Chilean versus California wine

Wine down here in Chile ranges in price from $1 to $3 per bottle. I’ve been drinking these and some luxury ($7) Chilean wines and, to my uneducated palette, they compare favorably to wines tasted in California’s Napa Valley on a recent long weekend out there.  The Napa wines were $30-50/bottle.  So the question for the wine experts reading this is… why would anyone buy wine from Napa, where a small bit of land for a house is almost $1 million?  One would naively suppose that grapes and wine produced on some of the world’s most expensive real estate would be a bad bargain.  We don’t buy apples from the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  We don’t buy oranges from Beverly Hills.  Why does it make sense to buy wine from what is now a Bay Area suburb?  Couldn’t a winery in a place where real estate and labor are cheaper (e.g., Australia, Argentina, Chile, etc.) always produce a much better wine for any given price?

27 thoughts on “Chilean versus California wine

  1. Yeah, up here in Yakima, WA you can get wine for $3 to $20 a bottle. Good stuff too. Napa wines are generally just a little bit better, though, albeit quite a bit more expensive.

  2. Most Napa and Sonoma wineries would be loss-making if it weren’t for tourist revenues.

  3. The quality of the wine is attributable to the quality of the grapes, which has to do with the ground the grapes grow in, the weather, the humidity, stuff like that. Not so much the real estate prices (except in that those are secondarily affected by the same factors: weather, humidity). Hence the burgundies and bordeaux region in France. These regions grow great grapes, and the oldest chateaux there grow the best grapes – they knew where to put the vineyards. An example from American wines would be the trendy “coastal” wines: you can supposedly taste the difference in a California coastal wine and an inland wine.

    Now, if you’re talking “value wine”, then yes, by all means buy from the cheaper place to produce. Who cares about the land? And just ship the grapes in from wherever. Grow them elsewhere and ship them to the cheapest bottler. But a quality estate bottle (non value wine) will be grown on premises that may or may not cost a lot in real estate terms, but they have definitely been proven to grow fine grapes.

    One thing that affected American wine production (moreso than real estate prices!) is that during prohibition, grapes were destroyed and vineyards had to be either burned or let go to weeds. We have still not recovered from this.

  4. Wine experts are frauds.  Under blind conditions, they can’t even tell the difference between red wine and white wine:

    Cheeky little test exposes wine ‘experts’ as weak and flat


    (Originally published in the Times of London)

    Monday January 14, 2002

    DRINKERS have long suspected it, but now French researchers have finally proved it: wine “experts” know no more than the rest of us.

    Their rituals as they pronounce judgment have been revealed as little more than self-delusion by an awardwinning French study. They base their views as much on colour and labels as upon a wine’s bouquet and flavour.

    Cheeky little test exposes wine ‘experts’ as weak and flat

  5. As with any other good or service, wine is worth what you are willing to pay for it.

    Or, as a winemaker said to me there isn’t good wine and bad wine, there is merely wine you like and wine you don’t.

  6. In theory yes, in practice no.

    A horde of Venture Capitalists would flood the area with experts of all kinds.

    Marketing experts would spend hours with focus groups and graphic designers to develop the perfect label to encapsulate the feeling and the spirit of the Ephemeral Lakes.

    As soon as the 90% marketing 10% Nike formula kicked in, the price would soon be near Napa’s best celebrity branded wines.

  7. Just like cigars, wine is so late-90’s. Everyone drinks cocktails/spirits now. Just ask anyone watching AB’s bottom line. =D

  8. Chilean wine can be as good as Napa wine, I particularly enjoy Viu Manet, they make a fantastic Cab, but I have yet to do much of a survey of the Chilean wines.

    That having been said Megan is correct about the importance of the particulars of the land. Napa wine will always be with us just as French wine is with us (although I do wonder to what extent low french prices — even with the dollar way down I can get decent $6 french bottles at my local wineshop — are subsidized by their govt). Google for terroir —

  9. > One would naively suppose that grapes and wine produced on some of the world’s most expensive real estate would be a bad bargain.

    Perhaps the land is so expensive precisely because it superior for growing certain kinds of grapes?

    As for your comparison: there are plenty of fine Napa wines much cheaper than $30-50 per bottle. For that price range, you’re firmly in the luxury territory, which means a lot less wine for the money–just like any other luxury good.

