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What’s the difference between a $3 bottle of wine and a $300 bottle of wine?


Consumers face a dramatic range of prices when shopping for wine, from the hugely popular Two-Buck Chuck to the massive $16,000 Petrus Bordeaux.

Alicia Barrett, a wine educator at Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago, says large differences in wine prices can be confusing for consumers. After all, the composition of the wine is almost the same. How come America’s best-selling wine brands—names like Barefoot, Yellow Tail, or Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw (also known as Two-Buck Chuck, or these days the $3.99 Chuck)—others cost roughly the price of a Starbucks cappuccino? selling? Want $20, $200 or even $20,000 per bottle?

Despite their low price tags, cheap wines are the juggernaut of the wine industry. Franzia (the ubiquitous wine in a can) and Barefoot Cellars are more popular than any other wine brand in America, selling more than 180 million liters of wine each in 2021, according to the American Association of Wine Economists. By comparison, luxury brands with 100-point rating histories, such as Napa Valley winery Quintessa, represent just a drop in the ocean of global wine production. Quintessa produces an average of 90,000 liters (only 120,000 bottles) per year, explains Rodrigo Soto, Quintessa’s general manager.

On the one hand, the availability of affordable brands has turned wine into an everyday luxury for American consumers, bringing them one step closer to Europeans who have long enjoyed the uncomplicated pleasures of inexpensive table wines.

“You could say these wines are industrialized or just commodity,” Soto says, “but these are very drinkable wines produced using much more refined methods than in the past.”

Moreover, Barrett explains, these are “important gateways for many people to enter the wine drinking market.”

Consumers loyal to cheap wine brands often argue that there is little discernible difference between a $3 wine and a $30 wine. If they can’t taste the difference, why pay more? It’s a question that sends shivers down the spine of every wine lover who believes that wine is a unique and complex expression of the places, people and conditions that grow the grapes, or the ever-encompassing word terroir.

However, the real question is how these wines can be sold so cheaply. “The cost of wine at these price points is minuscule compared to the cost of the bottle, capping, shipping and taxes,” explains Barrett.

Soto draws parallels between discount wine production and fast fashion production.

“You can have very affordable versions of a mass-produced sneaker in countries that specialize in low-cost production on a large scale,” he explains.

Similarly, off-price wine production relies on grapes grown at exceptionally high yields in locations where land, farming and winemaking costs are extremely low. For example, the San Joaquin Valley on California’s Central Coast. more than 50% All California wines originate from a vast plain where vineyards sell for a fraction of the prices commanded in Napa or Sonoma. Highly mechanized industrial agriculture, supported by heavy irrigation and the use of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, and other agricultural inputs, can yield yields exceeding 10 or even 12 tons per acre.

Conversely, Soto explains, some shoes are custom-made, measured to fit your foot, and handcrafted using painstaking, labor-intensive processes. Similarly, at Quintessa, “everything is done by hand,” he says. “It’s all about quality, not volume or growth.”

While brands like Barefoot produce dozens of different wine products, Quintessa produces only two; cabernet sauvignon blend, which sells for about $250, and sauvignon blanc, which sells for $50. Yields of organically and biodynamically grown crops at Quintessa range from 2.5 to 3.5 tonnes per acre.

Soto admits that brands like Quintessa target luxury consumers who are willing to pay a premium for sustainability, scarcity, artistry and exceptional craftsmanship. But as with fast fashion, the untold cost of producing dirt-cheap wine is a liability for sustainability.

When minimizing costs is the primary goal in wine production, things like fair wages and safe working conditions for agricultural workers are inherently compromised. Agricultural methods that focus on maximizing output at minimum cost cause serious damage to the environment, deplete natural resources and pollute sensitive ecosystems.

Wines to splurge on at Binny’s Beverage Depot Lincoln Park include, from left, Pierre Moncuit Millesime 2008 Champagne, $85.99, Quintessa 2020, $210, and Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2021, $44.99. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Sustainability aside, is a $50 wine objectively better than a $10 wine? “In most cases, yes,” says Soto. “The investment to produce this wine is higher. “Most likely this will produce better quality wines that you can taste,” he says.

But he warns that wine doesn’t have to cost $250, or even $25, to offer great value. “I don’t drink Quintessa every night,” Soto says.

“There’s actually a really good middle ground” between bargain bin and luxury wines, says Richie Ribando, sommelier at Cariño, an Uptown restaurant that highlights Latin American cuisine. For a little more than you’d pay for bulk wine products, you’ll find producers who farm correctly and produce distinctive, balanced wines without relying on additives and manipulative winemaking techniques, he says. Perhaps even more valuable is the journey that wine can offer.

“Wine can open your eyes to places around the world you never thought of before: Patagonia, the Uco Valley in Argentina, or the Valle de Guadalupe in Mexico,” he says, “and it’s magical.”

