The avoid-brands wine strategy

By Felix Salmon
March 26, 2012

The best bit about wine is drinking it; the worst bit about wine is buying it. You walk into a wine store, or a supermarket, and you see hundreds of different bottles, most of which you’ve never heard of. And you’re then expected to somehow pick exactly the right one, in the knowledge that if you get it wrong, both your meal and your wallet are likely to suffer the consequences. So it’s hardly surprising that most people go with what they know, and end up buying something adorned with a well-known brand.

My taste in wine has evolved enormously since I started buying it regularly when I was at university. What I like now I wouldn’t have liked then, and what I liked then I wouldn’t like now. But one thing has stayed constant: I’ve always had a gut-level prejudice against big wine brands. Once I see a wine advertised anywhere, I’m pretty much guaranteed never to buy it. The only brands I ever respect or seek out are importers — especially when it comes to French wine from outside Bordeaux, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by getting a feel for which importers are generally trustworthy and reliable when it comes to picking great wines.

My intuition about such things was always that if I bought a wine with a nationally-known brand, I was essentially paying for the branding campaign at least as much as I was paying for the wine. On top of that, I felt that a wine made in such volume could never really be the unique and wonderful living thing that I’m always looking for in a wine: that its character would have to be ironed out in the service of homogeneity and predictability.

Besides, the whole world of wine-branding is just incredibly distasteful.

And so, when I found myself having to buy a bottle of wine in a supermarket in Chesterfield, Missouri, I spent a long time walking up and down the vast selection of California wines, and much tinier selection of everything else, looking for anything which didn’t come from some huge and faceless international conglomerate. Let’s just say that the store’s (or the chain’s) wine buyer wasn’t buying with me in mind. Just like big brands like to be able to deal with as few media outlets as possible when they buy media for their advertising campaigns, so do supermarkets (with a few notable exceptions) like to deal with as few vendors as possible when they buy wine for their stores. And given the number of Americans who buy their wine wholly or solely in supermarkets, the result is that a large chunk of the country essentially lives in a world where wine is branded juice from some huge company.

At the same time, however, most of us do still have a choice as to what we buy. So long as we’re not in a supermarket or chain restaurant, there’s bound to be a little bit of character in the choices available to us. And going off-piste, as it were, is fun, even as it does carry obvious risks. As a basic rule of thumb, simply avoiding big brands works surprisingly well.

Importantly, this is true at every price point, not just at the supermarket level. A few days ago, the NYT ran an article headlined “Bulgari Family Tries to Become a Name in Wine”:

A new wine venture by two members of the Bulgari watch and jewelry dynasty, Paolo and Giovanni Bulgari, will release its first three wines this weekend…

“My father taught me how to handle stones, to hold them in my hands without looking at them to get a sense of their temperature, and then to observe how light plays off them,” he said. Wine also called for an intuitive perspective: “how it reacts to light, how the color moves in a glass.”

And as if that wasn’t gruesome enough, today brings even more egregiousness from Vinitaly:

“As soon as you say ‘Prada and brunello’, ‘Ferrari or Maserati and brunello’, it makes a very vital association, especially for consumers around the world that might not know the differences in the wine,” said Cristina Mariani-May, co-CEO of Banfi, makers of the full-body brunello red.

Happy to promote Italy’s image as a source of all types of quality goods, members of Italy’s luxury industry body Altagamma have agreed to accompany their shows and other high-profile events with Italian wines.

Banfi do indeed make brunello; they also make Riunite.

The fact is that high-end branded wine, from Tignanello to Opus One to Chateau Lafite, is generally about as good value for money as anything from Prada or Bulgari. If you’re the kind of person who would rather spend half as much money on a perfectly-fitting bespoke suit from a no-name tailor than buy something off the peg from Prada, you’re definitely the kind of person who should avoid expensive branded wines.

But, there are exceptions to this rule, or at least there’s one big exception: Iberia. In Spain, at least in my experience, I often find that the bigger the company and the brand, the more delicious and characterful the wine — and the cheaper it is, to boot. If you want a great Rioja, for instance, you can never go wrong with one of the grandest brands of them all, Lopez de Heredia, which often costs much less than Parkerized cult wines from Spanish garagistes. Similarly, there’s no good reason not to go with the big names in sherry, or port, or madeira. The big old brands know what they’re doing, know how to take their time, and are continuing to do what they’ve always done, rather than trying to follow international taste. (The same is true of Chateau Musar, in Lebanon.)

