In Defense of Cheap Wine

Rachel’s Team Pick:

A “real journalist” has finally said what all the rest of us secretly know: expensive wine is confusing and weird and pointless, and cheap wine is awesome.There is no shame in drinking it. (Also, in his calculations about price he assumes that you and your significant other are drinking 5 bottles a week, which I appreciate.)

VIA THE URBAN GROCERY

If hints of cassis, subtle earthiness, and jammy notes don’t interest you, you are not a lesser person. Wine is not art. There’s no reason to believe that aligning your tastes with those of a self-appointed elite will enrich your life, or make you more insightful or sensitive. If wine critics want to spend lavishly on the wine they like, that’s great. Leave them to their fun. Be grateful that you can gain just as much pleasure, if not more, without bankrupting yourself… rest assured that cheap wine in the United States is good, to the extent that the term has any objective meaning. Falling market share over the last 15 years has forced discount vintners to compete with upmarket brands, and modern technology has enabled them to crank out consistent wines, case after case. So, if you win your $3 gamble on the first bottle, you know you’ll like the next.

There are, of course, people out there who can afford to buy wine at upwards of $20 a bottle; perhaps some of them even read this website! But let’s be real, you’re going to need some Franzia at Dinah Shore.  And I know I haven’t bought any wine that wasn’t marked down at least 40% since, oh, ever. Why feel bad about it, and why pay twice as much? Sometimes it will taste like juice, but hey, there are worse things! How do you feel? What do you drink? How does Manischewitz figure in? I have a lot of questions.


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Rachel

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.

86 Comments

  1. AGREE.

    I almost always buy my wine on sale anyway, so I spend maybe $6-10 on a bottle. And my cheap wine has never let me down. I prefer Barefoot and Monkey Bay.

    Also, weirdly, I get horrible headaches from drinking more expensive wines. Probs all that cassis.

    I do like, however, the descriptions of the fancy pricey wines. They can be really sexy, even if you don’t know what the label is actually saying. The exception to that is a wine from a wine-pairing dinner I went to a few years ago (bonus: I was dating the really hot chef). One of the wines was described as having a “barnyard” essence. That was not sexy. But the wine was good. Is that weird? Oh well.

  2. Manischewitz is delicious, but only during Passover; the rest of the year it’s gross.

    I used to have lots of fun going to the liquor store and picking out random wines in the ~$10 range; sometimes they were really great. Now my local liquor store has a tiny wine selection, so I always drink the same Concha y Toro Sauvignon Blanc.

  3. I am partial to cheap wine to get drunk with. it’s strong and it tastes better than vodka coke. i drink cheap wine quite often.

    but i think this post is ignoring how amazingly yummy expensive wine is. i don’t mean ridiculously expensive, i mean $50+ dollars a bottle in a restaurant.

    i prefer certain grapes but i don’t think that makes me a snob. i can find basic cheap wine in my local supermarket that is at least labelled ‘sauvignon blanc’ or ‘chardonnay’, and when i compare the price it’s actually the same price or cheaper than unlabelled crap like franzia. if a bottle just says ‘white wine’ or is under 12% i personally wouldn’t bother if i were you…

  4. There was a time that I was convinced that increasingly expensive wine was a sign of the natural progression through adulthood: the 3-for-a-tenner bottles at uni, upgraded to 2-for-£10 upon reaching gainful employment, to the unbridled decadence of an £8 bottle reduced from £15.

    But I cannot declare that my enjoyment of wine inflated, merely my ability to afford it. In that respect, I think the wine industry has the best built-in marketing going, taking what is essentially a commodity and transforming it into an aspirational product if only you had the skill to enjoy it.

    Obviously, any activity involving a show of wealth, condescension and pointless ceremony is intoxication in itself for the middle classes, but it’s when you start feeling mystifying allegiances to certain grapes that you realise you’ve probably turned into a twat.

