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The Scandalously Poor Performance of Affordable American Wine
By Michael Franz
Aug 17, 2021
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There is a scandal in the American wine industry, and it isn't what you might guess. It has nothing to do with the use of chemicals or scary additives.  Nor is it about strange manipulative processes like "reverse osmosis" or "spinning cones."  The scandal in American wine is that the United States produces distressingly few globally competitive wines costing $20 or less.

This assertion isn't based on a mere impression on my part, but rather extremely extensive and rigorous tasting over many years, and I'd ask you to hear me out before either dismissing it or agreeing with it.  And when you've heard me out, I'd be eager to hear whether you share or disagree with my assessment.

The Sorry State of Affairs

Just to flesh out the assertion a bit, aside from my constant tasting to review wines, starting in 1993, I've been conducting massive tastings (for more than two decades) of wines from all over the world in my restaurant consulting capacity.  This has entailed working through more than 2,800 wines (just during the 1st quarter of each calendar year) priced below $20 retail that were submitted in response to an annual "open call" to the wine trade in the Washington, D.C. market.  In addition to these tastings conducted in my home as a reviewer and consultant, I also judge six to eight international wine competitions each year, tasting “blind” in all of them.  On top of that, prior to the COVID-related shutdown of international travel in March of 2020, I’ve made at least 6 trips to taste overseas on average each year since the late 1990s.  

I’m not bragging about any of this, and a lot of it is less fun than you might guess, but I’m certainly not complaining.  My only point is this:  I taste way more wines from the USA and other countries than is needed to make a thoroughly informed judgment on their relative merits.

The results are distressingly clear.  Strong performers from the USA are conspicuously rare in this price range, and this price range is crucial, for at least three reasons:  Relatively affordable wines at this level are the “gateway” offerings that compete with beer and spirits for the attention of young consumers; they are also the offerings that make up the lion’s share of wine lists at passably affordable restaurants, and they are overwhelmingly the offerings that are consumed in homes on a daily basis rather than on special occasions.

I stated above that, “strong performers from the USA are conspicuously rare in this price range,” but that’s really not getting sufficiently gritty to convey the sad reality with sufficient forcefulness:  When tasted head-to-head with their cost counterparts from elsewhere around the globe, American wines get beaten to a pulp.

I don't claim to know exactly why that is the case, but I do claim it as a fact.

And it is a surprising fact, on reflection.  Clearly the United States can make excellent wine, and the nation's industry is extremely competitive when we consider wines costing $35-$40 or more.  Value involves a relation of quality to cost, and potential quality is simply not a problem in the USA, as excellent wines are being made not only in California, but also in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Michigan, New York, Virginia, Texas and beyond.

So, if America can turn out delicious wines from many quarters, the pressing question is this:  Why isn't the industry turning out strong wines for $20 or less?  With a more proximate location to markets and hence lower shipping costs, why are American wineries being outperformed by their counterparts in Argentina, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and in many parts of France, Italy and Spain?

The last three countries in this rundown raise a particularly perplexing question when we consider the relative strength of the Euro compared to the Dollar.  Today it takes 1.17 Dollars to purchase a single Euro, the currency in which European producers are selling to US-based importers.  So, how can wineries in Europe manage to sell wines to American importers—who must buy them with wimpy dollars and then ship them across the Atlantic—and still outperform comparably-priced American wines?

The flip side of this question is a bit less polite:  How can American wineries fail to compete against wines that confront vast shipping distances (and costs) as well as currency exchange disadvantages?

In What Ways Are Affordable American Wines Inferior?

The answer to this question requires only four words:  Complexity, structure, distinctiveness, and class.  

A distressing number of affordable American wines lack complexity and are chunky and obvious, showing one vaguely sweet fruit note.  And that's all.  No minerality, no hint of earthiness, nothing herbal or leafy or savory.  This is less true of American wines made outside of California and Washington, but production in those two states alone accounts for 89.44% of all the wine made in the USA.

The simplicity of most affordable American wines extends not only to aroma and flavor, but texture as well.  They are chronically lacking in structure from either tannin or acidity, and this applies to both whites and reds, with whites lacking "cut" and reds lacking "grip."

