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From the Vine: Sometimes, Less Is More

by on August 31, 2017 11:34 AM

I have been tasting wine for a long time. For years I was the managing director for Club Wine International in Chicago, a mail order wine club where members received two bottles of the same varietal wine each month, one domestic and one import. To make those monthly selections, we often tasted as many as 40 wines in an afternoon.

After moving to State College, I became the wine director and restaurant manager at Harrison’s Wine Grill, where I created and maintained the wine list as well as taught wine classes. I also ran weekly wine tastings every Wednesday during my tenure there. Since those days at Harrison’s, I have worked in other restaurants, maintained a committed wine-tasting group that meets at least every other week, and have continued to write this wine column for Town and Gown.

All these endeavors required attentive wine tasting, which really is different than wine drinking (though tasting often leads to drinking…). Thoughtfully assessing wine and identifying flavors and character takes focus, attention, and frankly, practice in doing so. What is gained by this attention is a better understanding of wine in general, and what to expect from certain grapes, certain producers, and certain wine regions. I’m a better consumer (in more ways than one) because I have a better idea of what I like and what wine might work best in certain situations. I feel confident in my ability to pair wine with food, and where to look for what I want, both in terms of the type of wine I want at a given moment and how to find it in the state store system.

        But what about price? How does one determine if paying more for a bottle of wine is worth it? Does a higher price tag mean a better wine?

Objectively we know that just because a wine is expensive doesn’t mean it’s better. Many factors contribute to a wine’s price, not the least of which is the region in which the wine is grown. Napa Valley real estate is expensive — you’d be hard-pressed to find a wine from Napa under $10 no matter how good or bad the wine is. Producers have to charge an amount that is economically viable for them. Supply and demand also plays into the price factor. Spain produces an abundance of wine, so much so that the price of Spanish wine is significantly lower than their California counterparts.

        Vintage conditions also play into a wine’s price and quality-to-price ratio. If a region has a very good year where the majority of vineyards are able to produce high-quality fruit, then even less skilled winemakers have a chance of making a better wine because they are starting out with very good grapes. Less expensive wines can be of high value because of the vintage conditions. (Conversely, in a year where there are less-than-optimal growing conditions, a skilled winemaker can truly show his craft by making a good wine out of less-than-optimal fruit.)

Regardless of the reasons that wine prices vary, a different question challenged our wine-tasting group (together for about eight years now): Can you tell the difference between a $15 wine and a $30 wine? If you can tell the difference, is the more expensive wine worth the extra money?

We set out to answer these questions at several of our gatherings over the past few months. Our first attempt was pretty academic — to make sure we were comparing apples to apples, we tasted pairs of wines made from the same grape, same region, and same vintage but were at least $15 in price variance, and we tasted the wines blind (not knowing which was which). We found this to be a more difficult task than we would have thought, because it turned out to be quite difficult to meet those parameters we had set up, being able to search only in the local state stores. 

Red wines that hover around the $15-range are usually from the most recent vintage or two, but wines that are in the over $30-range tended to be older wines. It was slightly easier to find white wines that met our criterion, since white wines are generally consumed young, but there really aren’t that many white wines on the state store shelves that run over $35. Those that do tended to be from places like Burgundy, where it was difficult to find a low-end offering from the exact same region. So, for white wines, the price differential between the two wines we tasted tended to be more like $10 than $15 or more. And after the first tasting session, we loosened the parameters so that keeping the region and the grape were the most important criteria, with vintage being less important. This made finding wines to compare a lot easier, and, while I think all three criteria are equally important, we were relegated to using what was available to us.

Regardless of the perfection (or lack thereof) of the parameters, these tastings turned out to be among the most interesting we’ve ever conducted. To taste two Merlots from the same region at different price points and try to figure out which one was more expensive was an eye-opener for all of us. Because sometimes, some of us would say that while we thought No. 1 was more expensive, we may have preferred No. 2, which is a weird position to find yourself in; you’re basically saying, ‘I think this wine has something about it that makes it cost more, but I actually don’t prefer it.’ Alternatively, there were times folks picked out the most expensive one and it was the one they preferred.

But the most fun of all came when the majority found the more expensive one less appealing than the less expensive one, which engenders a real feeling of victory: “I found a great value wine!” And sometimes, the result was simply that we were able to identify the more expensive wine, but didn’t think it was worth paying almost double for, i.e., while we could agree it was a better wine, it wasn’t $15 better.

And these were all good things to explore and learn.

The weirdest part of this experiment for me personally was how often I was incorrect about which wine was more expensive. I have been working hard to develop my palate. I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to discern which wines cost more — I felt certain it should be more obvious to me, considering my tasting experience. I took it as a bit of an ego blow that I wasn’t better at this game. And what does it mean, that I can’t identify a more expensive wine from a less expensive wine? If they cost more, shouldn’t they be better made, and shouldn’t I be able to tell? Are they “better made”? Does it even matter, since I can clearly find less expensive wines that satisfy my palate?

We will likely continue to hold these “high-low” tastings every couple of months or so. They were a lot of fun to do — the tasting, the discussion, the voting, the unveiling. (On a side note, discussion among tasters can change minds — the next time, we may have to hold the tasting in silence until everyone has committed to their opinions!).

On the bright side, my husband and I have figured out that we are pretty content to drink $15 wines, so I guess that’s a score for us!

Lucy Rogers teaches wine classes and offers private wine tastings through Wines by the Class. She also is the event coordinator for Zola Catering.
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