“I only drink (Silver Oak)(Leonetti)(Caymus)(Mouton Rothschild)(etc., etc.). You pay less for your wine, you just get less wine.”
Boy, if I had a nickle for every time someone has said that to me over the past ten years…well, I’d have enough to buy one of those wines.
Friends, if you never believe another word underneath my name, believe what you are about to read:
THERE IS NO CORRELATION BETWEEN THE PRICE OF A BOTTLE OF WINE AND ITS QUALITY. PERIOD.
Now, please don’t infer that mentioning those wines in the opening quote means I think they’re not worth your bucks. They are, if you’re flush and inclined. But, while these wines have certainly earned their lofty reputations, they’ve simply been surpassed by other wines in the marketplace. Leonetti, of course, was the original premium Washington wine and their quality was undeniable. At the time their rep was evolving, though, the state had about a dozen working wineries. Leonetti has not declined one whit in terms of what’s in the bottle. It’s just that there are now over 800+ wineries in WA state and, at this level of activity, the old “Even a Blind Pig Finds an Acorn Now and Then” principle kicks in. Silver Oak, likewise, has simply been swamped by the literal deluge of premium California Cabernet; the Screaming Eagles, Harlans, Bryants, Shafers, Dunns, Hundred Acres, and Araujos.
This fact wouldn’t be relevant at all but for the realities of business: both Leonetti and Silver Oak have seen their prices climb steadily. Good news for them, right? Well, maybe. The downside of increased grosses is that you get stuck at the current price level or even stuck with the need for periodic price increases. In a commodity as subjective as wine, perception is reality. If Leonetti doesn’t raise their prices or they remain steady, it seems to indicate a decline of confidence in their wine’s value. Actually dropping prices to compete with upstarts like Quilceda Creek, Cayuse, Boudreaux, Sheridan, Dunham, Sleight of Hand, Betz, Cote Bonneville, Walla Walla Vintners, Gramercy, K Vintners, , etc., etc. is tantamount to admitting that you’ve lost it. So, you get Washington’s first hundred-dollar wines, in a state where the standard hasn’t quite reached sixty. High prices equals decreasing sales as there are simply fewer of Bill Gates than there are of Steve Body.
It’s hard for me, carrying my Wine-Seller Guy secret decoder ring, to recommend a $120 bottle of Leonetti when there are bottles of Dunham, Betz, Fidelitas, and a dozen more sitting on my shelf at much lower prices. I can sell you two and a half bottles of Dunham for the price of a Leonetti. For the price of a Mouton Rothschild, I can sell you a CASE of Bob Betz’s dazzling “Pere de Famile” and give you your change in Januiks. And there is a fair chance that, tasting it side by side with the Mouton, you’d choose the Betz, anyway.
I go to wine tastings and watch guys haul out a case of some wine they made in their bathroom, while watching Oprah and balancing their checkbooks, that is so incredibly graceful, sumptuous, complex, and drinkable that I have to restrain myself from squinting at the guy and going, “YOU made THIS?” Most people haven’t heard of Dave Stephenson, Stevens Winery, Guardian, Robert Ramsey, and maybe 70% of the other boutique operations popping up like dandelions all over the NW, but these are where the next wave of truly profound wines are coming from. There are similar tales for every region of the globe. For about $30, you can drink Woodhouse Cellars’ Kennedy Shah Cab, Stevens’ “Big Easy”, Isenhower, L’Ecole, Elevation, Novelty Hill, Forgeron, Tamarack, or Fall Line. For about $20, you can drink the transcendent Allegrini “Palazzo della Torre”, Mitolo “Jester” Shiraz, Edge Cabernet, Allende Rioja, and the astounding Palacios Remondo “La Montesa”, which makes me all squirmy just thinking about it. For ten bucks, you can drink a list of wines as long as my spongy, matronly arms that will stand up to comparisons with bottles costing three times as much.
In Wine-Weenie World, the relationship between quality and bucks is called “QPR“, short for “Quality to Price Ratio“. In winespeak, a nice wine that doesn’t cost much is said to have good QPR. But, it doesn’t have to be cheap. Most WWs agree that Dunham wines have great QPR because, at about $50, they’d fetch more than twice that if they were wearing a Napa Valley label.
The photo array below constitutes some perennial and utterly reliable QPR wines and remember, QPR does NOT mean “cheap”. If you pay $38 for a wine and it should (in a just world) cost $55, that’s QPR, ladies and gentlemen.
(L-R: A-Mano Primitivo, McManis Family Cabernet, Fedriani Laffitte Valencia Red, Finca Luzon “Luzon”, Bodegas Atalaya “Laya”, Chateau Paradis Provencal, Anwilka “Ugaba”, Sleight of Hand Cellars “Renegade Red”)
Back in 1999, I had a friend on Bainbridge Island who was a confirmed Bordeaux freak; had an extensive cellar, invested heavily each vintage, and didn’t, as many cellar-keepers do, simply amass the wines to turn around and resell them. He liked to drink ’em, but…drinking a $250 Bordeaux every day will land you in the poorhouse pretty quickly. He was an investment advisor and this fact weighed heavily upon him. One day, tail dragging a bit, he came to me at my shop and said, “I want to have a really good wine that isn’t a blowsy fruit bomb, has some structure and balance, and that I can get for a reasonable price. Maybe three or four bottles, actually, so I don’t get sick of ’em. And I don’t want to spend more than twenty-five bucks.”