Distinctiveness is an exceedingly rare characteristic in affordable American wines by comparison to their counterparts from other nations.  Many Chilean Cabernets priced at $15 or $20 taste distinctively Chilean, with signature notes of cedar and dried herbs that you may or may not like, but which clearly convey a sense of place.  Many Argentine Malbecs announce themselves immediately for what they are and where they come from.  Australian renditions of Shiraz may be a little overblown for your taste, but you know right away from whence they came.  Most Tuscan IGT reds are clearly identifiable and unlike anything else made from the same grapes in another country.  Many Tempranillos from central Spain or Grenache-based wines from southern France ring perfectly true to their regions of origin.  But most California Cabernets, Merlots or Syrahs costing $20 or less taste like they come from no place in particular because of their soft, sweet, simple profile.  They neither offend nor excite.  In case after case, almost the entirety of the producers’ efforts seems to have gone into packaging and marketing, resulting in a fine-looking product with no soul.

And sad though it is to say, affordable American wines almost always lack class.  In fairness, most wines in this price category from every country lack class, but there are many more exceptions to that rule coming from countries other than the USA.  Every country makes too many boring wines built on residual sugar and oak chips.  But in America, this profile has reached epidemic proportions at lower price ranges.  By contrast, if you find a $16 or $18 wine in a blind tasting that shows real intricacy and stylishness and class, the overwhelming odds are that it doesn't come from the USA.

Am I Biased Against Affordable American Wines?

The possibility of personal bias extends to everyone, including me, though I got a lot of modesty-inducing training in sources of bias during research methodology courses while working toward a Ph.D. in Political Science.  Still, aesthetic judgments about things like wine are at least as prone to bias as political judgments, as I’m sure we can agree, so I do worry about my own biases. 

However, one way that I learned from political studies to look for bias in anyone’s judgments about anything is this:  Consider the personal interests at stake for whomever is making the judgments.

With that in mind, I can assure you that in my consulting work my personal interests lean strongly in favor of affordable American wines.  Most of my consulting work since in 1999 has been for the D.C.-based Clyde’s Restaurant Group, an extremely successful company with 13 locations—all featuring overwhelmingly American food. 

For most of the years since 1999, I conducted the consulting tastings for Clyde’s along with my friend and Wine Review Online colleague Paul Lukacs, who we lost in June after a long struggle with health problems.  Nobody could plausibly suspect an anti-American wine bias in Paul, who wrote two award-winning books on the wines of the USA.  He was an admiring authority on the best of them, but regarding the quality and distinctiveness of what our country is producing for $20 or less, Paul was at least as critical as I’m being here.

Our employers at Clyde's always wanted as many American wines to offer as possible, consistent with their commitment to quality, and it has been a struggle every single year to get anywhere close to the proportion of affordable American wines they were paying us to find.  Every year.  White, red, rosé--same story, every single year.

Am I Wrong, or Missing Something?

Whether you think I'm right or wrong about the relative weakness of affordable American wines, I'd like to hear your views.  That is true whether you are a consumer or a member of the wine trade.  If you think my assessment is wrong, or my basis for judgment insufficient, let me know why, using the email address at the bottom of this column.

If you are an American wine producer who can set me straight on factors that place you at a competitive disadvantage, I'm eager to learn from you.  Perhaps you face production costs, or taxes, or regulatory challenges of which I'm not fully aware.  Labor costs are probably lower in some other countries, but a lot of inexpensive labor is employed by the West Coast producers in the USA that make most American wine, so I’m not immediately inclined to see an excuse in that factor.

Similarly, wine is a more important export commodity for European countries like France, Italy, Spain and Portugal than it is for the USA, and perhaps producers in those nations enjoy subsidies that provide important advantages.  But again, EU countries are hardly famous for low taxes, so I need more information before I’ll be able to understand the distressingly wide disparity in wine quality at lower retail price levels.

But if you are a consumer or trade member who shares my frustration at the paucity of strong American wines priced under $20, I'd like to hear from you as well.  Moreover, if you have a hypothesis on why American producers perform so poorly below this price point, I'd love to hear it.  I'll either reprint or summarize reactions in the WRO Wine Blog.

This problem has been bugging me for years, and I'd like to learn how widely my view is shared, and whether others have a sense of the causes behind it.  

I’m a proud American who has been afforded wonderful opportunities thanks to the fact that the USA welcomed all four of my grandparents from foreign shores.  And I’m a wine lover.  I want my country's wine industry to excel rather than fail at this crucial price tier.  But having assessed the American industry’s performance at this level for years, my strong sense it that it is failing.

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Send questions and comments to Michael@FranzWine.com        




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