As a general rule, however, mass-produced wine will always taste mass-produced, and if you’re looking at an expensive branded wine, you’ll nearly always find something better at the same price from a lesser-known vigneron. Which doesn’t, of course, alter the fact that the branded wine will still probably be the safer choice.

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Comments
12 comments so far

What you say is true in Spain is also in Israel – you can count on the Ramat HaGolan Winery, which is the biggest producer and responsible for the whole Israeli wine boom since the 90s. Try a Yarden cab if you can.
But the Parkerized Castel and Yatir are also very good!

Posted by MickWeinstein | Report as abusive

You assume one wine objectively tastes better than another (delicious and characterful; great Rioja, etc.). But as one expert said when asked which wines he prefers, “I usually buy the cheapest since they all taste about the same.” I would say that once one gets above the dirt cheap wines (say over $6-7 a bottle) it is purely a matter of taste. So why worry about brands at all? And differences in taste are minimal and purely subjective.

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive

My sister has an interesting wine buying strategy: if the label has any gold on it, she won’t buy it. Her point is that if they have to spend money on the label to sell the wine, the wine can’t sell itself so she avoids it. It works pretty well, too.

Another rule when hunting value, avoid French wine. It’s terribly overpriced for what you get, whereas Southern Hemisphere wines offer a far better cost/flavour ratio. They may be harder to get hold of, but they’re worth hunting down.

All the above assume you are looking for an alternative to the mass produced US varieties.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

I tend to just grab something in the 7-10 dollar range I haven’t tried before. Then if I like it I get it again, if I don’t like it I avoid it. I know rocket science!

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

Totally agree, re: Spanish wines. When my spouse and I were there on honeymoon, we saw this effect. You can get an excellent bottle Malaga Dulce for well under €20, and we found perfectly respectable wines by the glass in the range of €5, even in good restaurants.

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

Bulgari is going to find out it’s not competitive. There are some exceptional large company wines. Gallo and Mondavi have deeper pockets than Bulgari can dream of, and the Gallo daughter has more business sense in her pinky than the whole Bulgari bunch together.

But, take a wine country tour. Head west to Calistoga, avoid Napa and Sonoma, and you will find small family vinters that compete against the best in the world, and beat them. Take your bike, or rent one in town. Chateau Montelena is an easy ride from any of the downtown hotels, and it beat ALL of the rest of the world. If you are really interested and serious, post a note on this site. I have contacts there you should talk to. You will never buy imports again.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Another thing you should know about the big guys: I heard this story more than a couple of times from small producers in CA, that when they were struggling early on, old man Modavi showed up and bought their crop, sometimes for years, giving them the cash to survive. I was like you for a long time, now, I would not hesitate to buy either a Gallo or Mondavi wine. It’s not like NY, Felix, lots of ethical, honest, decent people are doing business in this country.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Felix,

What were you doing in Chesterfield, MO?

;)

Posted by crocodilechuck | Report as abusive

1. Your link to Jay Miller’s problems with rating Spanish wines was interesting – as you may know Jay Miller has some other problems now.
2. I’m quite flattered to find my $60 bottle of Tignanello mentioned in the same breath as Opus One and Lafitte. If that’s bad value, I’ll take it

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive

You need to define what you mean by “brand” and “branded”!

Effectively, all wines are “branded”, albeit with the name of the producer. But is a Chapoutier wine a “brand” any more or less than “Mondavi” or “Latour”? And why?

The Sediment Blog

Posted by Sedimentblog | Report as abusive

There are plenty of big, widely-distributed brands that offer a predictable, decent quality product which is safer than taking a flier on something totally unknown in a weakly staffed and stocked store – d’Arenberg’s Stump Jump, Borsao in Spain, Chateau Ste Michelle, etc. There’s not always an opportunity to discover a great product from a noble, small-scale farmer when one is trying to pick up a wine for 10 bucks on the way somewhere.

ARJ, your examples are not great. Montelena is a classic large Napa producer that is riding its reputation and pricing accordingly. Robert Mondavi is dead and before he died he sold his name to Constellation Brands. These brands are better at manipulating your beliefs than you realize.

Posted by najdorf | Report as abusive

I’d like to point out a mistake by the author. Banfi does not make Riunite, never had, never will. Banfi before they were a producer was a wine importer and they still are. Riunite is one of the many brands they import and or sell in the USA along with Travento, Walnut Crest, Bola, Choncha y toro and now Kenwood vinyards from the US. Fiat is closer to a Ferrari then Banfi is to Riunite.

Posted by JCM1975 | Report as abusive
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