Serious Eats: Drinks
Ask a Sommelier: Which Wines are a Waste of Money?
The job of a sommelier is to gather a list of great wines and share those wines with customers. But that process includes culling some losers from the pack, and choosing which wines are actually worth recommending. In our Ask a Somm series, we usually benefit from those recommendations, but today, we're asking for the dirt. Some wines offer good value—that is, they're great quality for the price. Others...don't.
We asked our crew of sommeliers which wines are a waste of money, and which are worth every penny. Here's what they had to say.
"I think that spending money on wine that is beyond your means, just to impress others or to impress the sommelier you are working with, is a huge waste. It's important to know that just because a wine is more expensive doesn't mean you will enjoy it more than a less expensive option."—Caroline Styne (Lucques)
"I recently bought a pretty pedigreed bottle of Bordeaux from the great 1985 vintage (also my birth year) at a hip NYC wine restaurant because it was only $120, $30 a glass, basically. Was that cheap? No. Was it necessarily in my budget for the evening? No, but it's absolutely a value. Someone had to store it somewhere for all those years. It's like space-rental fee. When you see bottles from great, age-worthy appellations at a fair price with considerable development, you have to pounce on them. Very expensive, very young wines, especially if they're big oaky reds, are almost never worth the coin. The pleasures of these wines are always in the development. Any wine with a big marketing budget is problematic for me. I'll pay for meticulous farming and deep understanding of how those grapes should be handled in the winery. This is what makes a great producer. However, if there's a second part of my price that includes any marketing fluff, no thanks. I'm really not interested in paying for someone to tell me how good a wine is or some sort of shiny gift box. All the great wines and great wine values of world speak for themselves via the quality in the bottle."—Morgan Harris (Corkbuzz)
"Waste of money? Good question—sometimes very famous wines are ultra hyped and therefore get marked up more. I hate to knock on any wines, but I do feel that a lot of ultra luxury domestic wines are not worth the money that they are charging. All the 100 pt Napa "new cult" cabs made by consultants with uber fancy multi million dollar mortgaged tasting rooms? Perhaps not worth the sticker price. I think you can get a lot more for your money in the old world (same amount of money spent; on a wine made by the person whose name is on the bottle (or their kids/grandkids), from old vines and that have proven the test of time.) I'm not knocking California understand—there are tons of great producers that I love there...but there are also some wines that I would easily and happily pass on. What's worth every penny? Great Chablis. Old Champagne. Any Champagne really. Great Burgundy. I had visceral responses the first times I tried White Burgundies from Roulot and Coche Dury. Those wines rocked me. Anything that is a happy discovery."—Jill Zimorski (Hotel Jerome)
"I think, at the end of the day, it is all relative. If you love a particular producer or region, and drinking their wines brings you great pleasure, then go for it! That being said, would I spend my hard earned $100 on a bottle of Sea Smoke Pinot Noir or Kistler Chardonnay? Definitely not. Over-done expensive California 'cult' wines are often disappointing for the money, in my opinion. Large commercial brands, like Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, are a total rip-off—this wine displays no typicity or varietal character and reeks of commercial yeast—you can find much better Pinot Grigio for much less money, like Scarpetta Pinot Grigio. The wines that I think are worth every penny are classic Northern Rhone syrahs like Domaine Faury's St. Joseph (around $30 retail)—that wine delivers SO MUCH for the price. I also LOVE traditional Barolo and Barbaresco. My favorite producers are Giusepe Rinaldi, Bartolo Mascarello, Giacomo Conterno, Andrea Sottimano, and Chiara Boschis—These wines are all expensive, but completely worth it in my opinion. There is nothing better than perfect Nebbiolo."—Carlin Karr (Frasca)
"I think one should look for wines that are thoughtfully crafted, balanced, and have some degree of character; beyond that, I think it is incredibly subjective. It is undeniable that sometimes you pay a premium for certain well-regarded names or brands. And just like with any other purchase, you must decide which brand or product suits you. What is it that you need or want? Which wine would you prefer to have? If I am in the mood for Muscadet and someone forces a glass of full-bodied red on me, the latter is a total waste of money on me."—Andres Loaiza (Aria)
"The wines that are worth every penny are those that, with one smell and taste, instantly transport you to the vineyard where the grapes grew, and nowhere else—that's the beauty of terroir, it connects you with the place where the grapes grew & the wine was made, an irreplaceable sensation, whether it's a in $15 bottle of Syrah from the Northern Rhone Valley or a $500 bottle of Burgundy (and you'd be surprised at how many really inexpensive bottles of wine can deliver that kind of magic)!"—Thomas Pastuszak (The NoMad)
"I really don't think any wine is a waste of money. It's pretty easy to get down on certain varietals or styles and might not seem worth their price tags, but what if that goofy wine reminds you of someone special or an important event? In those cases, those wines might be worth every penny to the right person."—Matthew Carroll (BRABO)
