At a wine auction in France, a bottle of vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild Burgundy is sold to the highest bidder for $230,000. At a Trader Joe’s store in California, a bottle of Charles Shaw Chardonnay, known in local slang as a “Two Buck Chuck,” is priced at $1.99. At a vineyard fountain in central Italy, visitors can help themselves to all the Montepulciano D’Abruzzo Rose they can drink -- for free.
From zero to six figures ending in three zeros, wine prices are all over the radar. What you get for what you pay is determined by complex influences, with a huge gap between high and low.
Wine is basically nothing more than an alcoholic drink made from fermented grape juice. With an annual worldwide production of 25.9 billion quarts, prices are defined by such factors as vintage, age, economy, vintner, viticulture, harvest, reviews and supply and demand.
For instance, some investors compare elite Lafite to a Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece painting. Critics describe the wine as “Dark, ruby-purple with extraordinary notes of graphite, black currants, sweet fruit, flowers and unsmoked cigar tobacco.” Noble articulation indeed, but why would anyone pay such an astronomical amount for it?
How many people can tell the difference between rare Lafite and bargain table wine? Blind tastings and academic studies found that neither amateur consumers nor connoisseurs can consistently distinguish fine from cheap wine, nor identify the flavors. (See more in "Put Down the Sweet Red: How to Drink Fine Wine.")
Wine has two essential markets - low to moderate price, and expensive. The majority of sales fall in the former category, with an estimated 90-percent priced less than $10. Key considerations in pricing include production and distribution. Let’s do the math:
Factors That Influence Wine Prices
With a bottle of wine that sells for $30, distributors buy it from the producer for $15, then sell it to retail stores for $20. Markups vary, but retailers sell it for $29. Supermarket giant Costco, the largest seller of wine in the U.S., gets $22. Target offers average reds and whites for $5.
The economics for cheaper wines are geared toward volume sales. A bottle of Australian Yellow Tail Chardonnay for $6 somehow covers the cost of production, taxes, import duties, marketing, overhead and the middleman.
Point of origin also impacts prices. Wine from Napa, for instance, is 61-percent higher than similar California brands, due to premium-grade soil and marketing muscle. (Learn more about California vineyards in "A Breakdown of the AVAs in California.")
By comparison, icon-class wine is another matter. Almost entirely prestige, venture capitalist or "symbol of wealth"-driven, its prices rise and fall with more regard to profit than personal satisfaction. As one investor puts it:
“Investing in wine is straightforward and risky. You buy as much as your budget allows, watch the value increase over time, then keep half and sell the remainder to recoup your investment. With proper timing, your profit is in the form of a prestigious portfolio of quality wine.”
China’s booming economy has developed a new generation of local millionaires, many of whom become formidable players in the international wine investment game. Chinese involvement is partially responsible for vintages to skyrocket in value. At a Hong Kong auction, prices bid for Lafite nearly doubled those for the same wine at European and U.S. auctions.
How To Find Inexpensive Brands
Millionaires aside, common folks can enjoy an inexpensive wine that emphasizes drinking over dividends. Wines $10 or less made by reputable wineries are like diamonds in the rough. Here, according to a leading wine organization, is how to find them:
Avoid High-Profile Locations
No way you’ll pay less than $10 for wine originating from the renowned regions of Italy, France, Spain or the U.S. Look for products from lesser-known terroirs like Paso Robles, Cal. or Languedoc in southern France. (Read "An Exceptional Vineyard in the South of France.")
White Is All Right
Try Obscure Grapes
Though virtually unknown, grapes like Albarino and Nero D’Avola produce less expensive wine than those, for example, like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese. (Learn more in "Nero d'Avola: The Wine Designed for Red Sauces.")
Go Old World
Old World appellations generate lower prices because they have been around longer and their cost of producing wine is less than newer, state-of-the-art wineries. (More in "The Difference Between Old World and New World Wines.")
Bins and clearance sales are stocked with wine selling slowly or not at all. You may find a bargain or two, but not necessarily a decent wine.
Champagne Isn’t Always Champagne
It may say Champagne on the label, but it’s not always the real deal. Prosecco delivers the same fizz and sparkling bubbles, often for under $10. (See "What's the Difference Between Champagne, Cava and Prosecco?")
Average Wine Prices
Before getting overwhelmed by wine prices, here’s what you can expect to pay for wine in these 9 categories:
Extra Value $4
Popular Premium $10-15
Super Premium $20-30
Ultra Premium $30-50
Super Luxury $100-200
Finally, a quiz: What is generally regarded as the world’s most sought-after wine, hailed by specialists as “the perfect Burgundy, “ with the archbishop of Paris declaring it as “velvet and satin in a bottle?”
Domaine de La Romanee Conti Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits 1987. The name is as long as the price. If you can find a bottle, be prepared to shell out $39,000. Otherwise, Two Buck Chuck is easy on both the palate and pocketbook.