Is Expensive Wine Really Worth It?

We in America have just come out of the most grueling recession in decades, so most of us are understandably concerned about how much money we spend on stuff. This concern applies as much to wine as to things like cars and vacations.

That’s one reason why the question of price versus quality arises in wine. We’re trying to watch our spending, yet we don’t want to sacrifice quality. Another factor in raising this question would have happened even without the recession: the rise of the Millennial generation. Socially-linked through computers and portable devices, curious and skeptical, they continually question the assumptions of their parents and grandparents, and one of those assumptions is a very old one: namely, that expensive wine is better than less expensive wine — and the more expensive the wine is, the better it must be.

We have to get rid of this stereotype once and for all — although there are certain qualifications. From my standpoint as a [former] critic, who tastes widely among the wines of California, I can tell you categorically that price is not necessarily correlated with quality. I’ve simply had too many wines that cost $75, $100 or more that, while okay, were nothing to get excited about. At the same time, I’ve had lots of wines for under $50 (and sometimes a lot less) that were as good as wines costing three or four times as much.

For example, just the other day we had a blind tasting of Pinot Noirs, most of which cost $60-$75. Guess what one of my top-rated wines was? The 2013 Kendall-Jackson Jackson Estate Pinot Noir, from Anderson Valley, which at $30 retail was by far the least expensive wine in the flight. I can’t say I was surprised when we took the bottles out of the bags that had concealed their identity, for I knew how hard Randy Ullom and his team have worked at this Jackson Estate rollout.

I use this example of the K-J Jackson Estate just to underscore my point. Having said that, I will concede that price is, in general, a reliable indicator of quality. The chances are good that a more expensive bottle will be better than a less expensive one. But at some point — maybe around $90 — the price-quality ratio starts to fall apart. Beyond that, price is a function of supply and demand, not quality.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. The best way to know if a particular bottle is worth your investment is to sample it before you buy. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. If you don’t have that option, try looking at what the critics have to say about it, or some of the crowd-sourcing websites. But if there’s one lesson I wish people would learn, it’s that you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to get a great bottle of wine!

Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.