The Price is Right?

You can’t judge the quality of a wine by its cost. The winery’s location, mortgage, and even good reviews factor in to the equation

“So, can I tell by the price of a bottle of wine how good the wine is?” asked the woman sitting next to me on the four-hour flight back to Detroit.

“No, actually. Often the price of a bottle of wine is more connected to the winery’s mortgage on the land the wine came from, or the bank note on the winemaking equipment,” I answered.

And, it’s true that the price of a bottle of reasonably good cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley will invariably be pricier than its counterpart grown in the Central Coast region. Not because it’s a better wine, but because of the premium cost of land in Napa — and a few other factors.

While we tend to think that climate, soil, and water are the primary drivers of making a good wine and thus set its price, covering costs is as much a factor in pricing. The quality of what’s in the bottle is not.

Then there is the matter of pricing according to success. So many wineries treat good reviews, especially ones from the big-name publications, as a reason to raise prices — even when the wine may be quite mediocre.

After that come the “vanity” wines: wines of exclusivity, launched by people who have made gobs of money in another industry. They start the conversation at the back end of owning a winery, with the price of the wine they want to sell.

Thirty bucks a bottle? No, that won’t do for these people. More like $100 or $150 a bottle. Then they work backward. They acquire the property, and then hire a big-name winemaker, all of it for the glamour and status of being in the wine industry.

Their wines will never be entered in the big wine competitions. They seek no publicity, and the wines are made in small batches, sold in exclusive places, and at those vastly overinflated prices.

Whether these wines are any good is a guess. Who knows, when nobody but wealthy buyers ever get to taste them?

On the counter side of vanity are those honorable people who make exceptional wine and refuse to raise prices beyond what they feel they should be, and instead strike a reasonable balance between the costs and the wines themselves.

One of those in Napa who chose that route across 30-plus years was Bernard Portet, the former partner and winemaker at Clos Du Val, whose chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons were always exquisite, but at $20 to $40 a bottle, were a half or a third the price of many of the more vaunted big-name, big-buck Napa wines. Portet made better wine than most of them.

I recently tasted a bottle of red from British Columbia that was well made, a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and a little syrah. It seemed to logically be an $18 or $20 bottle. Its shelf price was around $35, in part because the winemaker had gotten some good press, which put its price off the mark for the wine that it was.

Michigan’s wines are usually reasonably priced, the exception being the recent arrival of several new wineries not yet two or three years old, which have started off with exceptionally high prices.

It’s one of the great oddities of the wine industry that setting prices for wine is too often out of step with what’s in the bottle. And don’t think it’s not just in emerging regions where the wineries could perhaps be excused for overstepping their success at home. It’s a very big problem also in the price of California wines.