"Anything with a marketing campaign can stay at home. Anything you see on a billboard, in a bus stop or on the back page of Bon Appétit is just gussied-up Two Buck Chuck. You're paying for ad space (not wine) when you buy those bottles, and your money is probably going to one of five major beverage conglomerates in the country in order to grow their brand. I like my money to go to the winemaker when I buy wine, so I look for small, lesser-known producers growing indigenous grapes in the often-overlooked regions of the world. Small sub-appellations in the Loire Valley are an incredible value, as are wines from the Valle d'Aosta in Italy. The Californian "garage" winemaking scene is getting more exciting by the minute, too, as smaller producers are drawing nuance and balance from their terroir. None of these producers has a billboard. None of them are likely to have one, ever. They make wine because it's what makes sense to them, and because it's their livelihood. These are winemakers making wine, versus CEOs selling wine. I'd rather give my money to the guy with the dirt under his nails and the horse-drawn plow than the guy with the $60 manicure and the Lexus."—Lauren Friel (Oleana)
"I'm not looking to raise any eyebrows, but Grand Cru white Burgundy might be the over-promise, under-deliver wine of the last two decades or so. These wines are so expensive and don't usually sing as a 'wine of place.' Terroir is often hidden under new oak, and, as many a collector will tell you, they're not necessarily built to last. Keep your money in your pocket. Special Club Grower Champagne, on the other hand, is worth every penny. These wines aren't even really that expensive. I'm looking at pre-sale offerings right now from a local distributor here in Portland, Oregon and laughing at just how low these prices are for Tête de Cuvée Vintage Grower Champagne."—Anthony Garcia (Multnomah Whiskey Library)
"If one enjoys drinking the wine, it is never a waste of money. That being said, I typically pass on most '100 point' wines, as they tend to be great on their own, but overpower everything on the table. Wines that I think are worth every penny, and therefore wines that I tend to have in my cellar are Champagne, Burgundy, the great Rieslings of Germany and Austria, and as of late, I'm really drawn to many of the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs coming out of the extreme Sonoma Coast."—Joe Camper (DB Bistro Moderne)
"I find that there are two categories of wine that are a waste of money. One: wineries that spend thousands of dollars on advertising instead of investing in the quality of their wine. two: great wines that are opened and consumed far too early to see their potential. If you are looking for a great value I always recommend the old world. Most of the regions have a thousand years or more of wine making tradition. It's hard to go wrong with a Cru Beaujolais or a Cabernet Franc from Loire, both of which can be found for $25 and under."—Daniel Beedle (Betony)
"I won't name names, but I personally tend to stay away from any wines that spend more money in marketing than they do in the production process. This is especially true for those wines that are now marketed exclusively 'for women,' as if women's palates demand swirly-fonts, pink labels, and Sex and the City-esque buzzwords. No product is worth the price if they are condescending to their consumer. In contrast, the wines that spend more time perfecting their art of showing their history, terroir, legacy, and, most importantly, their soul- those wines are priceless. Some of the best values for the money are grand cru grower champagnes, small production Sancerres, and a lot of the new, killer generation of winemakers in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Central Coast."—Cara Patricia (Hakkasan San Francisco)
"Spending a ton of money on a wine because it got a bazillion points or because it was in a rap video is not a good idea especially if you do not have anything to compare it to. You should spend money on wine that you like and that taste good to you. Like art, a wine can be loved and hated, so who cares? Go with what you like even if it only has half a bazillion points."—Josiah Baldivino (Michael Mina)
"It really depends, some wines that cost $10 can be as much of a waste as wines that cost hundreds of dollars. There are too many wines where money has been spent in marketing and packaging and not where it matters, in the vineyard. There are a few regions around the world where you can pay more for the wines because of the notoriety and not the actual quality, and that's a shame. What is a wine that's worth every penny? I think that the answer should be an empty bottle, a bottle you enjoyed and that is finished before you realize it. And well, that's very personal, just the way wine should be, regardless of how cheap or expensive it might be. I want to say that generally up and coming producers or regions can offer more values. Once they have achieved a status it is not always the case anymore. Riesling suffers from a bad image with many people so it often represents great value. Other wines like Madeira are very underrated, you can buy a bottle that's 30-40 or 100 years old at a very reasonable price considering what it is."—Michaël Engelmann MS (Rockpool Bar-Grill, Sydney)
"What wines are a waste of money? Swiss wines. Why? The Swiss produce too little wine to satisfy domestic consumption and therefore the price of what they export is driven up very high. This added to the strength of the Swiss economy makes for a very expensive export and therefore rarely reflects any value to me. What wines are worth every penny? I always feel that you get a ton of value from Rioja. For the most part they're not expensive, they're often aged 3-10 years before release, they're complex and have great acidity which keeps them in balance and makes them very food friendly."—Alexander LaPratt (Atrium DUMBO)
"Wines that taste like other wines are a waste of money. Wines without distinction, without that taste of place are not worth drinking. The whole premise of wine is that it comes from a certain place. If you line up 10 Cabernets from California that each cost $100, but can't tell the difference from their wine makers or identify where they come from, then they are waste of money. Conversely, wines that bring distinction, harmony of flavors and balance of fruit and earth are wines that are normally associated with great value."—Vajra Stratigos (Fifth Group Restaurants)
"The wines that I think are a waste of money are those that aren't honest about where they come from; those that are manipulated past the point of varietal recognition. These types of wines can be made absolutely everywhere and they don't bring the individuality and the diversity that gives wine the extra dimension that separates it from other beverages."—Davis Smith (Acquerello)