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What Exactly Makes Some Wines So Expensive?

Whenever restaurant guests peruse the wine list, their eyes inevitably seem to be drawn to the bottles that are priciest.

Whether you have the budget to splurge on a triple (or quadruple) digit bottle or not, rubber necking your way down the aisles of the liquor store and sizing up the impressive and wallet-busting options is a past time almost all wine drinkers enjoy.

But the real question is – what makes a bottle so expensive?

If all wine does indeed come from one main source, the humble grape, then why are some bottles worth so much more than others? Hint: they’re not being stuffed with caviar and gold bars.

The Restaurant Markup

This almost goes without saying, but if you’re buying a bottle of wine in a restaurant, you’re paying for more than just the juice inside. This isn’t to say that you should stop buying wine when you dine out – in fact, this would make everyone involved, including you, very, very sad – but just be aware that when your sommelier or server pops that cork you’ll most likely be paying 2-3 times the retail price for your selection. The markup is lower in surburban areas and in more casual restaurants, and if you choose to dine under the backlit banner of a celebrity chef or in a dynamite foodie market like Las Vegas or New York City, that markup could be even more. The pricing sometimes seems astronomical, sure, but just like the steak you ordered doesn’t actually cost the restaurant $30, the wine’s price is helping to provide the owners not just with some cold hard cash, but also some profit to help cover the cost of labor, rent, utilities, etc. Keep these insider tips in mind to keep your costs down: the bigger the label name the higher the price and the pricier the bottle is to being with, the lower the markup, so use your night out as an excuse to splurge on pricey, hard-to-find offerings or explore the opposite end of the spectrum and ask your sommelier for something from a lesser-known or boutique producer and you might save some dough.

Small Case Productions

This is simple business math – the smaller the production, the fewer cases a producer has at their disposal to spread out and absorb costs. Think about what it takes to make a bottle of wine: the plot has to be purchased, grapes planted, nurtured and picked, a production line built and maintained, barrels sourced, talented winemakers hired, the lights have to be kept on and the water bills paid, and then there’s advertising and shipping and labor costs… the list is endless. All that has to be covered somehow, and if a vineyard is releasing 50 cases instead of 50,000, those costs are going to be a lot more concentrated.

Vintage Variation

Wine is a living, breathing beverage that comes from a living, breathing crop, and as such variations from vintage to vintage are very common and with those variations come a lot of fluctuation in price. If a vintage has particularly difficult weather patterns, the yield could be dramatically reduced, resulting in a much smaller overall case production (see above), or the grapes could be fragile enough to require hand-picking and sorting, which can be much more expensive and time consuming than picking and sorting done by a machine. And who absorbs those costs? If you just toasted yourself with a big glass of Cab, bravo!

Perceived Value

I like to refer to the wines in this category as “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Remember the children’s story about the so-called tailors who convinced their leader that the fabric they were weaving was invisible to stupid or ignorant people? He was so afraid to appear dumb he ended up parading around in his birthday suit. Some wines are very much like the poor emperor in this fabled story. Some labels are so heralded and well known that consumers continue to buy the product even though the wine isn’t that great and the price point continues to climb into the stratosphere because no one wants to be the one to say that the wine on every list in every restaurant isn’t the be all end all their marketing department has convinced us it should be. Pay for quality, for expertise, for proven deliciousness and even long-standing tradition, but if you’re emptying your pockets for the pleasure of putting an easily recognized label on your restaurant table… you’re doing it wrong.

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