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two buck Jeff Siegel, The Wine Curmudgeon, is incensed. Two-Buck Chuck, the wine that Trader Joe’s sells for $2.49, won three Gold Medals last week in California wine competitions. Seigel’s ire is directed toward the mainstream wine media who dismissed the victories—the “competition must be rigged”, “wine competitions are worthless”, “makes one wonder what the judges were drinking or smoking”, were some of the comments.

Siegel, whose blog focuses on inexpensive wines, accuses the wine media of drinking price and prestige rather than wine, and holding grudges against Fred Franzia the creator of “Two-Buck Chuck”, whose disdain for the wine press is legendary. And he gives Two-Buck Chuck its due:

Sometimes, the wines taste like the mass-produced, corporate plonk that they are. And sometimes, they’re quite tasty, whether it’s an accident of winemaking, better quality grapes, or the phase of the moon. How can anyone know unless they taste the wines?

Siegel is right about Two Buck. I used to buy it regularly but the inconsistency drove me away. Some bottles were fine as a daily table wine, other bottles disappeared down the drain. If I’m going to drink generic, mass-produced wine it’s not unreasonable to expect consistency, which many of the other big producers like Gallo supply.

He is also right that writers who review wine should give some attention to cheap wine—it is after all what most people drink. Most wine lovers—me included—cannot afford $50 bottles every night. It is ordinary wine that must sustain that love affair and many of them do it successfully.

But Siegel is pointing to a dirty little secret in the wine industry—there is only a very loose relationship between price and quality. Yes, in general, more expensive wines have more intensity, complexity, and elegance than the cheap stuff. But the difference is often subtle. Triple the price of Two-Buck Chuck and you will typically find wines that are perhaps 10% better. (Yes, there are exceptions but they are exceptions)  Multiply by 6 and you’ll get another incremental improvement. (And still a few you will pour down the drain).

Thankfully, for the makers of premium wine, it is the subtlety that matters.

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