Is the Price Right?

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So you're at the grocery store, perusing the shelves for a decent bottle of wine. You're in the mood for something red, maybe a Cabernet. As you scan the Cab section, you notice there are at least a couple dozen options, ranging in price from $4.99 to $69 a bottle. Aside from $62.01, what's the difference between the bargain basement Cab and the top-of-the-line model? Does a wine's quality always increase in direct proportion to its price?

Not exactly. While quality does play an important role in wine pricing, there are lots of other factors involved. Such as:

... Origin of the grapes. If they were grown in a special vineyard that adds prestige to the wine (normally labeled "single vineyard"), the price will rise.

... Production. Is the wine made in a rustic cellar or in a costly state-of-the-art facility? Does the aging take place in pricey French oak barrels or less expensive American oak?

... Rarity of the wine. The harder it is to find, the more expensive it may be.

... Demand. It's economics: The more coveted the wine, the more the winery can charge. This is probably the most crucial factor in the pricing game.

... The competition. Wineries often set their prices according to what their competitors are charging for similar products. This can help elevate consumers' perception of the wine's quality.

... Vintage quality. If a wine region has a stellar growing season that results in better quality grapes, producers may hike prices for that year. But the opposite is also true.

Here's how Tom Shelton, president of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, uses these factors in the pricing process: "I start with an assumption of high quality from a vineyard and winemaking point of view. Then I consider previous prices and our position in the market compared to benchmark competitors."

The final test comes when Phelps tastes the wine with his winemakers to determine how it stacks up against previous vintages. Factor in the demand for Phelps wines, and voila!

Putting Pricing to the Test

Does a pricey wine always taste better than a cheap one? To find the answer, I subjected a crew of wine guzzlers to a little experiment. We tasted four different 1999 Cabernet Sauvignons, ranging in price from $11.99 to $45. With the bottles safely obscured inside brown paper bags, we sampled the wines and privately ranked them according to our favorites.

Amazingly, we all ranked the wines in exactly the same order. When we took the bottles out of their paper bags, we found that the priciest wine was not the best. Our collective favorite was the Sterling Cab, which sells for $24.99. After that came the Estancia ($11.99), Dunham Cellars ($45) and, finally, Hogue Cellars ($10).

The lesson we learned? While price may reflect a wine's quality, it's no guarantee of good taste. The cheapest bottle on the shelf may very well be the one that tastes best to you, and there's nothing wrong with that. The joke is on the suckers who won't deign to drink anything less than $50 a bottle.

How the Cabs rated

Sterling Vineyards 1999 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Spicy cigar box aromas and juicy berry flavors. Medium-bodied, with balanced tannins ($25).

Estancia 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Fruity blackberry/currant aroma and concentrated jammy flavors. Smooth and tasty ($12).

Dunham Cellars 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Sportin' some blackberry and raisin aromas and flavors. Smooth tannins make it easy to drink, but it's real pricey. Not available in Tampa Bay ($45).

Hogue Cellars 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Raw, scratchy tannins overwhelm the fruit in this bottle. Could improve with age, but right now, run ($10).

Contact the writers of Corkscrew at [email protected], 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605, or call 1-800-341-LOAF (fax 813-248-9999).

Wine Benefit for Good Shepherd Hospice; join Central Florida's fifth annual Wine Festival for a tasting of 100-plus wines. Friday, April 12. $40 per person. 7-10 p.m. Lake Mirror Promenade, Lakeland. 813-879-2931.

Wine Tour De France Celebrate the newest bottles and latest releases of France with Vintage Wine Cellars ninth annual event. Features more than 25 wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and Loire. Friday, April 19. 6-9 p.m. $15 per person with a $5 coupon toward purchase of wines. Vintage Wine Cellars, 3629 Henderson Blvd., Tampa. Call 813-879-2931.

Spring Dinner/Wine Feature Join St. Larry's and Chef Bill Schrems for a dinner of seafood entrees and featured wines of Rodney Strong Vineyards. Meet special guest Rick Sayres. Wed., April 24. 6:30 p.m. $75 per person. 34980 U.S. 19, Palm Harbor. Reservations required. Call 813-767-0077.

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