Oenophiles ask Mike Steinberger about finding great wines at good prices.
Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger was online on Washingtonpost.com on June 19 to chat with readers about the best wine values: very good wines for less than $15 and truly excellent wines for less than $150. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Arlington, Va.: Just last night, my boyfriend was bemoaning his inability to find a good, reasonably priced (say under $20) red zinfandel to enjoy. Any suggestions?
Mike Steinberger: I do have a suggestion. In my last piece for Slate, about $15 and under wines, I mentioned the 2006 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel, which I was able to pick up for $12. I thought it was very nice; the bouquet called to mind a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and while it was packed with ripe fruit, it was neither overly alcoholic or jammy, two traits that one finds, unfortunately, in a lot of Zins these days. Have your boyfriend try the Cline.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: In both the under-$15 and under-$150 lists, you chose only one domestic wine. Are American wines ever a good value, or should thrifty drinkers always stick to imports?
Mike Steinberger: Good question. In the $15 and under category, I don't think there is a lot to choose from among American wines, which I think is very unfortunate and something I hope will change. I recommended a few domestic wines in my $15 and under piece, but other countries seem to do a lot better at that price point.
As for the $150 and under article—the criteria were a little different, in that I was extolling wines that I think are benchmarks in their respective categories (be it grape, region, style, or some combination thereof); that I think consistently rise to the level of greatness; and that represent excellent relative value (relative being the key term here—$150 is clearly not cheap). The Ridge Monte Bello certainly fits that description, but I don't there are too many other American wines that do. That is not to say that there aren't other superb American wines; there are plenty of them. If you want to try a benchmark Zinfandel, try the 2005 Ridge Geyserville, which I think is a fantastic wine (I will admit: I am a Ridge devotee). It goes for about $35.
Alexandria, Va.: I read your article on Slate and admire your willingness to come online today and defend calling wines that cost as much as $150 "bargains." My question concerns how much today's wine prices represent run-ups from increased demand. I often have read that after wines become popular—either a vineyard or a particular grape/region (California and Chardonnay)—prices increase for no reason other than taking profits. For example, I've read in the Wall Street Journal that it's very hard to find decent Chardonnay under $20 now when it was simple to get under $10 four years ago. How much is that increase is profit-taking, and how widespread is the practice?
Mike Steinberger: Great question. First, though—I definitely didn't intend to suggest that $150 is a bargain. Clearly, it is not. The point of the article was to compile a list of truly great wines that offer excellent relative value, and $150 struck me as a not-unreasonable cut-off point when we are talking about splurge wines.
As to these price spikes, increased demand is certainly the driving factor. Take a region like Burgundy. The wines are generally produced in very small quantities, and with more and more people around the world acquiring a taste for these wines and the means to pay for them, prices are rising (quickly). For Americans, we are getting hit on two fronts: We are facing more competition for the most sought-after wines, and the weak dollar is also hurting us.
What are good sources: ... for finding some of the wines you mention? Are they usually available, or does one have to search them out a bit? I think this question goes more toward the upper-level wines with less production.
Mike Steinberger: The source all wine geeks seem to rely on is Wine-Searcher.com. It is a terrific service.
New York: Why discuss price? Blind tastings from time immemorial have conclusively shown that price has nothing to do with an enjoyable glass of wine, no? And let's get away from all this talk about "angular structure," "leather" and "zinc." None of this is helpful to the consumer.
Mike Steinberger: Blind tastings often show that quality is not necessarily related to price. Inexpensive, unheralded wines do indeed upstage the big guns from time to time. But I don't think a wine like the Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet acquired its reputation by accident, and I personally wouldn't have too much faith in a wine critic who couldn't distinguish between the Ridge and, say, Two Buck Chuck.
As for the language wine writers use, all I can say it is something most of us wrestle with all the time. Finding a meaningful way of describing wines is a real challenge. I hope my notes are helpful to readers, and I'm open to any and all suggestions as to how I might make them more useful.
Washington: I find that decent Pinot Noir is the hardest type of wine to get inexpensively. Very hard to find one under $15 that is worth buying.
Mike Steinberger is Slate's wine columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.