Too cheap to be good?

Great Northwest WineMay 23, 2013 

Some wines have a perception problem that just boggles common sense: They aren’t expensive enough.

It has long been an issue, and you’ve perhaps heard the stories of blind tastings — kind of like the Pepsi Challenge — in which so-called wine experts cannot tell the difference between a $10 wine and its $100 equivalent.

Likewise, you might have heard how some wine lovers — and critics — will perceive a wine differently based on the label, price and, thus, its perceived quality. Even if a pedestrian wine is put into an empty bottle from a high-priced producer, some wine lovers will think it is better than it might actually be.

But my issue is on the other end of the scale, the inexpensive wines that get less respect than Rodney Dangerfield.

For example, I took a recent visit to the heart of Oregon wine country. Duck Pond Cellars in Dundee has been making Pinot Noir for more than two decades. It’s regularly delicious and occasionally superb, and it rarely, if ever, disappoints. In the past 16 years, I’ve blind tasted Duck Pond Pinot Noir dozens of times, and more often than not, it earns a high mark.

You wouldn’t know that by looking for it on wine lists of top restaurants in the area. They carry just about everyone else, even those producing inferior wines at two to three times the price. Where I find a $15 Pinot Noir that is delicious, others seem to have a perception problem.

That’s just wrong.

Why in the world would retailers and sommeliers not want to promote an introductory-priced Pinot Noir that will allow nascent wine drinkers to explore a world beyond the ordinary? It simply makes no sense to me.

North of the Columbia River, Chateau Ste. Michelle makes some of the world’s finest Riesling. Three years ago at the Riesling Rendezvous, CSM’s Dry Riesling was pitted against several other world-class dry Rieslings from top producers in Australia, New York, Alsace, Germany and Austria. Some of those wines exceeded $50 in price, yet the consensus favorite of the 300 tasters — and the winemakers on the stage — was the CSM.

When it was revealed the Washington wine retailed for $9 (and, with a bit of diligence, could be found for around $6), outrage ensued, with more than one European producer chiding the Woodinvile winery for charging too little and, thus, hurting the reputation of top-end international Riesling.

To those charges, CEO Ted Baseler calmly pointed out that he was happy to sell all his Riesling at affordable prices because it took less work and brought the message of Riesling and Washington wine to the masses. No doubt his company still made a tidy profit, too.

Rob Griffin takes a similar approach. The owner and winemaker for Barnard Griffin in Richland, Wash., wins loads of awards for his wines, especially his everyday reds. His socalled “Tulip label” reds retail for $17, and I’ve watched many wine snobs turn their noses up at his wines because of the price, preferring to spend two to three times as much for a bottle from wineries with more perceived pizzaz.

In fact, after Griffin has won yet another gold medal or best-in-class for his Tulip Cabernet Sauvignon, I’ve often asked him why he doesn’t raise the price another dollar or two. Surely the wine’s quality commands a higher price.

To that, he will reply, “Then I would need to hire more salespeople and have more headaches.”

He would rather sell all of his wine without hassle and provide a nice bargain for his fans, even if the snobs prefer to spend their money elsewhere.

None of this makes sense to me. Perhaps it’s because I chose a profession that doesn’t pay enough to fritter away.

My dear departed friend and mentor Bob Woehler was famous for sniffing out good inexpensive wines. In fact, we nicknamed him “Bargain Bob” because of this innate ability. He, too, was a journalist his entire adult life, so there might be something to ink-stained wretches being a bit on the cheap side.

Years ago, I received an email from one of my old college journalism professors. He liked what we were doing with Wine Press Northwest, but he wanted us to separate the bargain wines into their own section so he could more easily find them. So we created the “Best Buys” category. It became a hit with him and others looking for less-expensive bottles of wine.

This is not to say I don’t have any expensive wines in my cellar. But because of their price, it’s often difficult to justify drinking them. I have to find a reason to open that special bottle of Leonetti, Woodward Canyon or Beaux Freres. And that’s too bad because those wines might just wait and wait and wait for that right moment.

Now is the time for us to turn down the snob appeal and embrace our region’s delicious and affordable wines.

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Andy Perdue is the co-owner and editor of Great Northwest Wine, a wine and information company. Go to www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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