    Uniformly, the people I know that have studied wine-tasting to any reasonable degree have declared that all it does is make them realise what they don’t like, thus rendering them unable to enjoy cheap wine for eternity. This sounds like the worst education ever.

    At least with wine we’re trying to fool ourselves that our delectation is based on them tasting of something, as opposed to premium vodka where its perceived value is based on tasting of nothing (excellent article here).

    All this has convinced me that I’ll be completely underhauling my drinking habits: supermarket-brand spirits, box-wine, meths. Although I should have realised things were taking a turn for the classy when I was drinking whiskey and cheerwine the other night.

    • ‘it’s when you start feeling mystifying allegiances to certain grapes that you realise you’ve probably turned into a twat’

      well actually no, not really. wine has so many tastes – i’m sure anybody can tell the difference between dry and sweet wine, and the grapes you drink can change these sorts of major qualities in the wine. we’re not talking subtle differences here and ‘hints of mango’ or crap like that, you can tell the difference between a basic supermarket $7 sauvignon and a basic supermarket $7 chardonnay, they have really different tastes! certain grapes can be sweet or dry. when it comes to red wine, the grape makes a huge difference on how heavy it is – i can’t drink most red wine, it usually makes me feel sick but certain grapes are lighter. these kind of differences aren’t subtle or pretentious, they’re obvious to anybody if they took a sip of two different grapes one after the other!!

      if you don’t want to drink enough wine to notice the difference and just drink cheap table wine to get drunk then fair enough, so do i! but i feel like this is reverse snobbery, if someone gave me a glass of wine and it’s nice i’m happy, but i’m not seeking out the grape or the vintage or hints or fruit or whatever, but you’re acting like people who enjoy good expensive wine are just pretending for the sake of it and apart from wine critics, who on earth would bother?!

      • I was being a twat about people turning into twats. It’s meta-twatism.

        I was actually thinking more about the stigma around certain grapes. I don’t know if it’s the same in America, but there’s definitely negative connotations attached to some wine in the UK, particularly chardonnay. This is partly because of its ubiquity, but also partly because it’s associated with certain types of people (footballer’s wives, lower-class women in general). There’s an Anything But Chardonnay mentality that abounds that seems less, to me, about broadening one’s palette than it is about social condemnation.

        • i’m actually from the UK, i was using dollars because most ppl here are american.

          i don’t know about chardonnay – my dad’s lawyer friends drink it and think it’s the best wine out there (yes, i am middle class). i think pinot grigio is what you usually get in clubs and bars. personally i think they both taste like alcoholic wood in a glass..

          i’ve tasted expensive wines and still prefer a £15 bottle from the supermarket but that doesn’t mean there still aren’t big difference between grapes to make you choose on over the other..

          • although also, just to add to my rather long rant about wine!

            things like vodka, i think you can tell the difference between something good like absolut and sainsbury’s basics, but i would always go for basics because that’s within my price range. also there’s no snobbery or prestige around spirits, but people do actually go on tastings! like whiskey, vodka… even beer i like to do tastings, it all tastes differently depending on how it’s made.

            so to wrap up, i agree there’s snobbery around wines, but i don’t think that means there isn’t a difference in taste or that there aren’t much nicer tasting wines/whiskeys/vodkas/beers out there, and the more expensive it is as a rule, the better it probably is…

          • I agree with you wholeheartedly that there is a huge difference in the taste of different grapes. My worry is that it isn’t the taste that dictates what a lot of people choose to drink, it’s external influences. I think I’m just so over the artifice of a lot of our consumption habits – I like it when people are passionate about stuff they like for what it is.

            Out of interest, what whites do you go for? The white section in the supermarket is usually a wall of Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvy B, like a floor-to-ceiling tricolor in different shades of urine. There’s always much more variety with the reds.

            Also, just to keep the contention alive, I can’t for a minute believe that something more expensive is necessarily better. Price inflation caused by rarity, promotion and/or obscure production techniques doesn’t automatically give something a pass on something as subjective as “niceness”.