I know what Bordeaux is supposed to taste like, even if I don’t particularly care for the wines, so I walked around the shop and grabbed four bottles that had, let us say, a spiritual kinship: Allende Rioja, Domaine de Lavabre Coteaux de Languedoc, Peter Lehmann Barossa Cabernet, and Reininger Cabernet. He walked out with all four and was back in two days, almost babbling, “Give me the Allende and the Lehmann, two cases each!!! Holy Crap, are these hard to get? All four were great! I…I never knew!”
If you get married to one style of wine and one price point or one region, the ONLY real result is that you’re going to miss a LOT of great wines. Nowadays, Argentina is producing some of the best QPR wines in the world. South Africa, ditto. And Spain is the all-time QPR champ, spewing out 90+ wines for under $20 like a fire hose. If you’ve fallen for the French toe-hold-saving propaganda that says there is no real wine but French wine, you may want to get out of that rut, like right now. And, for the love of God, DO NOT become one of these tedious people who pontificate about _________ wines being the best in the world if all you’ve ever tasted is the wines of __________ region. I get this from Washington people all the time and I always ask, “Okay, how do you know that? How many wines from other places do you taste?” The usual answer is “ten or twelve”. (Sound of error buzzer) Sorry, but that’s what scientists and geeks call “an insufficient sample size”. Somewhere near where you live (unless you’re reading this in Death Valley or on the orbital space station) there’s someone pouring wines for sampling. If you devote ONE hour a day on two Saturdays a month, you can discover a world of new stuff, some of which is guaranteed to knock your socks off.
Also, and maybe most of all, DO FREAKIN’ NOT fall victim to tasting wines only from the “anointed” wineries. In Washington, we have no shortage of Cult Wineries; producers whose every release party looks like a Lady Gaga autograph signing. Literal oceans of better wines – not “as good“, BETTER – are routinely passed over by the roving bands of wine trendies who just must have the latest So & So Cellars Cabernet, Et Cetera Vineyards Syrah, or Cool Groovy Red Blend and their 90-point ParkerTanzerSpectator scores. I’ve advocated for Donedei Cellars, Eagle Harbor Winery, and maybe fifteen others that are wildly overlooked. Why? Because I have a working set of taste buds. I taste at least 85% of all wines made in Washington each year and what I taste from just those two should, if there were any sort of universal fairness standard, be spoken of in the same terms as Quilceda, K, Dunham, and the other premium producers. Why they never gain that traction is simple: they’re not the Next Shiny Bauble. Eagle Harbor is run by a guy who thinks self-promotion is embarrassing and Carolyn Lakewold, one of our state’s true genius winemakers, lives in freakin’ Tenino, Washington, which is, to the rest of the wine world, Siberia. In QPR terms, both EHWC and Donedei are completely off the charts. Hugh Remash’s stuff at EH should cost about $75 – $100 a bottle. Donedei, about $75. Both are waaaaay less than half that.
The following is something I wrote back in 2005, for one of the sadly-departed King County Journal newspapers. I was involved in the building of our own wine/beer shop, VinElla, In Woodinville, at the time. I found it in my computer recently and realized that it said something that might tell you about QPR and the silliness of choosing wines by price, even if logic won’t do it:
“I was standing in the middle of the shop the other day, tasting a sample of an obscure Spanish red. I was at that stage of tiredness that makes your face and ears feel warm and cuts your mind loose to wander down alleyways that our normal, over-amped senses seldom travel. I began to consider how that wine got to my unfinished checkout counter. I could see those nearly-vertical vineyards of Northern Spain, swaddled in red dust and air the consistency of honey. I saw the vigneron plopping down with his pickers on an upturned grape flat, swabbing the sweat off his brow, laughing at jokes that aren’t really that funny because this is The Time, the Payoff, the Show. The grapes lay sweating around them, piled hip-deep in their crates and weeping their impossibly sweet juices, perfuming the air with that pungent, tactile scent that combines clean earth with sweat, herbs, and ripe fruit in a cloud that is as intoxicating in its own way as the wine will be later. The moment is ripe with a peculiar romance, with the feeling of community that comes from shared labor, passion, and dedication. Even as I think of it, I know that this is all my little pipe dream. Guys who pick grapes in Spain are doing back-breaking work for minimum wage, just like here.
But the fact remains that somebody’s heart, passion, and knowledge went into making this little bottle of Grenache and Tempranillo, in exactly the same proportion and degree that is expended to make Mouton Rothschild, Caymus, or Leonetti, and now it rests there on the table before me, delivering that elusive sense of discovery that remains the thing I’ve loved first and most about wine. In a very real, tangible sense, it makes me a kindred spirit to friends I will never meet; tells me about them and their lives and their souls and their dreams in a way that goes beyond mere conversation or travel guides and into the core of life itself. If wine can be profound, this is what makes it so; the simple, implausible fact that grape juice can be persuaded, by skill and devotion and impossible patience, to transform itself into something that engages every one of our senses, conjures up rich memories and associations, makes us childlike again in our sense of wonder, and enhances out our dining, fellowship, entertaining, and intellect.
If you just drink a glass of wine without thinking of all this, that will work just fine but there is a total experience, a continuum of dreams, senses, sex, passion, and discovery, that you can access anytime you’re willing to slow down and consider what’s in your glass. I urge you to try it. It’s in that place that you’ll completely get that the price tag…means nothing.”