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Why it's OK to like cheap wines

Ron Smith, World of Wine columnist

Just kidding of course, I'm really a middle class wine drinker — somewhere above the $15 price point, and around or below the $30 bottle. Occasionally I will be tempted by a $50 bottle of what everyone has deemed a classic, such as a bottle from the famous wineries of Chateau Montelena and Stag's Leap for their victories in the "Judgment of Paris."

How on economic earth do producers get a bottle to market for $5 or under? Are these just 'lost leaders' to get the unwary into the store and perhaps purchase a bottle or two where a profit is possible?

It all goes back to the three-tier wine distribution system that exists in the United States. If places like Target and Trader Joe's are going to sell their wines for $5 and still make money, they need to consider that the static inputs of bottles, corks, labels and packaging are covered when shopping for the product that goes into the bottle.

Sophisticated and beginning wine aficionados soon realize the best wines come from the stressed and mountainous areas of the world to have something more than a bland, characterless wine. As a sweeping generalization, the low-cost wines are from grapes grown in the more fertile areas where the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality in their final product.

While quality wines emphasize limited production, hand harvesting and culling of grapes that don't meet high standards, these super value wines are mechanically harvested from flatland vineyards that allow such mechanization, which is less selective about the quality of grapes that make the wines.

Another popular approach is to purchase bulk wine already vinified at fire sale prices. This is how the well-known "Two Buck Chuck" began - looking for wineries either in bankruptcy or the brink of it, to get their wine for two dollars a gallon. At that price, they have 50 cents invested in the wine that goes into the bottle, leaving ample economic slack to get it bottled and sold at retail.

I have friends who swear by the consistent quality of their $5 wines, which is understandable, as the suppliers make every effort to see to it the taste is not altered significantly from one year to the next — always pleasing the low-priced consumer.

The low-priced wine also has another intention; to attract the current population of millennials whose budget is as tight as pair of small shoes. They start there — perhaps first with a boxed wine where it can be purchased by the liter or more, but they, like I did, will likely graduate to higher quality wines when they are exposed to them by more knowledgeable and experienced wine aficionados.

Ron Smith, a retired NDSU Extension horticulturist, writes weekly about his love of wine and its history. Readers can reach him at