Drink Better in 2013

Ask a wine enthusiast to name his favorite value wines, and he’ll likely to steer you towards bottles that cost between $15 and $25 each.

This makes sense — many oenophiles think nothing of dropping $25 or more on each bottle of wine. But this ignores market realities. The average bottle of wine in the United States sells for just $6.22, according to Nielsen. A full 90 percent of all wines sold cost less than $12 per bottle. Americans like to drink cheap.

So a wine enthusiast’s “value” wine is a regular wine consumer’s “splurge” wine.

In 2013, resolve to splurge more often. Even if this means drinking less wine to keep your budget balanced, your palate will thank you.

This isn’t to say that wines costing less than, say, $10 per bottle are inevitably bad. There are plenty of satisfactory options at that price point. The shelves at stores like Trader Joe’s are full of such wines. But spending so little generally relegates one to mass-market brands that benefit from economies of scale.

Spending $15-25 per bottle dramatically increases the possibility of finding a wine that’s exciting — a wine that’s both delicious and intellectually captivating.

One could compare it to the difference between Olive Garden and the local Italian joint. The former is predictably adequate, offering heaping piles of salad, breadsticks, and focus-group-tested entrees. The latter is hit-or-miss, but investigating such restaurants is always exciting. And exploration — with food, wine, and so much else — is the only way to discover underappreciated gems.

A few years ago, I interviewed David Denton, a well-known wine educator and sommelier in Washington, DC. In explaining how he developed his passion for wine, Denton eloquently summarized the cerebral appeal of wine.

“Wine is like travel in a bottle,” he explained. “For the cost of a bottle of wine, you can escape to somewhere exotic. You can get lost in the label, thinking about where the wine came from and who made it.”

That sense of place — where a wine came from and who made it — is the primary reason wine is so engaging. While it’s possible to find wines that inspire and pique curiosity for $10, it’s much, much easier if you’re willing to spend a bit more.

Once you’re at the $15 to $25 price point, the number of options is virtually endless. Sure, even at $25, it’s nearly impossible to find Champagne, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, or high-quality Pinot Noir. But if you’re willing to drink bravely — to explore the unfamiliar by trying unusual grapes from unusual regions — you can sample some of the greatest wines in the world.

Last weekend, for example, I enjoyed a remarkable Blaufrankisch — the signature red wine of Austria — from Anton Iby, one of the nation’s best producers. It was fruity, spicy, distinctive, and absolutely delicious. The cost? Just $16.

Some of the best reds from Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even France can be found at similar prices.

On New Year’s Eve, I enjoyed two sparkling wines from France — a Cremant d’Alsace from Joseph Pfister and a Cremant du Jura from Hubert Clavelin — that wowed my friends. The bottles were just $15 each. Sparkling wines from Alsace and the Jura have long offered exceptional value.

With whites, the options are similarly expansive.

In recent months, I’ve become obsessed with a Kerner, an extremely aromatic variety that was bred in 1929 by crossing Trollinger and Riesling. One of my favorites, which retails for $17, comes from Abazzia di Novacella, an Italian winery that was founded a whopping 850 years ago by the Augustinian order of monks. Talk about history in a bottle!

So long as you’re willing to spend $15-25, you can easily explore some of the most renowned whites from South Africa, France, Italy, Austria, and Germany.

Early January is the perfect time to reflect on the previous year and make resolutions for the new one. For those of us who take wine seriously — or at least want to — it’s smart to include wine in our New Year’s resolutions. The world of wine offers endless possibilities. So in 2013, make sure to explore those possibilities — and drink better!

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.