  10. $30-50 per bottle is nothing for good wine during business lunch.
    You can find plenty $300-$500.
    And $30-$50 bottles are coming from small winery which produce limited quantity.

  11. Really I think you should select wine based on the label: pass up boring labels, buy wines with fun labels.

  12. Why would anyone buy wine from Napa, where a small bit of land for a house is almost $1 million? I’m no wine expert, but I’ll make a guess. There are many wealthy people who haven’t the time or interest to become expert in wine, but still they want to appear smart and sophisticated in the eyes of their peers, some of whom may have taken the time to become expert. For these people, price is the only objective measure they have for evaluating the quality of a bottle of wine, so they seek out the most expensive wine they can afford. Whether the high price is due to the costs of producing it or due to the quality of the wine itself is quite irrelevant to these buyers. They count on an efficient market to set the right price. It’s just a guess.

  13. The only thing I know about wine is that when it is too sweet it tastes great but gives a nasty hangover. In my experience, wine from both Chile and California can achieve this. How is the water and aspirin?

  14. Greenspun had to travel all the way to Chile to learn what anyone who’s ever shopped at Trader Joes has known for years.

  15. Try Texas Red, out of Fort Stockton, TX. West Texas that is, oil wells, mesquite, wild pigs and taranchula’s. But oh, land is cheap, and the wine is fine! They don’t really differentiate their wine…just call it RED, TEXAS RED…

  16. Simple. Marketing. Napa has done an insanely good job at marketing itself as THE wine region. IMHO, the Napa valley floor really isn’t an optimal wine growing region. It is simply too hot. The Chards are deplorable. They all use way too much oak and secondary fermentation which results in something resembling a toothpick. To put it bluntly, Napa is a rip off. I buy most of my wine from Eldorado county which I describe here: The quality is good, if not better, and the prices much more reasonable. Surprisingly I buy most of my whites from Upstate NY. Dr. Frank’s Rieslings.

    Chilean wine availability is hit or miss in the uS. Trader Joes stocks a few. After adding tax they are certainly more than $1 to $3 in the US. The wines are typically in a Californian style with really forward fruit. Not bad for the money. Many make really fine table wines.

  17. While you’re in Chile, try “Anakena” wine (Rapel Valley). It’s very intense and tasteful. About $15 on almost any Chilean supermarket (or in a “botilleria” perhaps), and worth every peso 🙂

  18. Oh Trader Joes.

    Unfortunately, many of them don’t sell wine because of arcane liquor laws in local areas.

  19. I’m not a wine snob, but I do enjoy a glass of wine, and I totally agree: I can’t tell why a good California wine is any better than a $7 bottle of Australian wine. Personally I have a bit of a thing for Yellow Tail, a mass-produced Australian brand that runs under $10.

    But ultimately, it’s why people buy BMW over Lexus — they might be the same, but it’s an image thing. You want the image of being a California wine drinker.

  20. The wines from Portland, OR are almost as good as the micro-brews from the area. The reasons for the great grapes and hops of the Pacific Northwest are the fertile black volcanic soil from Mt. Hood and St. Helens and the long rainy seasons.

  21. Consistency. There’s a discount grocery store outlet chain (which we affectionately call “Groce Out”), which occasionally has some great deals on decent wine. When went out of business, Groce Out bought up their stock, and we found some good stuff. But when we’d find a particularly nice one, go back and get a few more bottles of the same label, same year, only some of them were good. With the slightly pricier wines from Sonoma, Santa Cruz County, Napa, you get more consistency. And every once in a while (if you save up for it), you get the chance to taste one that’s especially nice (e.g., Silver Oak Cabernet).

    For the most entertaining labels and wine-oriented geek-speak, and access to some of the varietals you may not have tried, you might consider joining the wine club of Bonny Doon Vineyards. The letters that winemaker Randall Grahm writes and sends along with each shipment are often quite amusing. See . One of their popular labels is “Domaine des Blagueurs”, and I’m just waiting for them to decide to produce a “Domaine des Bloggueurs”. See

  22. The reasons people buy a BMW over a Toyota: some people distinguish a difference they care about, some think they can, and some want to look like they can or just want the label. The brand is always in tension as the proportion of these three changes; too many of the last and it looks poseurish; only the first and the vendor languishes in obscure excellence. The same goes for Canon vs Ricoh, or for people reading Joyce in public.

    (All car analogies are wrong.)

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