Not too long ago, a co-worker told me that her guest wanted a wine like Silver Oak but wanted to spend less than $100. I must admit I thought I was pretty funny when I told her "Give him the half-bottle of Shafer."
I'm sure reducing the quantity was not what the person had in mind when he revealed his $100 limitation, and I don't hold his threshold against him- I can't think of one time when I have spent more than that sum on a bottle of wine in a restaurant. But, unfortunately for him, he was giving a near-impossible guideline. Regardless of whether you think Silver Oak (an iconic Napa winery that only makes cabernet sauvignon) is worth the price, his lofty request highlighted the fact that a lot of people, with regard to wine, don't know why it is expensive and what they are paying for.
We may think of the tomatoes we grow in our own yard as "free," but, shockingly, commercial growers of grapes do not think of their yield the same way. When they harvest grapes in the early fall, they have to get back all of (and more than) the money they spent all year to grow these juicy beauties. They charge per ton, and prices normally range from a couple thousand dollars per ton to about $30K/ton (for grapes from a famed Napa vineyard that we'll call Intolkoffer). Whether that figure is absolutely accurate does not matter, but the fact that there is wild variation does. If a winemaker does not buy fruit- if he grows the grapes himself- then there is one less person (the grower) who has to make money, but the costs of growing the grapes remain.
And where were the grapes grown? In Napa? Well, real estate (farm and residential) is expensive in Napa. Much more expensive than, say, Lodi, where a lot of California's inexpensive and not necessarily inferior wine grapes are grown. What does that mean? Well, the grapes will cost more because leasing the land costs more. And the labor costs more because the laborers, if they live in the area, have to pay more to live. It's all connected.
As they eat less, have fewer kids, and watch less HBO than people, machines have to be paid much less than humans- so why not machine-harvest the fruit instead of having delicate and sensitive little people do it? That is certainly an option, and is common in certain areas. However, some of the best grapes are grown in places- steep places- where machines just can't do the work. So if you are harvesting a flat vineyard with well-spaced vines, go ahead and use a machine. But the grapes you are harvesting may have less potential- and may be more brutalized- than those that have been harvested by hand.
Grapes are like children in that, even though you might think you are doing them a favor by coddling them, you are actually doing them a great disservice. Just as a tough childhood can produce a gritty and determined adult, a trying youth is generally agreed to produce a more complex and rewarding wine grape. A stressful existence for the vine does tend to lower yield, which is the amount of grapes (measured in tons per acre, usually) produced by a vineyard. So if my conditions are such that I am getting only 2 tons/acre, I might be harvesting some incredible grapes- but I've got to charge a lot more for them than a grower who is pumping out four times that. Are my grapes more desirable? Probably, and some winemaker's got to put her money where her desire is. And if the winemaker's gotta fork it over, so does the consumer. And that's you.
In wine there are climates, and then there are microclimates; little patches that whose weather patterns are slightly different than those of the spot across the highway or down the hill. Some have established themselves as producing "better" grapes. As you pinpoint the place from which your grapes come, you generally increase the price of the wine- after all, no one is buying from a specific vineyard because of how shitty the grapes are there. You buy from the Intolkoffer vineyard because it consistently produces great grapes; you can scour Napa every year to find satisfactory cheaper grapes- maybe you do, maybe you don't.
Far Niente makes one of the more renowned chardonnays in Napa. All of their wine is aged in oak barrels- about half of it in new oak barrels, and half of it in one year-old barrels (or the barrels that were new last year). Making 25,000 cases of wine requires about 1000 barrels- half of which are new. Did I mention that these barrels cost $1200 each?That's $600,000- just in barrels. No fertilizer, no grapes, no laborers, no marketing, no glassware in the tasting room, no UC Davis-trained winemaker- just barrels. There's still a lot left to pay for.
Far Niente is a big name. Silver Oak is a big name. People ooh at them, and you pay for the oohs. As the prestige of a brand grows, demand grows. As demand grows, prices go up, and wineries become the crotch-licking dogs from the ancient joke. Why do they charge so much? Because they can.
There is serious pleasure in forking over for a big-name wine, and having your expectations met. But there is greater pleasure in spending modestly and having your expectations blown away, which is much more likely to happen with a lesser-known winery. We benefit from the upstart winemaker fighting for his piece of the pie that the Far Nientes of the wine world have been gobbling up. He knows he can't charge what the big boys charge- or else everyone will run out and buy from the big boys whose merits are already well-known. He must overachieve to compete, and sometimes he succeeds in both. It's a beautiful thing when a sip has you wondering why doesn't this winemaker charge more?
The answer? Because he can't- yet.