        • THANK YOU. In Australia sauvignon blanc is seen as more classy than chardonnay and it drives me up the wall. It has absolutely nothing to do with how the wine tastes and everything to do with image – people don’t want to be ‘bogan’ (UK equivalent chav). I figured that was what you meant when you talked about emotional attachment to certain grapes… attachment based not on the taste of the wine itself but emotional ties to the social reputation the varietal has.

          Personally I think it’s weird to say you think a type of wine is good or bad. You may not particularly enjoy it, but that has nothing to do with the merit of the wine and everything to do with your taste in wine. But mostly I think it shows a lack of genuine appreciation for wine. That makes me sound like a bit of a snob, but I just mean that within one variety there’s so much diversity it’s almost impossible to say you like or dislike the whole variety. For example generally with whites I like something dry without much fruitiness – I can find this in some kinds of sauv blancs and chardonnay – but I can also find the opposite. It’s more a question of taste than variety.

          Ok… now I probably sound like a bit of a wanker :p ah well.

      • Yeah, I agree. I can’t necessarily tell the difference between a $5 bottle of cabernet sauvignon and a $20 bottle of cabernet sauvignon but I can tell the difference between a $5 bottle of cabernet sauvignon and a $5 bottle of red zinfandel.

  5. I have a friend who is an avid wine collector and drinker. He’ll spent $50 on a bottle like nothing. I think he’s nuts. I taste his expensive wines and I play a game where I come up with my description (“notes of raspberry and a hint of tobacco!”) to see how well I match the experts (never well), but honestly, I’m good with some red Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s.

  6. I never drank wine in the states as I am an avid beer drinker, but now that I’m living in Morocco it is the cheapest option and I’m on a budget. The quality is possibly worse than anything you can get in the States. I buy plastic liter and a half bottles that cost 35 dirhams, which is less than 5 dollars. It tastes absolutely horrible but it does the job. When given the choice, though, I’d rather have cheap beer.

  7. trader joe’s carries some awesome $4-6 tempranillo wines from la granja. they have cute animals on the labels, and two of the three varieties are screw-tops for all my homies who can’t find their corkscrews right this minute.

    • indeed! Trader Joe’s also carries this suuuuuper good Italian wine called Tentatre (it means 33 in italian, named because it is 33% cab, 33% merlot and 33% montepulciano). it costs $5.99 but tastes like a $25 bottle. srsly you guys, go get some it’s awesome. my gf and i drink it all the time, we should probably just get a case and be done with it.

    • i legit have a deep appreciation for the fact that cheap wine often has normal screw-tops and not corks…corkscrews are the worst invention ever and get progressively more difficult/dangerous the more bottles you drink amirite

      • Don’t even get me started on the screw tops vs corks, DON’T EVEN!!!

        I feel like screw top: shit is getting real.

        Corks: If I don’t have a cork screw I am fucked and I don’t like this OMFG WHERE ARE THE SEWING SCISSORS I USED THE LAST TIME TO GET THIS FUCKER OPEN!?! OMFG I LOANED THEM TO KATIE FOR HER GLITTERY GAY-GAY DIY PROJECT FUUUU-

        I like screw tops.

        Also. Also…also, my sister SLICED her hand trying to use a cork screw. Poured herself a glass (without realizing her hand is bleeding) seeing the blood and realized grad school will drive her nuts, thus more wine.

        I rest my case and love the fact you also too-legit-to-quit appreciate screw tops on wine bottles.

        Respect.

  8. This is an interesting article, and there are a lot of points that I agree with, but what it says about European discount wine makers being lesser quality doesn’t seem right. The cheap bottles of Bordeaux and Bergerac that I drank in France this summer were consistently less than 3-euro, and they were really really delicious. If I did the same thing here, I’m sorry, but it would not be the same quality. The French know how to make wine. Same with cheese. And bread. Hell, France is just better.

    That said, I’m not necessarily stuck up about my wine. I never spend more than $15 for wine in the states, and I love getting two-buck-chucks from Trader Joe’s, because for cheap wine, it’s boss. But as far as saying that cheap wine can be better, I don’t necessarily agree.

