So let’s start out with some true stories:
Worked in a restaurant for a while, and naturally gravitated to the bar. Our area was selected to “test market” a new product for a huge, international brewery operation. The market (at the time) was being inundated with crisp, clean products. Soft drinks were dropping the artificial colors, people were leaning towards organic, and the beer geeks were aiming for “lighter than lite.”
This huge, international brewery was sticking its toe in the waters of clear beverages. Remember Zima? This was not that. They were hoping to cash in on the craze with a clear beer. Refreshing for a day at the beach, healthier than a darker beer, and a pleasant taste.
We offered the beer to patrons in a cool, frosted beer stein and asked for their impressions. “What do you taste?” The most common response was, “nothing.” No hops? No barley? “Nope. Tastes like water.” We put the same beer in red plastic cups and repeated the experiment. “Yum! Nice body! I can really taste the grains.”
It seems that the visual impact of seeing no color played a huge part in the taste of the actual product. A product that never made it out of our market.
In 1933, Ernest Gallo borrowed $5,000 from his mother-in-law and joined forces with his brother, Julio, and they started making some wine. By the 1970’s they were one of the biggest winemakers in the world, and are currently the largest exporter of California wines. They popularized the “jug” wine and introduced inexpensive table wines to American consumers.
Ernest wanted to emphasize that his wines were just as good as fancy label wines. He would pour a couple of glasses for buyers, saying, “this one costs a nickel, and this one costs a dime.” Tasters would inevitably choose the ten-cent wine. Only problem was, they both came out of the same bottle. A group of bona-fide scientists from Cal Tech and Stanford recently replicated Gallo’s experiment in a super-sciencey sort of way, with brain scans and smart phrases like ‘medial orbitofrontal cortex’ and many test subjects. Gallo continues to make inexpensive wines, but they’ve got some nice Reserve and Select labels that will give you a decent wine at a reasonable price.
The point of all of this is that it isn’t necessarily the fancy label or cost of the wine that determines whether or not you like it. Or maybe it is? Either way, you don’t need to spend a fortune on a wine for it to taste good. Let’s say you drink wine four or five nights a week. Like we do. And let’s say that you average about $15 per bottle. Like we don’t. You’ll now be spending more on wine than the average American spends on groceries. And while we would argue that wine is full of nutritional goodness, the average American needs groceries. While one might argue that a drive towards frugality would limit an oenophile to crappy wine, that isn’t really the case.
In 1832 James Busby was growing tired of being shark-bait and decided to give something else a shot. “OY! I’m going to make some bleeding wine!” So he snuck some shiraz grapevines into Australia and started stomping. As a result, we now have Yellowtail Shiraz, a tasty and delicious red that tastes of strawberry, spice, and vanilla. Nice label, has a kangaroo on it, and it can grace your table for about ten bucks.
Maybe you want a more regal-sounding wine? Something good with king crab legs? Two Princes Riesling. Has a fine, German pedigree, hints of citrus fruits, and $12. You’ll have enough left over for a box of PopTarts.
Are you looking to drown out the drone of the Presidential Campaign? Bain’s Way Chenin Blanc. Peachy and lightly spicy, it’s got a nice palate, and you won’t need a bailout if you buy it. It will only set you back about $8, so you’ll have enough left over to invest in a solar energy startup.
One of the things that Gallo did for wine drinkers was to broaden the market for pink wines. They used to be thought of as cheap, tart, fruit juice wines, and some brands really played that up. But a good rose is a good wine. Brisa Do Mar is from Portugal, and is a great companion for a plate of cheese or a great wine for a picnic companion. It even has a screw-top, so you can play it off as “old-school.” And at $9 you can splurge for the all-beef hotdogs.
Choosing a wine doesn’t always mean dropping a fortune. You can still enjoy a good wine on a modest budget. A good wine will taste good, pair well with whatever you’re eating, and nobody really needs to know how much you paid for it.
After all: it’s not the size of the price tag, it’s how you use it.