No 'wining' about the price

Good values still to be found on the vintner's shelf

At the always-popular Albany American Wine Festival earlier this month, wine guru Terry Robards led what has become an annual seminar on best buys. This year, the title of the seminar, Best Buys Under $10, changed to Best Buys Under $15.

Which leads to some obvious questions: Have wine prices ratcheted up a notch? Has the bar been raised that much - 50 percent - in the past 12 months?

The answer, price-conscious wine lovers will be relieved to learn, is no.

Well, it's actually both yes and no. Many wines that cost $9.99 a few years ago are selling for $13 or $14 today, but there are even more good wines than there used to be priced at under $10.

The key for wine lovers determined to spend $10 or less for a bottle of wine is to be willing to experiment, to bid a fond adieu to the longtime favorite zinfandel or chardonnay that has gone up in price and develop new preferences.

Jim Ryan, owner of The Wine Shop on New Scotland Avenue in Albany, believes there are more good buys under $10 available today than there were just five years ago, primarily because new wines are constantly being discovered all over the world.

"The industry likes to create and maintain certain levels of price,'' Ryan said. "In other words, there's a plan in place to always have good wines available under $10, just as there will always be a plan in place to have good wines in every range, including expensive wines.

"You may see some varieties of a given label shift from one price category to another, but if they do, the vineyard inevitably introduces a new player into the lower level. Many California wineries are bringing in wines from South America or France under their own label, making it easy for them to have good wines available for under $10.''

At the same time, the market for ultra-premium wines has gone through the roof. A Robert Mondavi reserve cabernet sauvignon that just a couple of years ago retailed at under $50 now sells for more than $100 a bottle.

"It's amazing what's happened to the prices in the super-premium category,'' said Robards, a contributing editor at The Wine Enthusiast and publisher of a monthly wine newsletter. "The $100 per bottle California wine is no longer a rarity.''

Prices for premium American wines from all regions of the country have gone up steadily, according to Robards. He said he changed the title of this year's seminar to ensure that he would have a sufficient number of wines to taste.

"My own prediction is we're going to see a wine glut in the under-$10 category in the next few years,'' Robards added. "Hopefully, the main effect will be to attract more consumers in this country into the wine market, because among developed countries our per-capita consumption of wine is very low, partly because wine has never been part of our culture the way it has been for centuries in most European countries.''

Wine-making technology has improved drastically in recent years, making it easier for growers to consistently produce high-quality yields. Also, the amount of acreage devoted to vineyards in this country and around the world has proliferated during the past decade, leading to an increased supply.

Robards cites these two factors when explaining his prediction for an upcoming "glut'' of good quality wines priced under $10.

Jon Frederickson, a San Francisco-based wine industry economist, concurs with the prediction that the market for good wines under $10 is about to runneth over.

"Napa Valley cabernets have zoomed up from $25 to $30 a few years ago to more than $50 today, but they don't represent a significant fraction of the total wine availability,'' Frederickson said. "The lower tier is definitely declining in price and improving in quality. Every day wine prices are going down while the quality is going up.''

The challenge for wine merchants, according to Ryan, is to keep informed about new products entering the market and to let customers know about good buys that will appeal to them.

"My goal, my job as I see it, is to constantly monitor what's available and lead my clients to the better values,'' Ryan said. "You don't succeed very long recommending $50 wines. People get wise to that pretty quickly.''

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