Value-focused recommendations – bargains outperform but also offer outstanding splurges worth your hard-earned cash:

Florès 2022 Picpoul de Pinet: “When wines like Champagne or Chablis, two classic seafood pairings, are out of reach, this (the white from France’s Languedoc region) should be your go-to,” says Barrett. “Grape variety Picpoul is known for its bright acidity, freshness and slight salinity,” he says. “Please eat it with the oysters and tell me if I’m wrong.” $11. Binny’s has multiple locations, binnys.com

Saint Cosme 2022 Côtes-du-Rhone: This elevated Côtes-du-Rhone is produced as a négociant project by Château de Saint Cosme, a Southern Rhône star whose flagship Gigondas bottlings often top $150. Unlike most Côtes-du-Rhone grenache and syrah blends, this is 100% syrah sourced from the sun-drenched limestone soils of Gard in Southern France. 15 dollars. Vin Chicago, 1826 N. Elston Boulevard; 773-489-3454 and winchicago.com

Dr. Konstantin Frank 2022 Dry Riesling: Barrett, Dr. Konstantin says Frank is one of the Finger Lakes’ leading growers with a vine heritage dating back to the 1950s. It’s a versatile wine for food pairings, he says, “featuring notes of bright lemon zest, orchard fruit, and crushed rock typical of fine rieslings.” 18 dollars. Binny’s has multiple locations, binnys.com

Salcheto 2019 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in southern Tuscany “produces sangiovese-dominant wines with characteristic red fruits, dried herbs and floral notes, similar to those from more expensive regions such as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino,” says Barrett. “This is a crowd-pleasing wine that I often purchase for large dinner parties,” he says. 20. Binny’s has multiple locations, binnys.com

Pedro Parra 2019 Pencopolitano Itata: Chilean wine consultant Pedro Parra is “a great friend and world-class terroir consultant… He helps (Quintessa, as well as other leading estates in Burgundy, such as Jean-Marc Roulot and Liger Belair) see the underbelly of our vineyards through a very different lens,” Soto said. “It happened,” he says. . “Their wines are elegant, fresh and lively,” he says, including a “blend of cinnasault and pais grapes from ancient granitic soils” in southern Chile. $24. Vintages Fine Wine, 32 S. Evergreen Ave.; 847-590-8655, vintagesfinevine.com

Get your money's worth at Binny's Beverage Depot Lincoln Park, from left, Parra Family Wines Pencopolitano 2020, $21.99, Chateau de Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2022, $13.99, Chateau Bellevue Peycharneau Sainte Foy Cotes de Bordeaux 2020, 12 $.99, Flores Picpoul de Pinet 2022, $9.99, Dr.  Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2022, $17.99.  (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Binny’s Beverage Depot Lincoln Park’s value-for-money wines include, from left, Parra Family Wines Pencopolitano 2020, $21.99, Chateau de Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2022, $13.99, Chateau Bellevue Peycharneau Sainte Foy Cotes de Bordeaux 2020, 12 $.99, also features Flores Picpoul. Pinet 2022, $9.99 and Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2022, $17.99. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Chateau Marsau 2022 Francs Cotes de Bordeaux: Bordeaux’s lesser-known regions can be a treasure trove of high-performing wines for their price. Soto just discovered: “This 100% merlot produced by a wonderful couple in Francs Côtes de Bordeaux. “This organically grown wine has delicate aromas and a fresh, long finish.” 30 dollars. Flickinger Wines, 1600 S. Stewart Ave.; 312-471-9463, flickingerwines.com

Comando G 2019 La Bruja de Rozas Tietar Valley Sierra de Gredos Garnacha: Soto explains that Spanish winemaking team Comando G has “completely reinvented” its old-vine grenache, planted in the scrubby, mountainous Sierra de Gredos region outside Madrid. Grown in granitic sandstone soils, their garnachas are uniquely delicate and vibrant. “For the price point, it (the wine) is amazing,” Soto says. 30 dollars. Wine Ranger Cellars, wineranger.com

Gary Farrell 2021 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: “Pinot noir is one of the most difficult grape varieties to grow well, so it is extremely difficult to buy on a budget,” says Barrett. “The Russian River Valley is a relatively cool part of Sonoma, perfect for pinot noir to showcase its layers of red fruit, earthy aromas, and refreshing acidity.” 45 dollars. Binny’s has multiple locations, binnys.com

Sandrone 2018 Barbera d’Alba: Overshadowed by the moodier, structured richness of Barolo, Barbera d’Alba is the least talked about and most affordable wine from Piedmont’s great master, Luciano Sandrone. Sandrone’s description of the cherry-scented berbera grape is “beautiful, well-balanced, and (offers) incredible shine,” Soto says. 50 Dollars. Total Wine, totalwine.com

Pierre Moncuit Vintage 2008 Champagne: “This mother-daughter duo at Champagne continues to impress me with some of the most complex Champagne I have tasted for the money,” says Barrett. “It’s definitely a splurge, but it’s a purchase you won’t regret for special occasions and will open your eyes to how amazing Champagne can be.” 86 dollars. Binny’s has multiple locations, binnys.com

Anna Lee Iijima is a freelance writer.


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