Why You Should Be Drinking Cheap Wine

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Nov. 2 2011 6:54 AM

Drink Cheap Wine

I mean, really cheap.

Red wine
Red wine

Photograph by iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

Try this experiment: Walk into the nearest wine shop and ask for an “everyday wine” recommendation. Refuse to give a price range, and see what the merchant suggests. My guess is you’re out 15 bucks. Critics seem to be pushing this price point as an appropriate range for “everyday wine”—Slate is as guilty as any publication—even though the phrase can’t possibly be taken literally. If you and your significant other were to drink five bottles of wine a week, at $15 per bottle, your annual wine outlay would approach $4,000. That’s more than the average family spends on groceries.

Granted, few Americans actually drink that much wine—annual consumption is around one bottle per month (PDF) per capita—but perhaps they would if the industry hadn’t taught them that truly affordable wine isn’t worth drinking. The evidence is right across the Atlantic: In Europe, consumption is 3-to-6 times higher than in the United States. But only the most affluent would spend 11 euros to drink a bottle of wine at home on a Wednesday night. Europeans seem perfectly comfortable cracking open a 1-euro tetra-pak of wine for guests. Germans, for example, pay just $1.79 on average for a bottle of wine.

Not long ago, American wine-buying habits were very similar to the Germans’. In 1995, 59 percent of the wine purchased in the United States sold for less than $3 per bottle. By 2006, controlling for inflation, that share had dropped to 29 percent. Wines over $14 per bottle more than quadrupled their share of the market during the same period. Looking at raw consumption rather than market share, sales of over-$14 wine increased sevenfold. Sales of wines that cost less than $3 per bottle actually declined 28 percent, during a period when overall wine consumption was rapidly increasing.

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There are plenty of reasons to go back to our 1990s habits, and to start using 15 bucks to buy four or five bottles instead of just one. Ernest Gallo, who, along with his brother Julio, popularized wine among the American masses, understood the psychology of wine better than anyone. He used to pour two glasses of wine for potential buyers, telling them that one sold for 5 cents, and the other for 10. According to Gallo, his guinea pigs invariably chose the more expensive option. What they didn’t know was that the two wines were exactly the same. Researchers have recently reproduced Gallo’s results, proving that our appreciation of a wine depends on how much we think it costs. If you can break yourself of this psychological quirk—or have your spouse lie to you about the cost of your wine—you’ll save a small fortune.

You’re also likely aware of the piles of studies showing that you can’t reliably pick out expensive wines in a blind taste test. Many studies show that laymen actually prefer cheaper wines (PDF). Professional wine critics are quick to point out that they, unlike you and I, can distinguish between high- and low-cost bottles in blinded experiments. Here’s the question they can’t answer for you: So what? The only thing these “successes” prove is that a small group of people have gotten very good at sniffing out the traits that the wine industry thinks entitle them to more money.

If hints of cassis, subtle earthiness, and jammy notes don’t interest you, you are not a lesser person. Wine is not art. There’s no reason to believe that aligning your tastes with those of a self-appointed elite will enrich your life, or make you more insightful or sensitive. If wine critics want to spend lavishly on the wine they like, that’s great. Leave them to their fun. Be grateful that you can gain just as much pleasure, if not more, without bankrupting yourself.

I’m not without sympathy for the American winemakers who keep wine prices high. Real estate is pricey in California, and some vintners claim they have to charge $20 or more per bottle just to break even. That’s a shame, but wine-buying isn’t an act of philanthropy. If you can’t tell the difference between an expensive wine from a small family vineyard and their cheaper competitors—or you think the cheap stuff is superior—save your money. You are under no obligation to keep vineyards afloat. A little consolidation might be a good thing. Do we really need tiny winemaking estates up and down the West Coast, not to mention Long Island, Michigan, Virginia, and Missouri?

There’s also an enormous range in the retail price of a single bottle of wine, which means the $15 bottle you bought at one store might be a $6 bottle elsewhere. A recent study found that a wine selling for $695 in California went for $2,000 in Illinois. The Yellowtail Merlot offered for $4.99 in Buffalo cost more than twice that much in Jersey City. Such discrepancies are due not only to taxes and varying distribution schemes but to individual store owners trying to wring a few more dollars out of clueless consumers. Again, the key here is that higher prices do not reliably reflect quality.

Finally, rest assured that cheap wine in the United States is good, to the extent that the term has any objective meaning. Falling market share over the last 15 years has forced discount vintners to compete with upmarket brands, and modern technology has enabled them to crank out consistent wines, case after case. So, if you win your $3 gamble on the first bottle, you know you’ll like the next. And, in a sense, we have an advantage over Europe, since our discount offerings are usually a notch better. European bargain wines can be hit or miss, because they’re made by cooperatives that sometimes have outdated equipment, poor inventory management, and even substandard sanitation practices. Charles Shaw and the best American box wines rarely have such problems.

You’re probably hoping for some recommendations. You don’t need them. Reviews and recommendations are great for cars or televisions or overpriced wines, because bad decisions are expensive. If you hate your cheap bottle of wine, just uncork another.

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