In casual conversations about wine, this question often comes up. Someone will ask me why wine is "so expensive". Resisting the urge to go into an explanation of supply and demand, I try to understand the true nature of the question. They are asking: Does price really mean anything when you're buying wine? One wine costs $9.99/bottle, and the one next to it costs $15.99. Why should I spend the extra money?
I cover a number of major factors that contribute to the price of a bottle of wine in my recent series "Why Is Wine So Expensive: Reasons 1-8" (get links in this post). In practical terms however, what can you as a consumer expect when you spend more? Can you expect ANYTHING?
Wines are available at a broad range of prices. In the United States, a less expensive bottle of wine can be had for a mere $6-9. This includes the mass produced commercial "jug wines" that we are all familiar with, but also include some "boutique winery" offerings that can be real bargains if you seek them out. So what's the difference?
In short: Commercial wines are produced and treated more like a commodity. Grape vines are planted on fertile planes and the grapes are plentiful, big and juicy. They are machine harvested, moved to the winery, and soon the bottles go out. There are variations on this of course but the point is to be productive. Marketing, pricing, and convenience (i.e. name recognition) play huge roles in the success of these wines. And they are of acceptable quality for most consumers, so why not?
Compare this to a wine that is made from vines that are planted on a steep incline facing the sun, with good drainage so water doesn't build up, there are recognized mineral deposits in the soil that are known to be contributing factors, and everything is done by hand. This sounds to most people like disadvantages to winemaking, but in fact the harder conditions tend to produce more intensely flavored, more interesting, and more natural wines. Wines produced in this manner are more likely to let you experience them on different levels, smelling and tasting something slightly different as you let it sit in your glass. The harder growing conditions make the grape vines work harder and therefore internalize more of the immediate environment's characteristics. This is increasingly being referred to by the French word "Terroir". Mass produced wines have little or none of this trait.
Commercial wine is a useful and easy way to enjoy get-togethers a little more. If you are interested in focusing on wine itself though, I encourage you to dive into the "deep end" and seek out some smaller producers who hand craft their wines. If price is an important factor to you, try starting in the Portuguese wine section. There are terrific choices there that can still be had for very reasonable prices. Otherwise, get comfortable with talking to a wine consultant at the best wine shop in your area. If they don't have a person like that, go somewhere else. To me, that could be a sign that they don't take their commitment to wine very seriously.
The level of serious commitment to wine should mirror your own. That decision, of course, is yours to make.
-- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW