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What would you say to a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc? I’m guessing you’d happily oblige. Now what if I told you it was Two Buck Chuck? No matter what your answer may be, cheap wine is a polarizing topic among oenophiles.

When Fred Franzia, creator of the Charles Shaw label, passed away last fall, a frenzy of media coverage followed about how he upended the winemaking industry with his affordable offerings. Sure, his brand had long been a favorite among college kids, but for years, connoisseurs have turned up their noses at his creations. And yet we’ve recently witnessed an unexpected trend, with millennials sending sales of both Two Buck Chuck and boxed wines skyrocketing. All of this begs the question: Does wine need to be expensive to be good?

First, a confession. Historically speaking, I’ve generally preferred expensive wine. In fact, I’d rather not drink wine than drink bad wine. So why does that sentiment make me feel like such a snob? I certainly didn’t start with Stags’ Leap but rather Boone’s Farm (anyone remember Strawberry Hill?). From there, I progressed to Yellow Tail, and as my wine knowledge increased, so too did the price. But during a month-long sojourn in Italy last summer, I learned an important lesson while drinking loads of delicious vino sans hangover: Wine does not need to be expensive to be good — but it does need to be well-made.

Illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen

To help me make sense of this boozy conundrum, I turned to celebrated sommelier Melissa L. Smith, founder of Enotrias Elite Sommelier Services and creator of the Wine Collecting Master Class. (Who, for the record, told me she’d probably try Two Buck Chuck out of sheer curiosity.)

So what factors into an expensive bottle? Smith explains that the price tag reflects the cost of the land, the vineyard management, the environmental and climate considerations impacting the yields, the aging process, and any celebrity affiliation (we’re looking at you, Brad Pitt). But what makes a good wine? Smith has a few criteria: “Wines that are in balance and food-friendly. Wines that express a purity of fruit, with nothing overpowering like oak, alcohol or a cloying sweetness. Wines that are varietally correct and have a sense of place.”

Many of the bulk wines on the market, she adds, don’t reflect what wine is really meant to be: something that expresses the terroir and the vintage. Instead, they’re full of chemicals, colors and other additives that can easily trigger sensitivities. Think of it like the Rolex knockoff that turned your wrist a queasy shade of green back in your twenties.

But sadly, shrewdly navigating the wine aisle is easier said than done. “The wine price-to-quality ratio is all over the place,” explains Courtney Dunlop, cofounder of Good Clean Wine (which began due to “hangovers from hell”). “There are atrocious wines for $100 per bottle and good wines for $10. It’s all about knowing where the wine comes from and how it’s made, which is difficult to untangle for the casual drinker who just wants to grab a bottle without having to do a ton of research.”

So what’s a oenophile to do? When it comes to affordable wines, Smith recommends knowing your basics. For instance, she suggests swapping Champagne for cava, which is made the same way but has a lower price tag. Or try a wine from a European co-op, where high-quality fruit from local farmers is brought to larger facilities with more buying power, which equates to price breaks.

I think we can safely say that the verdict is in: Good wine need not be expensive. Smith describes some of her most notable vino memories, none of which are tied to cost. “A jug of wine from Chianti enjoyed at a picnic in the middle of a daylong horseback ride through the Tuscan countryside,” she recalls. “Or a liter of grüner veltliner with a screw cap that became my go-to for drives out to the coast along with some fresh goat cheese and a baguette.” In other words, the drinking experience is about much more than just what’s in the bottle.

While serious connoisseurs might turn down a glass of Two Buck Chuck, there’s no reason to scoff at an affordable bottle of local wine, which seems to taste even better if you’re sipping it somewhere special. Armed with this newfound knowledge, I’m already planning ahead for my upcoming cheap-girl-wine summer. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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