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Drinking Out Loud

The Value of Value

Why it's vital to seek value wines
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer suggests it's up to you to decide the better of two good wines.

Matt Kramer
Posted: January 16, 2018

"It is usually easy enough to tell which is the worse of two bad wines, but it is extremely difficult to tell which is the better of two good wines."—André Simon, In the Twilight (1969)

Sometimes it takes a surprising amount of experience to distill what may seem to others to be simple or even obvious. André Simon's observation, cited above, is a perfect example.

Few wine drinkers, let alone writers, had the breadth and the length of experience of Simon. Born in Paris in 1877, he lived nearly a century; he died in 1970, at age 93. His adult life was spent in England, where he was a pillar of the wine trade and author of about 100 books and pamphlets, as well as founder, in 1933, of the still-extant Wine and Food Society.

His was an unusually historic span of years. To put it in perspective, Simon was already 26 years old when Wilbur and Orville Wright made their historic flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft; the first Boeing 747 appeared in 1969.

Simon's last book, In the Twilight, appeared that same year. (It was aptly titled not only because it was his valedictory work, but also because by then his eyesight had failed him.) Simon had by then famously declared, "A man dies too young if he leaves any wine in his cellar." Good to his word, he left just two magnums of red Bordeaux in his cellar when he died.

It took me years, decades even, to fully grasp the insightfulness of Simon's late-life assertion that "it is usually easy enough to tell which is the worse of two bad wines, but it is extremely difficult to tell which is the better of two good wines."

To understand it requires, I believe, a recognition of the value of value—in this case, what are conventionally called “value wines.” Without them, we are effectively unable to see the surprising difficulty of distinguishing the better of two good wines.

That, in a nutshell, is what makes a value wine just that: If you put it up against another of its type selling for a lot more money—or having greater renown—and you have real difficulty distinguishing which is the better of the two good wines, well then, you've established "value," haven't you?

The reason it took me so long to fully understand Simon's assertion was that I thought the problem was with me as a taster. If I couldn't tell the difference between a basic Bourgogne rouge and a more exalted premier cru (as I recently recounted), it surely had to be my deficiency. I now know better.

This is what value wines offer: not just a deal, but confidence. Assurance. A confirmation of the validity of your judgment.

Yes, you absolutely need to taste the benchmarks in order to get the full picture. Value, by its very definition, is relative. The closer a wine gets to rivaling in quality, which is not the same as mere copying in style, the acknowledged pinnacle wines of its type, the greater the value of the value wine. It's no more—or less—complicated than that. With this in mind, I was struck by the results of the recent Wine Spectator poll, "Where did you find your favorite value wines in 2017?"

Not surprisingly, the category "I scour for values in established areas like France, Italy and California" garnered a substantial 41 percent of the votes. (Although if the participants are scouring California for values I would myself think they'd find slim pickings.)

However, the category "Down Under,” presumably understood to be more big-production Australia than small-grower New Zealand, garnered just 5 percent of the votes.

This is a striking, even shaming, indictment of how far short once-mighty Brand Australia has fallen in the minds of at least some wine-drinking Americans.

Back in the early 2000s, Australian wines were seen as the ones to beat. They first famously vanquished French wines in the British market; today Britain imports twice as much Australian wine as it does French.

In the United States, Australian wines, powered by the phenomenal sales of Yellow Tail, first crushed the likes of Chilean wines and seemed poised for ever deeper inroads into the vast American wine market.

But the steamroller ran out of steam, in large part because unfavorable exchange rates made the wines more expensive, but also because of the tarnish of a self-inflicted "cheap and cheery" image. The Australians themselves failed to celebrate (and help export) the thousands of small, high-quality Australian winegrowers who were left behind in the race-to-the-bottom export bulk rush.

So today you have the ignominy of just 5 percent of Wine Spectator's poll respondents identifying Australia as their source of value wines in 2017. Granted, it's a small and unscientific poll. But ask any wine retailer: Demand for Australian wines in America is weak, to put it generously.

This is a pity, because Australia, like Chile and Argentina (13 percent in the "South America" category), can deliver the value goods. Their best wines—at every price level—can take on many of the world's benchmark wines in their respective categories.

The key point is Simon's: "It is extremely difficult to tell which is the better of two good wines." It sure is. Never more so than today. Trust your own palate to know the truth of this by making your own comparisons.

Really, can you possibly disagree?

Charles Chambless
Stow, Ohio, USA —  February 7, 2018 11:17am ET
I manage a wine shop in Ohio. I do a wine tasting every Saturday. Last April, in addition to my usual four wines, mostly between $10 and $24, I began including a WOW! Wine of the Week. The WOW! wines are typically priced from $40 to $65 and received professional review scores of at least 93 points. This is compared to mostly 90 point or below scores for the other four wines in the tasting. I charge more for the WOW! wine taste, but my goal is to give people a chance to taste a wine they may never think of buying because the price is too high for their budgets.

Well, and I suspect you already know this, after 10 months of presenting WOW! wines, only a handful actually made people say WOW!. In fact, often one of the four non-WOW wines turn out to be the winner of the tasting. I have thought a lot about the reason for this and conclude that most people don't have the palates of professional reviewers, and can't appreciate wines that aren't ready to drink, a trait of many high scoring wines. The WOW! wines that did best were the ones that were ready to DRINK NOW! No surprise.

I plan to still offer a WOW! wine in my tastings because it still gives people a chance to taste higher end wines, but I have to say the experience has taught me that high scores and prices don't always equate to better wines, at least for most people.

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