The US Wine Market – What to Buy


The article starts by summarizing economic findings on people’s wine selections. It then examines the US wine market. It finishes with suggestions on selecting wines.

How People Select Wines

Considerable economic analysis has been done on how people choose wine[1]. Summarized in an earlier article, the primary finding is that wine choices are rarely connected to taste. And further, price does not accurately predict taste. What do I mean by that? In carefully conducted large blind tastings, more expensive wines were not preferred. It appears that people buy wine based on its color, brand name, label, and ratings (experts frequently disagree on their ratings).

One other point: some people buy wine because it is expensive. There are two reasons for this:

  • If you are buying wine as a gift and you don’t know anything about wine, it is reassuring to buy an expensive wine;
  • Some people want to be known as wine connoisseurs, and they believe that buying expensive wines will make others think they are wine connoisseurs.

The US Wine Market

The overriding point about the US market, made in an earlier article, is that wines from Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, are gradually replacing European wines in the US market. Why? Because they are good and cost less to produce than their European competitors. And as the US buyer becomes more knowledgeable, the price edge European (especially French) producers enjoy by using the region, e.g,. Burgundy rather than the dominant varietal e.g., Pinot Noir, to market their wines will decline.

In another article, I reported on a survey of a large liquor store. The conclusion? Liquor stores do not have counter space for more wine. That means a new wine must replace an existing one. A tall order. Going forward, the US market will be hard to break into. It will take an extremely low price or a varietal that catches on, like Pinot Noir (US), Malbec (Argentina), Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) and Shiraz (Australia).


There are a large number of relatively inexpensive wines available from Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and South Africa in stores. But my survey article did not include anything on quality. This time I focused on ratings, so we could see the relationship between price and quality. Wine Spectator (WS) is one of several rating sources. WS describes an 85-89 rating as “Very Good”. I personally found most WS wines rated 88-89 to be even better than “Very Good”. WS rates anything over 90 as “Outstanding”. I normally don’t buy a wine WS rates less than 88 and I agree that wines rated 90 or above are normally outstanding. WS rates anything over 90 as “Outstanding” and I agree.

So I searched the WS database by varietal (see below) for wines (2004-2009) costing $10-$15 with ratings of 88 or higher. The findings suggest that high quality, inexpensive wines are available.

Heavy Reds

Under “Heavy Reds”, I looked at Cabernet Sauvignons, Shirazes, and Malbecs.

  1. Cabernet Sauvignon

I included French Bordeaux in this category because its primary grape is Cabernet Sauvignon. The second column in the table lists Cabs priced at $10 or less with ratings of 88 or more. 15 fall under this category, led by Australia and Argentina. If we increase the search price to $15, 97 wines appear. For exceptional wines (rated 90 or more), 8 wines appear, 2 from Argentina and Australia, and 4 from the US. In my previous large liquor store survey, I found a total of 86 Cabs in the $8-$16 range, with no reference to quality; more than half were from the US.

The conclusion is there are plenty of high quality, low-priced Cabs available. They are not hard to find inasmuch as well-known brand names are included, e.g., Columbia Crest, Hogue, and Peter Lehmann.

Table 1. – Cabernet Sauvignon

  Rating ≥ 88 Rating ≥ 90
Cabernet Sauvignon $10 or less $15 or less $15 or less
Total 15 97 8
     Argentina 5 22 2
     Australia 6 24 2
     Chile 1 20
     France (Bordeaux) 7
     Israel 1
     South Africa 4
     US 3 19 4

Source: Wine Spectator Ratings

Of course, if you are a wine buyer that likes to purchase expensive wines, Red Burgundies or Cabs are the wines for you. Zachys, a wine auctioneer, is estimating that 6 bottles of Romanee Conti (1990) will be sold in Hong Kong in the HK$460,000-700,000 (US$59,100-90,070) price range, or $9,850-$15,012 a bottle.

