Esther Mobley’s article for the San Francisco Chronicle [behind a paywall] articulates an important perspective on wine pricing in California.
Her main point is that, despite the occasional bargain wine that provides good value, we should not expect cheap wine going forward if we care about the environment and economic justice. She writes:
There are scores of honest, hardworking, small-scale producers here who simply can’t afford to sell wines for $10 — who are doing everything they can to put out a good-value product while still eking out a living for themselves. I’ve heard winemakers in the Bay Area earnestly swear to me that after accounting for the costs of labor, real estate, grapes and more, they can barely make any money off a $50 bottle of wine.
Even winemaker’s committed to making affordable wines are having doubts about whether their approach is sustainable. Winemaker Lauren Bissell of Inconnu Wines reports:
“If you’re committed to working against climate change, I think it might be impossible to make a $21 bottle of wine anywhere,” she said. It simply costs too much, in her mind, to farm responsibly, to pay employees a living wage, to buy packaging — like glass bottles — from companies that treat their workers equitably, too….“Wine to me is this quiet, long dedication,” she said, “a place of repetition and learning to make something beautiful.” That doesn’t come cheap.
The issue of wine pricing has always been vexed. Some wines are egregiously overpriced, and the practice of premiumization—the assumption that consumers are willing to pay more for mediocre wine—has no doubt harmed the industry. We know from the data that the relationship between price and wine quality is inconsistent and certainly non-linear. But that does not entail there is no relation. Quality costs money even if the wine industry is inconsistent in how it prices those quality increments.
And we cannot consistently lament the poor pay for vineyard workers and the use of cost effective but damaging pesticides if we’re not willing to pay more for wine from wineries that actually do something to solve these problems.
Everyone loves a bargain but the constant clamor for cheaper wines is a race to the bottom. Wine can be both a popular, everyday beverage and a beverage for connoisseurs only if we maintain a distinction between commodity wines and wines designed to provide an aesthetic experience.