Take a trip down any wine aisle and you'll see that there are bottles ranging from under $10 to well over $100. That's why it's important to know the secrets behind wine pricing, and, perhaps most importantly, which wines are worth your opening your wallet for.
What's Behind Wine Pricing?
Let's get this out of the way: Wine is a bit more complicated than "you get what you pay for." Price isn't directly indicative of taste or quality. There are two main factors that go into the pricing of wine. The first factor that impacts the price you pay for a bottle is how expensive the wine was to produce. For a wine producer, production costs may vary greatly according to things like the cost of grapes (valued much higher from places where the land value is steep, like top vineyards in California's Napa Valley) and the real estate of the winery itself. In areas with labor shortages, it might be far more expensive to pay labor costs than in places where eager workers are abundant and will happily take on harvest work for lower wages. Similarly, if a winery had to invest a lot on new equipment one year, you may see that reflected in their wine pricing. Expensive bottles, corks, and other packaging may also up the base cost of making a quality wine.
Many wineries, however, produce multiple wines at different price points, usually sourcing grapes that may be less expensive for their "entry-level" wines. This is a great tip for finding a deal: If you're a fan of a winery's premium range, check and see if they have a value range as well.
The second factor that determines wine pricing is a bit harder to quantify, and that's the economic reality of supply and demand. The more people want it, and the less there is available, the higher the price the wine can command.
The Truth About Super Inexpensive Wines
People don't love to hear this, but, in general, wines that are incredibly cheap—usually $8 and under—are the bottles you should skip. These tend to be mass-produced, factory-made "bulk wines," where the grapes used were extremely cheap—probably sourced from low quality vineyards where the grapes are farmed industrially and weren't considered good enough for higher quality wineries to want to buy them. When the raw material is so poor, lots of artificial chemicals, coloring, flavoring, sugar, and additives need to be added during the winemaking to come out with finished wine that's drinkable. The wine might taste fine to you but in terms of the actual anatomy of the wine, it may not be something you want to drink or support. For just a few dollars more, you can get immensely better wine. The $10-$12 price point is the most competitive in the U.S. market. There are many great options there because that's what most of us are comfortable spending on "everyday" wines.
The Truth About Super Luxury Wines
The key to understanding the luxury wine market is that these bottles should be considered an experience rather than a commodity. As a professional sommelier, one question I am frequently asked is whether or not a $500 bottle of wine is really that much better than a $50 bottle. My response: It depends on how you value the experience of drinking it. A basketball fanatic might jump at the chance to sit courtside at an NBA game for a $5,000 ticket but if you're not a fan, you'd never invest that much money in the experience.
Demand might surge for very highly regarded wines that have been praised by critics for decades, or wines from a famous "cult" producer who makes such a small amount of wine that it immediately becomes a collector's item. Think of a Picasso painting: The value of the finished art piece is so much more than the cost of the paint and the canvas; the experience it brings its owner, and its rarity, is what determines its value (anything is worth what someone is willing to pay for it, after all). If there's a bottle you have dreamed about enjoying, treat yourself if you can. If this category of wines doesn't interest you, a splurge probably won't be worth it to you.
So, What About the Wines in the Middle?
If you skip the extremely cheap bottles, and save the $100+ luxury wines for special occasions, you will find lots to love in the mid range. If it's an evening where you want to splurge a bit, $18-$30 will usually get you some excellent options.
Finding the Best Value
You shouldn't judge a wine solely by its price, but it should absolutely be a factor. Sometimes a wine will be "good for the price," meaning that the bottle outperformed your expectations based on its price. If the same wine had an expensive price tag, you would expect more. Like so much in life, all of this is subjective and context is important.
The best way to find the wines that promise very high quality for a good value is by considering bottles from lesser-known regions. Blame it on demand and real estate, but a wine from Paso Robles in California is less expensive than a similar quality wine from Napa Valley. Other wonderful, value-driven regions to look for are Portugal's Dao and Douro regions, France's Languedoc-Rousillon, Ribera del Duero and Rueda in Spain, and Campania in Italy.