  9. I am in Bilbao and saw a box of wine in the grocery store today for €0,55! I didn´t buy it but I probably should have, especially with the recent autostraddle endorsement of cheap wine. also trader joe´s recently dropped their two buck chuck from 2.99 to 2.49, once again approaching two dollars. it´s amazing how little money it takes to drink a lot.

  10. Being French I am deeply offended by all the winism in this article. Would YOU like your grape orientation to be deemed “weird and pointless”? And why is there no mention of those of us who swing both ways, and like cheap and expensive wine alike!? Once again the privileged heteronormative patriarchy strikes, this is binary fascism at its best!

    Now you’ll excuse me, I have to go make numerous vulgarity-filled comments on all the articles published today expressing my hatred of you, this entire website and fucking Glee.

  11. six dollar bottle of yellow tail shiraz? yes, please! also i love that here in north carolina i can just buy my cheap wine at the grocery store; back home in kentucky you had to go to the liquor store. then again, we have drive-through liquor stores back home…

  12. I drink wine. French wine. In France, a good bottle of wine is less than 7euros (10$). But I often buy a bottle for 3or 4 euros (5$) which are tastier than the bottles sell at 1 or 2 euros (2-3$). From what I understand in this article a good wine in France is wayyy cheaper than a good wine in america.

  13. I disagree with most of this article. You don’t need to bankrupt yourself to find a nice solid wine that’s good for everyday drinking, no. And it’s quite possible to find wines that drink above their price range (and vice versa, nothing shittier than opening an $18 bottle to find it drinks like a $10 bottle). But generally speaking you ain’t gonna find the complexity of a fine wine in a cheap one.

    I think it kinda depends on why you drink wine… if you drink it to get drunk, then obvs you go for the cheapest thing you can get your hands on. If you drink it to go with your meal, then you get something cheap-but-tasty. If you want to sit down and drink a bottle of wine because it’s fucking delicious, I don’t think you have to pay the earth, but it is gonna cost a few more pennies.

    True story – I have a wine book that describes Loire Valley sauvignon blancs as having ‘a hint of cat’s urine’. Mmmm, delicious cat’s urine.

    • I’ve totally read that cat urine description somewhere. it’s like, really guys? i used to like sauv blanc until you put that scent in my head and now all i taste is cat pee hahah

      • Fittingly, I am a little tipsy while writing this, so you might have to forgive me if I say anything silly… well, unusually silly anyway ;)

        My first thought on reading that article was ‘at last I understand why Australians are so crazy about Oyster Bay sauv blanc’! Mostly though, I accept the idea that marketing and expense (which is a form of marketing how ‘exclusive’, ‘elite’ or ‘premium’) something is shape perceptions of product quality. I mean we see that all the time really… I think fashion is a prime example of that, similar products made under similar labour conditions (i.e. factors somewhere in China or the like) can command vastly different prices because of the label sewn on to them. That has nothing to do with quality, just marketing.

        But that can’t be the only factor in shaping consumer taste, surely? When I was back in Oz I was generally drinking (don’t judge) a $3 bottle of sauvignon blanc from Aldi. Because it tasted like something worth $10 more. Similarly when I arrived in Germany I bought my friend who I was staying with a $40 bottle of shiraz to thank him for his hospitality. And it was nice, but it drank like an $20 wine, not a $40 one! I guess what I am saying is the study doesn’t really explain those sorts of consumer reactions, which I am sure are quite common. Hopefully that makes sense.

        What do you think?

        • Yeah, I think it’s just one factor in a big cluster of things. I’m not a big wine person, but I can definitely taste different flavors in beers, which some people think I’m nutso for! (But since beer is all equally expensive here… ^_^)

  14. NOOO FAAAIRR! A cheap bottle of wine here in Canada (in my province) is going to be ten, fifteen dollars. I often splurge on a twenty dollar bottle of mediocrity. And I drink at least three bottles a week. Big spending.

