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The End of Fine Wine as We Know It?

… Or at least California fine wine, according to this fascinating article from yesterday's Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. The article asserts: "… a powerful shake-up under way in the U.S. wine industry. Consumers, who for decades have been steadily trading up to higher-priced vintages have reversed course, trading down to cheaper wines in search of better values. Some think the reversal will be short-lived; others say something has fundamentally changed in the wine business."

While large production, value wines such as Gallo and Bronco Wine Co (Two Buck Chuck) are "seeing sales soar," sales of wines over $20 were down 15% and wines over $50 were down much, much more. Newly constructed, fine wineries are on the chopping block, grape prices are down, restaurant wine sales are weak. Wine is remaining unbottled and unshipped, causing problems in storage space as the new harvest is beginning and poised to fill up a winery's tanks. Interestingly, "The trouble is brewing largely unnoticed because overall wine consumption is up."

I've long bemoaned the lack of good cheap wines in California. If it's not a mass-produced, highly manipulated wine such as we find in Safeway, chances are it's going to cost over $15, probably over $20. This is in stark contrast to European country wines, which can often be found (when you're in Europe—the bad exchange rate is making these wines cost more in the US these days) for cheap.

Not only that, but American wineries tend to drive up the prices of their wines by spending lavishly on expensive oak barrels, heavy glass bottles and fancy winery equipment. Often the wine might be even better if it was made more cheaply. Who needs all that oak flavor if you've got good grapes? After all, besides grapes, tanks a press and bottles, everything else you need to make wine is inexpensive or free (yeast, for instance). Might it make better wine? Eric Asimov asked the same question in his blog for the NYT.

I personally hate to see the suffering in the fine wine market, as I have friends who both make and sell the higher echelon wines. On the other hand, I love great inexpensive wines (as I sometimes highlight here in the "pizza wine" posts) and would gladly drink more California wine priced at that pricepoint and made in a food-friendly style.