2. Shiraz

Australia made Shiraz a popular varietal, and their wines dominate the inexpensive, high quality Shiraz listings. I came upon 56 in my store survey.

Table 2. – Shiraz

  Rating ≥ 88 Rating ≥ 90
Shiraz $10 or less $15 or less $15 or less
Total 6 108 15
     Argentina   2  
     Australia 4 80 10
     Chile 9 3
     South Africa 11 1
     US 2 8 1

Source: Wine Spectator Ratings

There are plenty of good, inexpensive Shirazes available, with 15 rated 90 or more costing $15 or less. Again, well-known brands show up, e.g., Lindemans, Jacob’s Creek, Penfolds, and Greg Norman.

3. Malbec

Argentina has popularized Malbecs, and their wines dominate the wine rating table. Again, good, inexpensive Malbecs are available with 11 rated 88 or more costing $10 or less.

Table 3. – Malbecs

  Rating ≥ 88 Rating ≥ 90
Malbec $10 or less $15 or less $15 or less
Total 11 58 4
     Argentina 11 57 4
     Chile 1

Source: Wine Spectator Ratings

The $10 or less group includes brand names readily available: Alamos, Doña Paula, and Terrazas de Los Andes.

Light Whites – Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is the dominant light white varietal. It is also the dominant grape in the French Sancerres and Pouilly Fumés. They are plentiful  in the US – I found 69 of them in my store survey. Table 4 indicates high quality, inexpensive Sauvignon Blancs are widely available, with New Zealand the leading provider.

Table 4. – Sauvignon Blanc

  Rating ≥ 88 Rating ≥ 90
Sauvignon Blanc $10 or less $15 or less $15 or less
Total 16 235 41
     Argentina 3 8
     Australia 1 8 1
     Chile 13
     France (Sancerre) 2
     France (Pouilly Fumé) 1 1
     New Zealand 3 99 23
     South Africa 44 2
     US 9 60 14

Source: Wine Spectator Ratings

Many widely-known and readily available brand names are represented in the table, including: Babich, Santa Rita, Neil Ellis, and Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Heavy Whites – Chardonnay

Chardonnay is the dominant heavy white grape. There are plenty in stores – I found 78 in my survey. And again, as Table 5 indicates, there is no problem in finding inexpensive, high-quality Chards.

Table 5. – Chardonnays

  Rating ≥ 88 Rating ≥ 90
Chardonnay $10 or less $15 or less $15 or less
Total 19 127 15
     Argentina 2 8
     Australia 5 38 2
     Chile 3 17 2
     France (White Burgundy) 7
     Israel 1
     New Zealand 5 2
     South Africa 2 7 1
     US 7 44 8

Source: Wine Spectator Ratings

The US has 8 Chards rated 90 or higher, along with 2 each for Australia, Chile, and New Zealand. These 90+ rated wines are widely available. Well-known brand names include: Columbia Crest, Thorne-Clark, and Babich.

Country Competition

Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand became large wine exporters because of one grape: Argentina (Malbec), Australia (Shiraz) and New Zealand (Sauvignon Blanc). There is a marketing problem here: becoming associated with only one varietal. Chile and South Africa do not have such a reputation. This should help them in future years.

Concluding Thoughts

There are people in the world who can actually tell the difference between a Romanee Conti vintage 1990 and vintage 1991. Amazing! For the wine expert, a good part of the enjoyment in drinking wine is the ability to make such fine distinctions.

But the vast majority of people who drink wine (myself included) have difficulty distinguishing between a wine rated 88 and 95 by WS. My suggestion: choose a varietal you like, pay for a month’s subscription for wine ratings –  Parker, Wine Spectator, or some other, to see if you can tell the difference between wines rated very good and outstanding.

[1] A good source on economic analysis of wine is the American Association of Wine Economists –

The content above was saved on the old Morss Global Finance website, just in case anyone was looking for it (with the help of
This entry was posted in Drinking, Entertaiment, Global Economics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *