A few weeks ago, Washington Post wine critic Dave McIntyre wrote a blog post looking back on something he wrote about Virginia wines six years earlier. A sort of “What’s happened since I wrote this,” and he’s happy with the growing recognition of Virginia (and other local) wines, and their forging their own identities as winemaking regions of the U.S.
Except for one thing: “I’m a bit chagrined that I still hear some of the same arguments against local wine that I lamented six years ago – especially the price/value theme.” In his earlier post, he noted that one of the things he’d frequently hear from wine drinkers was, “Yeah, this is an excellent wine from Virginia, but the nerve of them to charge 20 bucks!”
I wrote a comment asking Dave if he meant that you still can’t find much Virginia wines under $20, or that people were still complaining about it. His answer? “My chagrin is that I still hear that argument – the $20 price level is arbitrary.”
Strictly speaking, he’s got a point. Any price is arbitrary. Take, for instance, the $13 – $15/bottle cap that Dave uses in his monthly “Recession Busters” column. But it got me wondering what $20/bottle means to consumers. So first I took a look at first vine sales figures. Then I asked a few customers and a few fellow bloggers to think about the $20 limit in general but also with respect to Virginia or other local wines in particular.
As you can imagine, people had a lot to say. After a little digestion (or is that fermentation?), I found that there were five points to make.
1) Is $20 the limit for an everyday wine?
The average price per bottle paid by first vine customers who purchase at least one case per month is approximately $13, and this has remained pretty constant for the past three years. As one of first vine’s regular customers explained, a couple who drinks wine with dinner every day will go through a bottle in two days at most. If each bottle costs $20 for a Monday – Thursday night meal, that means $160 – $320 per month for weeknight meal wines.
Noting that half of first vine’s wines cost $15 or less per bottle (and only a quarter of them cost over $20), I wondered if perhaps greater selection might be driving this choice for my customers rather than unwillingness to spend more. Responses from fellow bloggers confirmed the everyday limit.
Jason Stubblefield (or Stub, as he calls himself), author of Cork Envy, asked a large group of friends and found that $20 was the price that an enthusiastic everyday wine drinker would pay, while $15 was the limit for people who weren’t “wine” people (whom Stub describes as “people who drink wine, but probably don’t care about wine, at least with regard to blend or viticulture or winemaking—if they ‘like’ something, they’ll drink it, as long as it doesn’t cost too much.”) Stub’s friends reported that they’d pay $30 for wine for a “nice” bottle, which some drink more frequently than others.
2) Does $20 have some quality/value meaning?
One of Dave’s commenters noted that a $50 wine can be a great value if you’re getting $100 worth of quality for that price. Fair enough. But $20 may be the point at which many consumers stop to think if the extra money is worth it. Jon Thorsen is the author of Reverse Wine Snob, a blog dedicated to reviewing wines costing less than $20 per bottle. He reviews a weekly splurge wine above $20, but with the same eye toward quality and price as the lower priced ones.
Jon writes, “For me at least, the gains in quality over $20 are pretty small. That’s not to say that the average wine over $20 isn’t necessarily better than the average wine under $20. I think wines over $20 tend to be more consistent than those under $20 — it takes some work to find the good ones in that lower price range. But when you do find those good ones, they can be quite good. … For just about everyone there comes a point where the cost of the extra “quality” just isn’t worth it. For some extreme wine enthusiasts, that point may be really high, but for the average consumer [I’ve found that] $15-$20 is the limit. They simply don’t [feel they] get $10 worth of extra enjoyment from a $25-$30 wine.”
The weekend-splurging first vine customers I asked confirmed that part of the reason they spend less on wine during the week is that they eat more simply those days, and the everyday wines go with a wide variety of everyday foods. They believe that a more expensive wine needs to be more carefully paired with food and this factors into the cost calculation too. So if you’re having a more complicated or expensive meal, you’ll want more out of your wine, which may mean adding an Abraham Lincoln or Alexander Hamilton to your Andrew Jackson.
3) Can the fact that a wine is local add to the quality/value for wines over $20?
Advocates like Dave would probably argue that the fact that a wine is local is worth something. But I’m not sure everyone would say the same, even if they try to buy local on a regular basis.
The crowds of people flocking to the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market in DC on Sunday mornings for locally grown foods at well-above-supermarket-prices might make you think that people would also be willing to pay more for local wines. It’s not a simple analogy. The locality is important, and customers like to support local farmers. But the main reasons for buying local foods are (1) better flavor, and (2) at least at the Dupont market, that the produce is organic and the meats and cheeses are from humanely-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free animals.
I haven’t heard anyone argue that Virginia and Maryland wines are hands-down better tasting than wines from other places. As for the organics issue, there are some local wines made with organically-grown grapes. But the humid climate here, especially in Virginia, makes it much more difficult to do without fungicides. That means many of these wines don’t qualify for organic designation.
Most Virginia wine sales happen at the wineries, and visiting is part of the charm of the process. Visitors are likely to buy a bottle or two as a souvenir while they’re there. But does that carry over when they get home?
Since I have been in the P Street Whole Foods more than usual the past couple of weeks, I decided to do a little unscientific observation. WF carries a selection of local wines, but I don’t see people buying them. They’re buying the less expensive bottles they see at the end of the store aisles and in special displays. Perhaps WF could make the local wines more visible, but at least at this point, I don’t see people seeking out local wines there, where you’d think that local might mean more to the shoppers.
Still, I think that if people could pick up a bottle of local wine at the Dupont market on Sunday, some would do it even if it cost more than $20, especially if they could sample it there first. Unfortunately, it’s illegal in DC. But maybe one day…
4) (a) Are Virginia wines fairly priced? (Part One)
I’m splitting this into two parts because I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you can get good Virginia wines for $20 or less. As I mentioned in a previous post, I really enjoyed both Blenheim and Virginia Wineworks wines, which you can get at excellent prices.
Stub told me that at last weekend’s Virginia Wine Expo there were plenty of selections under $20. He also mentioned that he currently has about four cases of Virginia wine in his cellar, and that the average price is $17 per bottle. Clearly a wine collector can still economize with Virginia wines.
(As an aside, some of my fellow bloggers noted that the Virginia wines poured for us at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Charlottesville last summer were virtually all over $20. As a retailer, I can tell you that I’d do the same thing. Leaving aside questions of pride and such, the winemakers were pouring for a captive audience of people who write about wine, presumably for a wine-oriented readership, so why wouldn’t they put out their best stuff and bottles for which they make more money?)
4) (b) Are Virginia wines fairly priced? (Part Two)
David White, who writes the daily Terroirist blog, pointed out that Washington state and California both have economies of scale in their favor that Virginia wineries don’t. And as I’ve discussed before, there are all sorts of reasons why France can produce a lot of high-quality inexpensive wines that can’t be duplicated in Virginia. Since the average Virginia wine will likely cost more than wine from many other places from the outset, the question is whether they’re worth the prices charged.
David says definitely yes. “Are the Chardonnays from Linden — priced between $22 and $30 — fairly priced? Absolutely. Is RdV’s flagship Bordeaux-blend worth $88? I’d argue it is.” Stub had a different perspective: if Virginia winemakers are producing all the quality wines they can and selling them at the prices they demand, then they’re worth what customers are paying for them. Hard to argue with that. Might you find a similar level of quality in non-local wines for less? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean the local wines are overpriced.
5) Does having fewer local wines under $20 a bottle make people forget about local wines when they’re willing to pay more money?
Both customers and fellow bloggers think this is the case. Many of my first vine customers said that getting a good bottle for under $20 makes them more willing to try something that costs more from the same producer.
David agrees. “If your budget is $20, there are dozens and dozens of excellent California and Washington wines.” Absolutely there’s plonk from those states at that price too, but “every wine shop staffer should be able to easily come up with a list of delicious wines from California and Washington for under $20.” So it’s not surprising that customers then turn to wines from those states when they have more than $20 to spend.
Jon put it this way: “For an emerging wine region it’s a lot to ask for the average consumer to take a chance on a $30 or $40 wine. They need to gain an audience before they can command a premium price, and the easiest way to do that is by selling some inexpensive wines that over-deliver.”
Phew… lots to think about, but it’s time to wrap this post up. My takeaways are: $20 means something, as an absolute price and as a stopping point on the quality/value scale. Not only that, but selling good wines for under $20 is a very good way to introduce producers and make customers want to buy their more expensive wines.
So, Dave, I can’t agree that $20 is arbitrary. For now at least, it appears to be a fact of life. The question is, is the perception of no wines under $20 a problem? If Virginia producers are selling out of their wines priced over $20 just from people visiting the wineries, then the answer is no. But if they’re looking to raise their profiles in the wine world at large, it might be. Since there are good Virginia wines for less than $20 a bottle, maybe the solution is to make those wines more widely available as a way to increase exposure and traffic in general for Virginia wines of all prices.
All this talk of $20 wines makes me want to have one! So today I’m recommending our Cave la Vinsobraise Therapius , 100% Syrah, lightly aged in oak. Vinsobres has the highest elevation of nearly every village in the Southern Rhône Valley. This enhances the earthiness of its wines, and mellows the spiciness of the Syrah a little. But it still packs a punch, and it needs a flavorful meal with it.
I thought of a dish I made a couple of weeks ago, Lydia Bastianich’s Baked Eggplant in Tomato Sauce. It was delicious, but so intensely flavored it was a little overwhelming. So I played with the recipe a bit, and added some pasta and fresh mozzarella to tone it down. Now it’s just right for my taste, and it’s good piping hot or at room temperature.
Serves 6 – 8
2 pounds baby purple eggplants – not the long thin ones, but small versions of regular purple eggplant – about 6 of them (6 ounces each)
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups marinara sauce
½ teaspoon dried oregano (optional – use it if you’re using fairly plain Marinara sauce, but taste yours first to decide)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup pitted oil-cured black olives, cut in half
4 pickled green peperoncini (the ones that are light green in color, thin and a couple of inches long, packed in brine), drained, stemmed, and thinly sliced (about ¼ cup)
2 tablespoons capers, drained
½ cup minced fresh parsley
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
12 ounces dried ziti or penne, cooked to just al dente
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into ½-inch dice (about 2 cups)
Trim the top and bottom of each eggplant. Cut off four strips of peel lengthwise from each one – sort of north, south, east, and west, so you end up with stripes of peel and about half the peel taken off. Slice the eggplant crosswise into ½-inch slices. Toss the slices in a colander with at least a tablespoon of the kosher salt, then put a bowl on top of the eggplants in the colander and something heavy (like a couple of cans) inside the bowl. Let the eggplant slices drain for a half hour, then rinse them in cold water, and dry them with paper towels, squeezing each slice to get out the liquid.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan, then add the garlic and oregano and cook for about a minute. Add the marinara sauce and simmer for 5 minutes, then add the capers, olives, and sliced peperoncini and cook for 5 more minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Spread a half cup of the sauce in the bottom of a ceramic or glass 13 x 9 –inch baking dish. Add half of the cooked pasta. Then layer a third of the eggplant slices, 2/3 cup of sauce, half of the mozzarella, half of the parsley, and a quarter cup of the grated cheese. Repeat one more time; pasta, eggplant, sauce, parsley, mozzarella, and grated cheese. Top with the final layer of eggplant slices, the rest of the sauce, and the final half cup of grated cheese. Measure out a third of a cup of hot tap water. Using a spoon, pull the eggplant away from the side of the dish slightly as you pour the water evenly around the inside edge of the dish. Drizzle the top with a little olive oil. Set the dish on a baking sheet. Cover the dish completely with foil, tenting it to make sure it doesn’t touch the ingredients.
Bake the dish for 45 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes, until the grated cheese is browned. Let the dish rest for 15 minutes, then serve.