This is a mea culpa of sorts, or perhaps a reconsideration. It’s a question I’ve asked before: Is Virginia wine too expensive? In the past I’ve argued that it wasn’t. There was a larger story being told by every bottle that justified what seemed like a high price, and I set out to tell that story. To be a part of a developing wine region, to taste craft and art as it happens, to drink wine made by people I know from the place where I live—how can you put a price on that experience?
From what I gather the economy totally blows right now. Unemployment is at a 14-year high, the Dow Jones is up and down like a meth-head on a week-long binge, and banks are closing doors faster than restaurants on the Downtown Mall. It seems to be the winter of our national discontent. So how can I, in good conscience, continue to urge you to buy wine that seems to run at least $20 a pop?
Virginia wine has a lot going for it. Still, for some people, it can’t compete with lower-priced wine from places like Chile, Argentina and especially Australia.
In recent years, there’s been a revolution against the idea that you have to spend a lot of money to get good wine. Lower-priced wine from places like Chile, Argentina and especially Australia, have come to dominate the market. Although we still use “cheap” almost synonymously with “bad,” one need only remember that the 2005 Yellow Tail Shiraz Reserve (about $11) won a place on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list last year to realize that cheap wine is taking over. Hell, even wine-in-a-box is starting to lose its place as the butt of all wine jokes.
Virginia wine, on the other hand, isn’t cheap (in any sense of the word). Good wines from the Commonwealth start at $15 and average about $20. The best Virginia wines cost closer to $30 and $40. In a world where the 2005 Chateaux Margaux is released at $700 a bottle, you can’t exactly call Virginia wine expensive. In fact, if you look at the type of wine made here (e.g., small production, hand-tended and boutique), Virginia could be considered a bargain. The same wines, made the same way, would cost as much or more from anywhere else in the world. And you do, very often, get more for your money. Many of those bargain wines—the $8 Malbecs and Chardonnays—are mass-produced, commercial products, more representative of technology than the place where the grapes come from.
But the question remains: What does it matter that Virginia wine is handpicked by angels if you can’t pay your mortgage? The local grape juice is getting better every year; that fact is indisputable. Since 2005, the state has had a string of good vintages, with some, like 2007, being great. Add over 30 years of homegrown experience and a recent influx of outside talent and money, and it would seem that everything is going in the Virginia wine industry’s favor.
Except price. We still can’t make good wine for cheap. It is unlikely that the economic crisis will keep Virginians from drinking wine; I think that particular cultural shift will remain unabated. But will Virginians learn to love Virginia wine? These days, can they afford to?