  15. I’ve always been more of a beer drinker but for some reason in the past couple of weeks I’ve been buying wine.
    Barefoot is usually $7/bottle and I can get a giant bottle of Robert Mondavi(sp?)for about $11.

    Reds usually give me a headache and hurt my tummy so I stick with the whites. That sounded a little racist.

  16. In France, most wines above 2€ (3$) are drinkable. Under that, you get wine in plastic bottles or cartons, and it’s less than classy. Seriously though, above 6€ (8$) for me, it’s expensive wine. Cheap wine country, weeeee~

  17. i think spending a ton of money on wine is crazy. i def like a good cheap bottle of wine. Not gonna lie i’m a redcat whore through and through. i like svenska and lambrusco too.. ahh redcat, wonder if i have any left?

  18. uh thank you. “good”/expensive wine stresses me out.

    our rule of thumb in italy – where we didn’t understand a word of what was written on the bottles – was to never, ever buy the cheapest wine, but one of the second-cheapest and then go with the best looking picture/design on the bottle.
    this works! all the time.

  19. My favorite cheap wine is Alice White Chardonnay. Southeast Australian wines are the way to go for inexpensive and tasty. My favorite wine of all, Lily Rose White, is actually a locally (Utah) made wine from Castle Creek winery, it’s only 9 bucks a bottle

  20. Can we please talk about the movie Sideways!?! I was young and impressionable and Sideways made me a Merlot snob until I said fuck it and got some box wine because it’s college and Susie (who’s the straight girl that I have been crushing on in college) wanted to come over my dorm drink some box wine and “talk.”

    Cheap wine gives me fond memories of college *sigh* instead of bad hangovers.

    Box wine for your box…?

  21. Good(ish) wine was essentially responsible for the loss of my virginity, and for that I am forever grateful. Saying ‘wanna try out this nice Chianti I got in Siena’ vs. ‘Hey I got this bottle o’ Boones Farm’ probably helps in some cases. If you’re trying to attract classy ladies to come over to your place.

    It was great. So was the wine.

  22. trader joe’s 3.99 – 7.99 wines. that’s basically all i need. i mean that and cheese. actually i think i spend more on the cheese than i do the wine. i just realized this.

    fun fact: last night, mko told me that someone had accidentally ordered a case of cabernet sauvignon that sells for $125 a bottle, so they opened one, bc why not, and let the crew members have a sample. OVERWHELMING JEALOUSY. “it was so peppery, and dry. it was so smooth.” UGH.

  23. If you really love wine, making it yourself is fun and more cheap in the long run. You will have to buy a few things to start out:
    1. A platic bucket to start the wine in.
    2. A carboy (a large glass container) to transfer (or rack) the wine into during the second stage.
    3. A siphon to transfer the wine and bottle it.
    4. A long plastic stirrer to stir the wine.
    5. Bottles
    6. Corks
    7. Corker – I would spend the money and buy a floor model instead of a hand-held model. They make corking infinitely easier.

    After you have these things, you can re-use them over and over (except for the corks). You just have to wash them out and sanitize them. Then you can buy wine kits for about all major varietals that cost anywhere from $60 to $125 dollars. These kits come with instructions and everything you need – grape juice, chemicals, yeast – to make your own wine. I’ve been doing it for years and one kit makes about 30 bottles of wine. So, that works out to anywhere from $2 to $4.17 a bottle. I only make white wine, because I’m a klutz and I’m afraid I will spill a bunch of red wine everywhere. But I think it is a very neat hobby, and once you make enough to get over your initial investment of equipment ($200 or so) it is actually very cheap for getting 30 bottles out of the deal.

  24. Though I agree overall, I think there is something to be said for wine of “higher quality.” Mainly that in my experience it doesn’t seem to leave you with as much of a hangover or grogginess. Maybe not. That’s just been my experience. Might just be bc when its expensive you can’t afford to get as hammered.

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