This week I settled down with a cheap glass of Riesling to read Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines.
Almost immediately I learned that in 1775, Thomas Jefferson declared Riesling the “best breakfast wine.” Looks like I’m off to a great start.
Unquenchable is written by Natalie MacLean, the wine writer I noted in an earlier post about conquering a niche. (Quick summary: She was strolling through a grocery store in a postpartum sleep-deprived haze when she noticed a food magazine that lacked good wine content. The extent of her writing career consisted of a few articles in her high school newspaper, but she brazenly called the editor and asked if she could contribute an article. Soon her wine writing career was born.)
I’m drawn to this book because Natalie, like me, is a hard-nosed bargain hunter — a trait she developed early in life. During her childhood:
“Money was tight … we lived in rented trailers and basement apartments. I wore bread bags in my leaking boots, and we rummaged through piles of secondhand clothing … at night we joked that we were going ‘to mattress’ since our beds didn’t have box springs or legs.”
Some people’s tight-money childhood results in an indiscriminate desire for expensive things, but fortunately Natalie emerged with the practical wisdom that bargains are everywhere.
She wrote a book based on one very solid premise: price and quality aren’t correlated.
In fact, Natalie says — far more eloquently than I did — the exact same thing that I wrote in an earlier post about the myth of wine pricing:
“Some regions have natural advantages that make winemaking inexpensive, whether that’s climate or cheap land and labor. Other regions are still establishing their reputations and must keep their prices low to be competitive with better-known wines.”
Though I’m no wine scholar, I’ve long held this same theory. Some regions produce great cheap wine because they have a gentle climate or cheap labor or business-friendly regulations. Some unknown wineries lacking brand-name appeal offer great wine bargains.
Conversely, some bottles are expensive not because they’re better, but because the production costs are higher.
Wine is governed by the same market forces that influence everything we buy and sell; a $10 wine bottle can be better than a $100 bottle. But you must know where to find it.
Natalie clues us into those economic factors that creates a good wine at a cheap price:
“in warm regions like the Baroosa Valley (Australia), often the cost of production is cheaper because winemakers aren’t battling disease, rot and weather as much as cool-climate producers do.”
I’ve heard many people say that the best wine is the one you enjoy. While I agree wholeheartedly, it’s also true that every new bottle you buy is a risk. Will it be worth its $15 or $25 price tag?
To defray your risk, Natalie sampled more than 15,000 wines around the world and pared down the 147 best values, most under $15. Don’t pick up this book if you’re expecting a snooty, fancy-pants wine review. Her book is a travel memoir told through the lens of wine, laced with tidbits of history, economics, and chemistry.
Oh, and don’t you dare cross her with a bad wine, or she’ll write a review like this:
“Under an initial layer of rotting roadside tomatoes, I detect nuances of burning Fiat tire floating on a lake of rancid olive oil. Pair this wine with nasty divorce settlements or grand jury appearances.”
Read more reviews of Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines, or check out Natalie’s previous book, Red, White, and Drunk All Over.
You can read more reviews of my new wine book Unquenchable here.