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Is cheap wine bad for the wine business?

That’s the question W. Blake Gray poses:

“[I]n 10 years Bronco has sold 600 million bottles of Two-buck Chuck. Whatever good the brand has done in introducing wine to people, it's hard to look at that figure and not think that a few million bottles of other wines would have been sold if Two-buck Chuck wasn't around."

It’s an intriguing argument from one of the most perceptive writers in the business, and it’s not uncommon. It made the rounds last fall, when the George Taber book “A Toast to Bargain Wines” sang the praises of inexpensive wine and received scathing reviews for its point of view.

What’s interesting, though, is not the question, but why people keep asking it. Why does it bother so many people that Americans drink cheap wine? More, after the jump:

Know, first, that it’s almost impossible to answer Gray’s question. Two-buck Chuck, the $1.99 wine sold at Trader Joe’s (and that costs as much as $3.49 elsewhere in the country) is California wine. How can sales of California wine hurt the California wine business?

In this, the question assumes that there are two kinds of California wine – cheap wine and real wine, and that Two-buck Chuck (as well as every other best-selling brand, whether Yellow Tail or Barefoot) is not real wine. This is the au courant approach to wine, in which a variety of evil multi-nationals bamboozle the consumer into drinking grape-a-hol instead of what they’re supposed to drink.

Which is, of course, not cheap wine. Or, to paraphrase a comment on Gray’s post, Americans are too stupid to care about quality. All we want to do is guzzle cheap wine in the same way that we want to scarf down fast food.

This assumes two things, neither of which is true: That all cheap wine stinks and that all wine that isn’t cheap is wonderful. As regular visitors here know, plenty of cheap wine is wonderful and plenty of expensive wine stinks. Price long ago stopped being a reliable benchmark for wine quality (which is about the same time that the slithery grape-a-hol merchants got into the expensive wine business).

The question that I think Gray wanted to ask was this: “Why don’t more people drink honest wine?” That’s the stuff that those of us who love wine appreciate, that tastes of place and time and terroir and that you can find in a $10 ugni blanc-colombard blend from Gascony as well as a $100 Napa cabernet.

The answer to that question, as regular visitors here also know, is that the wine business has little interest in helping consumers figure it out. It’s easier to sell grape-a-hol and wax indignant all the way to the bank.

Cartoon courtesy of JuliaWertz.com, using a Creative Commons license

4 Responses to Is cheap wine bad for the wine business?

  1. george@georgemtaber.com' George M. Taber says:

    If inexpensive wines helps bring new consumers to wine or lets people drink wine outside of just the big holidays, it’s good for consumers and good for the wine industry. As you said so well, all inexpensive wine is not necessarily bad and all expensive wine is not necessarily worth the price.

  2. jo@diaz-communications.com' Jo Diaz says:

    On May 29th, I asked… Do Americans expect to pay well below market value for great Australian wines, shunning the cost of the great ones? (http://tinyurl.com/7ozpqrv)
    Cheap wines, while an entry for many, can still have long term ill effects, IMHO.

  3. buster1006@comcast.net' Jeff W says:

    Basic economics will tell you that if there is a market for $2 wine, then someone will fill it as long as they can make money doing it. Timex sells millions of watches, and I doubt that Rolex can match their volume. Just like I can’t justify buying a Rolex to tell time, I can’t justify spending $25 or more on a bottle of wine. The wine industry created their own problems by charging big bucks for mediocre wine. Vintages are not consistent and sometimes there are variations between bottles. This is business, so stop “wining” about it.

  4. sheila.senescall@gmail.com' Jonah Lehrer says:

    Is cheap wine bad for the wine business? or
    Does All Wine Taste the Same?
    I would like to direct you to an article recently in the New Yorker Magazine…
    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex
    and then another in a local newspaper suggesting The ambiance of where we are when we’re drinking the wine matters, too! http://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2012/06/why-wines-tend-taste-alike-if-were-honest-about-it

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