Some cheaper wines taste as good as costly ones

You try to avoid getting the least-expensive wine on the list, because you don’t want to look like a cheapskate. But maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss those rock-bottom bottles, because the wine directors and sommeliers who choose them give them the same consideration they give their more expensive wines.

“For me, the cool thing is to be able to find wines of excellent quality at (lower) price points,” said Mike Shetler, operations manager and director of beverage at Rosemary’s Restaurant. “Anybody can sell you an excellent $200 bottle of wine. But when you have wines like this, it benefits everyone.”

Christine Bergman, a professor in the department of food and beverage management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said several factors determine how much a wine will cost.

“Some grapes are easier to manage than others,” Bergman said. “Some have better yields, so you’re going to have a greater amount of grapes for the production cost.”

Other factors include land values and whether growers have to pay for water or water rights or can rely on rainfall, she said. In particularly hot and humid climates, she noted, there’s greater need for fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, which can drive up costs.

Jason Smith, wine director at Bellagio, said there’s some truth to the axiom that you get what you pay for, at least when it comes to wine.

“A car you buy for $10,000 isn’t going to be as good as a car you buy for $50,000,” he said.

But then again, there’s the hype factor.

“Clearly, Mercedes has a reputation; people love the name,” Bergman said. “The quality over the years has varied, but the perception has remained the same. The same goes for wine. You can have great quality for a while over a number of vintages, and then a couple of really bad vintages, and yet the price is going to stay the same because of the history of the wine.”

Smith said the best scenario is when the sommelier or wine director has done a good job of finding and selecting wines of good value.

“Great value can be $30, or great value can be $300,” he said.

Jeff Wyatt, owner of Marche Bacchus restaurant and retail store, said he always considers the price-quality ratio, to find the best possible wine at the best possible price for his customers. For that reason, he doesn’t carry some big-name labels that he feels are overpriced.

“Those wines that we carry are those for what we believe the price and quality are directly proportional,” he said.

Tim Wilson, director of beverage for the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, said that low-priced wines can represent a double-edged sword.

“Sometimes, if you go under $30, they think ‘This wine must not be that good,’ ” he said.

That said, “there’s not a wine on this list that I wouldn’t drink. Really inexpensive doesn’t mean it isn’t good.”

Wilson maintains that the group’s restaurants take a relatively low markup — and that that extends even more to certain wines.

“One thing we’ll do is reward people who are adventurous and knowledgeable and take things that are obscure and mark them up a lot less,” he said, such as vouvrays and grüner veltliners wines.

Most of the sommeliers and wine directors seem philosophical about the lower-end offerings on their lists. Jon Simmons, who has been a sommelier at Hugo’s Cellar at the Four Queens for 25 years, said the Beringer White Zinfandel on his list may be a mass-market wine, but “everyone starts out drinking something like that, or German riesling. Everyone has to start somewhere. I don’t mind having it. I never pooh-pooh it.”

“I don’t make the wine list for me,” said Claudio Vigani, wine director at Andre’s at the Monte Carlo and Alize at the Palms. “I have to make the list for the people who come in. That’s why you have such a big selection.”

A wine director or sommelier, Smith said, has a responsibility to make guests happy.

“If you have that white zin for someone, it’s going to give someone a pleasurable experience,” he said. Then again, an astute server or sommelier can sometimes help a guest branch out.

“You can also have a German riesling that has sweetness that’s in a similar price range, that can blow their minds and give them something new,” he said. “It’s going to be so important and so much more memorable for the guests.”

Lower-priced wines seem to be doing particularly well in the current economy — which is even affecting expense-account customers, Bergman said. She said she recently was in a club that had virtually no wines less than $100 left, and was having a hard time moving a surfeit of $200 to $400 wines because business customers aren’t buying them.

“The sweet spot for us used to be $80 or $90,” Shetler said, but it’s gone down to $60 to $70. In response, Rosemary’s has instituted a page of red wines and one of white wines on which every bottle is $50 or less. Kumalaa said Vintner Grill offers a list of 50 wines less than $50. And N9NE Group’s Nove Italiano at the Palms is offering half-priced bottles on Mondays.

Said Carlo Cannuscio, general manager of Valentino at The Venetian and Giorgio Ristorante at Mandalay Place: “I think everybody’s doing an amazingly conscious effort to watch their markup, including us.”

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at or 702-383-0474.

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