Beer vs Wine: Value, Risk, and Experience

The debate over the relative value of wine versus beer at a local wine bar recently was fun, even if my perspective is at odds with others'.  The loaded concept of value is intriguing because it sits at the intersection of so many disparate and subjective factors: preference, worth, priorities, perception, circumstance, and so on.

The grenade I threw onto the bar was deceivingly benign: do you get the same quality of experience for $20 when spent on a bottle of wine versus a bottle of beer?  No contest.  Beer wins.  Which, as it turns out, is a generally unpopular thing to say at a wine bar.

Having spent an awful lot of time in various corners of the wine trade, I've become increasingly demanding of wine, particularly along the upslope of the pricing scale.  No doubt this is thanks to exposure to pockets of value across different regions this gig provides.  The breadth of this sampling serves to shine a light on outliers - good and not - in the universe of options available to consumers today.  But my leanings in favor of beer come from a free market economist philosophical point of view more than any exposure to wine.

At the center of this philosophy is the concept of competition reference.  Much of the wine world believes that a wine's competition is other, similar wines.  To wit, vintners have told me that they price their wines by comparing them to that of their neighbors...winegrowers' associations have told me they compare their region to other, similar (and usually proximate) regions.  This inherently flawed logic presumes consumers have limited choice, when the absolute opposite is true.  Not only do consumers enjoy choice unencumbered by provinciality, but their attention is increasingly drawn to products that can provide experiences of equal or greater value than the last product they enjoyed. 

In other words, Napa's competition isn't just Sonoma, it's Spain and Italy and Argentina and the rest of the universe.  And wine's competition isn't other wine, it's beer, cocktails, cider, and a hundred other emerging product categories. Looking for evidence of this?  Just check out how much shelf space has been retasked from wine to craft beer at your local retailer/supermarket.

So, back to that question of what $20 gets you.  If you were to randomly select a $20 bottle of wine, how likely are you to enjoy a superlative experience?  Sure, you could say that it depends on what you pick.  An Andrew Jackson goes pretty far in Australian Shiraz, Chilean Merlot, and Cotes du Rhones for the highly informed consumer.  But broadly speaking, twenty bucks doesn't do much to inoculate you from risk.  Hell, it doesn't even get you in on the ground floor in a lot of categories: Barolos, Burgundies, Brunellos, almost anything from Napa, Oregonian Pinot, Chateauneuf-du-Pape...and that list is long. 

By contrast, if you were to randomly select a $20 bottle of beer, how likely are you to enjoy a superlative experience?  Extremely high.  The fact that you'll be hard pressed to even find such an expensive beer is, in and of itself, informative.  So rare is a $20 beer that this ambitious price point is reserved only for the most exceptional of bottlings.  Perfect case in point in Brooklyn Brewery's Black Ops, a limited release barrel-aged Imperial Stout bottle-fermented with Champagne yeast and secured under cork in a 750ml bottle.  This beer is insanely fantastic and inescapably memorable. 

It's awfully difficult to compare the experience of a beer to that of a wine, but the appeal of these experiences is the joy they bring us, so some normalization can be brought to the comparison.  So, can you recall some wines which you'd describe in similar terms; insanely fantastic and inescapably memorable?  Now, what were the price tags on those wines?  And what percentage of wines you drink provide such an experience?  If it's over 2%, then you're doing extremely well.

Does this mean we should all be drinking more beer?  Not necessarily.  But we definitely can and should be more demanding of what we get in exchange for our hard earned dollars.  The more I learn about wine marketing, the less inclined I am to wander up the price slope in search of immunity from risk - repeated experiences suggest it's not to be had.  At least not in today's wine world. That leaves us with turning over a lot of rocks in search of gems.  Thankfully, these rocks are fun to turn over.