeaux cousins… the likes of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Malbec was the free spirit of the family. In Bordeaux he grew like a weed but was a lot better at producing vines than quality fruit. That is, until he decided to leave Europe and take up roots in South America.
It turns out that the climate of South American locales like Chile and Argentina offered far better conditions to produce the perfectly ripened fruit to make marvelous Malbec that shines on its own rather than being relegated to a blending grape that no one ever noticed
Today, Malbec’s popularity is undeniable… and it is giving other reds a serious run for their money. Spend $20 on an Argentine Malbec and you’ll be very pleased. Spend $30 to $40 and you’ll be amazed! For marvelous Bordeaux on a budget, say “Make mine a Malbec!”
TOUR THE WORLD IN A BOTTLE
As a huge and loyal fan of American made wine–especially Californian–it’s hard for me to say what I’m about to tell you… but wine is a cultural experience after all, and getting adventurous can really pay great dividends! Wine is one of the few things that almost every country has in common. Each bottle, each varietal, is an expression of the place and conditions under which it was made. In the wine business, it is called “terroir.” Experiencing different terroirs not only opens up endless doors to wines with characteristics you may have never imagined; it is also an excellent way to take advantage of the power of the US Dollar.
In America, we are blessed with some of the finest wines on the planet, especially from California where more than 90% of the wines consumed domestically are produced. Unfortunately, economic considerations and demand in general do drive up prices well beyond what many can reasonably afford.
HERE’S WHERE TO LOOK FOR GREAT WINE VALUES
In South America, land and labor are a fraction of the cost in California. However, many of the greatest winemakers from California, France and other great wine regions are deeply involved in wine production.
Wines from Spain, Italy and much of France are available at well below California prices. They are different wines, but there is no shortage of quality. Your dollar will work as much as 50% harder in Europe right now.
Big bargains abound in both Australia and New Zealand; and these wines will taste more familiar to you. Think Australian Cabernets and Shiraz (we call it Syrah). From New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are all the rage for good reason. Be careful of mass produced wines that could be disappointing. It pays to do a little research.
If you’re a fan of bright white wines, consider South Africa, where a tiny price will get you a Chenin Blanc that will be irresistible. Red wines from this part of the world are trickier, so taste before you waste. It’s not a matter of good or bad, but rather a stylistic difference that, in my experience, doesn’t always suit the American palate.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT TEQUILA AND BEER ANYMORE!
South of the American border, there’s a lot of awesome wine being made. The Baja California wine industry is on fire right now and many of these wines are shockingly good, some made under the guidance of renowned winemakers from America and beyond, and the prices are ridiculously low. No, Mexico is not just about tequila and great beer anymore, however, the amazing craftsmanship that now goes into making astonishing tequila and beer has clearly spilled over to the blossoming wine industry. Prepare to be amazed.
WINE LOVERS: WE WELCOME SUBSTITUTIONS
Even though you may be set in your ways when it comes to your favorite wine varietals, a little open mindedness could really save you a ton of money AND broaden your horizons! Though opinions may vary when it comes to identifying the most popular varietals consumed in America, I think the following list is pretty accurate:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Chenin Blanc
- White Zinfandel
- Champagne and Sparkling
If you’re willing to consider other wines that may be both less expensive and a taste treat for your palate. Here are some of the substitutions that I commonly make or suggest to others:
For Cabernet Lovers, consider any of the other Bordeauxs, including Merlot which is a great bargain right now, Malbec, Nero D’Avola from Italy, Touriga Nacional from Portugal, Aglianico and Lagrein which are also from Italy and Carmenere from Chile.
Good Pinot is quite expensive right now, so consider Italian Dolcetto and Sangiovese, French Gamay and a personal favorite, Grenache from California or France.
Though Merlot really is a great bargain now and a terrific alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon, you might consider the nicely price Tempranillo from Spain or California, Syrah or Shiraz from various locales, plumy Malbec from Argentina and Mouvedre, a varietal that deserves a lot more respect than it is getting.
Zinfandel prices continue to climb and if you want to save a bit, try it’s Italian twin brother, Primitivo, Malbec, Grenache, Shiraz from Australia, and if you can get it, Plavac Mali from Croatia… the granddaddy of Zin.
For Chardonnay lovers, there are tons of choices. My personal favorites are Albarinos from Northwestern Spain or California, Roussanne from France’s Rhone Valley or California, Torrontes from Argentina or California, or Vouvray from the French region of the same name, which is actually Chenin Blanc. Of course, Sauvignon Blanc aged in Oak is also a less expensive Chardonnay alternative.
Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Muscat/Moscatto are already nicely priced so go for the very best as they will not break the bank.
Sauvignon Blanc can be pricier, so you should definitely check out the more tropically-tinted ones made in New Zealand. Beyond that, don’t miss out on Austrian Gruner Veltliner, Argentinian Torrontes, French Chablis which is made from Chardonnay and Albarino once again.
If there is any takeaway from this lesson, it should be this. Popular can often mean “pricey,” but never forget that there are literally thousands of varietals out there for you to choose from, and there has never been a time when exploring the options has been as popular.
There is no end to the excellent wine values out there and the less understood these wines are by the general public, the less you will to pay for a bottle or glass. As the younger and more adventurous generations do all they can to satisfy their wine curiosity, there’s little doubt that the bargains will evaporate, so the best advise I can offer is to get while the getin’s good!
This is the greatest moment in history for wine lovers!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, DAVID WILSON
David Wilson is the host of America’s leading wine radio broadcast, Grape Encounters and the nationally syndicated feature UNCORKED. David’s wine shows are heard coast-to-coast daily, and his listener base on the air and online exceeds well over a million. David and his wife Annie also operate the Grape Encounters Empourium, one of the most unique wine bars in America in the California Central Coast wine country. Author, entertainer, educator wine judge, wine maverick and lush, David loathes pretentiousness and has cultivated a massive audience of like-minded listeners who share his desire to deviate from convention.