Monday, March 24, 2008

The Democratization of Wine

By Natalie Bovis-Nelsen (as seen in Real Talk LA)

Do you still buy into the notion that you have to spend a lot for decent wine? Do you take pride in referring to yourself as a “wine snob” and sneer at those who pay single-digit prices for a bottle of vino? You may be in for a mind-opening, and money-saving, surprise.

Until recent years, when it came to buying wine, many people assumed that more expensive is more impressive. But, let’s face it – few can afford a legendary Chateau Margaux for a Tuesday night pasta dinner, at home. Nowadays, Americans are increasingly enjoying the simple luxury of pairing a meal with an interesting wine, without breaking the budget.

Contrary to what many people in the US may believe, there has always been a large selection of affordable wines in European supermarkets and bodegas. In Spain, France or Italy, drinking wine with the main meal of the day is not uncommon, regardless of economic status. When buying meat or vegetables at the market, the consumer may pick up a $3 or $4 bottle to accompany a simple meal.

Charles Shaw wines, which cost a mere $1.99 per bottle, turned the American wine industry upside down since its debut, in 2002. Now celebrating its 5-year anniversary, “Two Buck Chuck,” as it is affectionately called, is owned by Branco Wines, in Napa Valley. Nephew to wine giant Ernest Gallo, Branco CEO Fred Franzia owns 30 brands of wine, resulting in sales of over $300 million per year. Franzia has publicly stated that he believes no bottle of wine is worth more than $10.

Charles Shaw wine is available exclusively at Trader Joe’s, which offers a large selection of wines under $20, with many in the $5 – 8 range. According to a spokesperson for the supermarket chain, Trader Joe’s buys wine, such as Charles Shaw, directly from the producer. Using this business practice allows for bulk purchase without a middle-man, lowering the cost of presenting products to consumers.

So, how does being less expensive affect the quality of wines stocked on the shelves? All wines carried in Trader Joe’s pass the company’s tasting panel. One manager, who participated in an in-store employee wine tasting, said he preferred Two Buck Chuck over some others in the $13 range. He explains, “Every body’s tongue is different. Some customers say its crap but others come in and buy it by the case.”

Jeff Zimmitti, owner of Rosso Wine Shop in Glendale, agrees that attitudes in the wine world are changing, “A wine connoisseur these days is not just the one chasing older vintage Petrus or La Tache. In fact, the new breed of wine lover is most jazzed by finding that 126-year-old-vine Carignan from Cote de Catalanes for under twenty.”

However, Zimmitti encourages someone looking for wine at a good price to check out a neighborhood wine shop. In fact, the home page of the Rosso Wine Shop specifically welcomes the wine enthusiast “disenchanted with Trader Joe’s.” He explains, “Specialty wine shops are the way to go for finding those hidden gems that every wine connoisseur looks for… And beyond that, once you have made a connection at a specialty shop, you are likely to open an ongoing dialog, which will lead to many other new discoveries.”

Whether you decide to pick up a bottle of an inexpensive vintage from Trader Joe’s on your way home from work, or spend a little more time discussing options in a wine store, one thing is for sure. Enjoying wine on a regular basis is becoming a more accessible, and more affordable, practice. And, that is something worth toasting!

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