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Posted on Mon, Feb 8, 2010 : 9 a.m.

The relationship between price and quality of wine

By Eric Arsenault


Photo by Flickr user chispita_666

In the wine business, buyers are inundated with claims of wines that over deliver, offering exceptional quality in comparison to other wines at the same price. Especially in today’s economic climate, finding wines of this kind is increasingly important. The average wine consumer is constantly looking for the next step in quality without a corresponding increase in price. We’re talking about needles in haystacks here. Through all of last year, with hundreds of new wines tasted, there were few that I would call exciting in the value category. Meeting this demand is not just difficult; it goes completely against the grain of how quality wine is made. For wine, quality and quantity are by nature inversely related.

I'll explain by using an analogy. Let us imagine two brothers, Tim and Tom, who after years of living in Michigan, act on their mutual dreams to make wine and move to California wine country. They’ve never been great at sharing and many of their differences growing up would often be resolved by fighting, so they buy property right next to one another decide they’ll each build their own winery. Everything about their properties is for all practical purposes the same. They have the same acreage, the same exposure to the sun, the soil composition is virtually identical, and their vineyards are planted to identical clones of the same grape varietals. In fact, nothing about their environment is different. The only thing that differs amongst these two competitive brothers is the kind of wine each wants to make. It is here where the price of their wines will inevitably be determined.

Though equally excited about their new endeavor, Tim enters into the winemaking business with less financial security than his brother Tom. He believes his best chance in succeeding as a winemaker is to produce the maximum amount of wine his land will produce. He estimates he can make nearly 60,000 bottles even though the average production on a property of his size is 40,000 bottles. He’ll call his wine Tenbucktim and plans to sell it at exactly $10/bottle.

FACT: A vine has a finite amount of energy. That limited energy is divided amongst the clusters of fruit that hang from it. A vine’s only job is to produce as many seed carrying grapes as it possibly can so that they may fall to the earth and further its existence through the creation of new vines. A vineyard does not know it has been planted so that its fruit may be turned into wine and sold. It does not know that if it creates fruit with layers of flavor and character, proper sugar, acid, and nutrients levels, it may make a wine that tastes considerably better that one made from fruit that does have these qualities.

Tom can’t believe what his brother Tim is planning to do. They have both been wine lovers for over 20 years and they’ve enjoyed many of the world’s greatest wines. Wine is a treasured part of each of their lives. Yet after finally taking the plunge and following their dream to move to California and make wine side by side, Tim is going to make wine that Tom wouldn’t even cook with. Tom thinks it could be Tim’s hair brained scheme to try and finally outdo his older brother who has always been considerably more successful than Tim because he has always been willing to work harder, sacrifice more, and wait for his goals to materialize unlike his younger brother Tim.

Tom is not concerned with how much money his new venture makes. Tom invented the coffee filled doughnut and now that 98% of people around the world can’t function without them at the start of every day, he’s has more money than he knows what to do with. His only objective now is to create the best wine the world has ever known. He knows that do this, his vineyard yields will need to be ridiculously low to ensure that every single grape that goes into his wine will be fully ripe, healthy, and layered with complex flavors. To make this happen, he walks though his vineyard every week and inspects each grape cluster himself. By the end of the growing season he clips off more than half of the fruit that has hung from his vines to ensure that the remaining clusters are perfectly ripe! Though Tim has enough fruit in his vineyard to make his 40,000 bottles of swill, Tom has barely enough fruit to produce 15,000 bottles.

Fast forward. Tim made his 40,000 bottles of wine. To do so, not a drop was wasted. In fact, he pressed his must for maximum extract and subsequently added water, sugar, and countless bags of tartaric acid and nutrient mixture along the way to reach that goal. Not wanting to waste his money on expensive new French oak barrels or have to wait for the wine to evolve in the barrels, he used oak chips and powder oak tannin additives to give his wine some edge. He bottled his wine 4 months ago, but despite widespread search for a distributor to help him sell his wine, nobody has shown interest. His only offer has been from a large wine conglomerate who strongly suggested that their $1.50 per bottle offer for his entire lot, which would then be used as filler for their two million bottle production of $5 wine that sells across the country in every major grocery store, was probably double what he’d get anywhere else. Tim is practically a broken man. After sleeping in until 10 every morning, he binges on his brother’s coffee filled donuts, lies around the house all day and drinks two or three bottles of his terrible wine. He would drink even more but the wine really is rather unpalatable.

Tom is anxious and full of anticipation. His wine is still sitting in all new French oak barrels made from several different coopers. He has tasted each barrel as they’ve progressed for the last 9 months and has really gotten to know each barrel and how they’ve influenced his wine. He tries not to be partial, but the wine he has crafted is undeniably exceptional. He records all of his tasting notes and, though he won’t do it for at least a few more months, he’s beginning to experiment with the blending of the different barrels. He’s pretty sure at least a third of his wine will not go into the final blend as some barrels are just not coming along like the others, though even these barrels contain some very impressive wine. He has made some friends in wine country who welcome his passion and have tasted his wine. Word has spread and already several wine critics have contacted him eager to try the wine. With extreme patience, he says he’ll only let them try the wine when he feels the time is right and the wine is truly ready. Distributors are lining up, promising they will sell his wine for more than $100 bottle and that it will be sold out before he even releases it.

While Tim and Tom are entirely fictional, the story is quite common in the wine industry. Advances in technology have dramatically improved the quality of wine at the entry level. But there simply is no technology that can get around the inverse relationship that exists between quantity and quality of fruit on the vine. Take into account costs of land, labor, equipment, storage, and marketing, and you start to see what separates the $10 bottle from the $100 bottle of wine. I often tell people wines are kind of like cars. For the most part, you get what you pay for. Occasionally there are exceptions that offer a good amount of bang for the buck. But one need do no more than sit in the driver’s seat of Fiat and a Ferrari to know there is a justifiable reason for the price difference. The same is true for wine. While most people are not popping the corks on $100 and above wines regularly, I have to ask you: Aren’t you at least curious now what Tom’s wine is like?

I started this blog intending to tell you about Joel Gott, who I had the pleasure of sitting down with last week to taste though his wines. I realized to fully explain just what a needle in the haystack Joel is to California wine, some setup was required. That’s how I got on this Tim and Tom tangent. Hopefully, with some perspective on quality, price, and value, you’ll look for my next entry which will basically be a proclamation that Joel Gott’s wines are unrivaled in the California wine under $20 category. Until then, thanks for reading. Eric Arsenault is the Sommelier for The Chop House and the Director of Wine and Spirits for Mainstreet Ventures. He blogs about wine for


Eric Arsenault

Sat, Feb 13, 2010 : 3:28 p.m.

Lokalisierung, You are correct that there are certainly those in the wine industry that will set a higher price than their product deserves. But I don't believe this is any more true in the wine industry that in others. And in the world of supply/demand economics, the consumer ultimately determine the price of something by their willingness or nonwillingness to pay for it. If enough people refuse to pay for a wine, and the winery cannot sell the bottles they have on hand, they have no choice but to adjust their price. This is a basic element in fair market value.


Wed, Feb 10, 2010 : 11:11 a.m.

Loved the story Eric!


Tue, Feb 9, 2010 : 1:21 p.m.

There are more than a few articles pointing out that the wine industry is pretty corrupt and the price points of wine rarely make sense.