Vino 101: Can you judge a #wine by its price tag?

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but can you judge a wine by its price tag?

Photo courtesy of Daniil Vasiliev, Berlin / Saint-Petersburg, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Daniil Vasiliev, Berlin / Saint-Petersburg, via Wikimedia Commons

That, chicas y chicos, is the million peso question. If a bottle of vino costs a small fortune, is it really all that great?

It’s a tough question to answer because “great” means different things to different people, so let’s start with some of the factors that directly affect the cost of a bottle of wine.


1.  Land costs. A lot of the flavor in that glass of wine comes from the dirt where the grapes grew. Like real estate, vineyards are about location, location, location, so some plots of land are more ideal than others and have price tags to match.

2. Man vs. machine. Who–or what–is picking and sorting the grapes? Hiring people to hand-sort grapes generally costs more than using machinery to do the same task. How the grapes are handled can affect the quality and taste of a wine.

3.  Equipment. DId you know that the cost of an oak barrel starts at around $1500? The more bling-y the equipment and winery, the higher the cost of the wine.

4.  Packaging, distribution, marketing. Those cool wine labels were designed by someone, and they had to be slapped onto the bottle (the labels, not the designer). Then there’s the bottle itself, the cork, the shipping and packaging materials, the import fees, the marketing and PR team…¡ay, caramba!


Which brings us back to the “great” question. Which happens to be a great question.

Because each of us has a different palate and our own personal catalog of loves, likes, and blechs, the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) has simplified things by creating this handy guide for evaluating a wine. And no, they’re not paying me to promote this.  WSET, you’re welcome.

Balance: All the flavor components should be evenly distributed, so you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by oak, accosted by acidity, felled by fruitiness or aflame with alcohol (gotta love alliteration).

Length of finish: After you’ve swallowed that first sip, do the aromas drop off immediately, or do they linger for several seconds? A lengthy finish is a mark of a quality wine.

Intensity: How intense are the aromas and flavors? Are they distinctive and easy to detect, or are they faint and barely noticeable?

Complexity: This is the fun part. Are you able to detect anything besides fruit and earth? Do you smell flowers? Can you detect woodsy smells from oak aging? Does the wine’s aroma remind you of a spice? How about vegetable aromas? Any toasty or yeasty smells? The more layers you can detect, the more complex a wine is. And that’s a great thing.

So if your palate gives the wine high marks in the categories above,  you’ve picked a winner. As for the price tag, the only thing that matters is that you’re cool with what you paid. And for the record, I’ve tasted $18  wines that have rocked my mundo, and $50 wines that were good, but not earth-shattering. Of course, the opposite is also true – I’ve had some forgettable bargain wines, and some $300 wines that I can only categorize as a religious experience (Sassicaia, I’m lookin’ at you).


Speaking of religious experiences, that “aflame with alcohol” line has Señorita Vino all hot and bothered. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to cool off with a refreshing glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc.


3 thoughts on “Vino 101: Can you judge a #wine by its price tag?

  1. Great article. What $10 and under wines would you recommend for the fall? I’m thinking in the reds.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article, Stephen! Hmmm…reds under $10. For a little over $10, you can get one of my recent bargain faves: A Portela 2011 Mencía, made from 100% Mencía grapes. At $14.99, it’s a fabulous example of a quality Spanish wine for less than $15. Beautiful plum and red cherry aromas with some floral notes. Generally speaking, Spanish wines are a great value. I’ve found terrific Tempranillos for around $10 – $12 at Cost Plus World Market. If you like a bolder red, try Montes Classic Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 from Chile’s Colchagua Valley. This one is available for $9.99 at K&L in Hollywood. ¡Salud!

  2. Great things to consider! But I’m also wondering how much mass production and supply/demand plays a role in the price. I’ve also have amazing $10 wines and so-so $60… I’ve learned to not focus on price and taste as much as I can. 🙂

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