Photo: Jon Thorsen
For the last year, Twin Cities, Minn. native Jon Thorsen has been on a simple mission: To reverse the snobbery of winos around the world and prove, once and for all, that he could find high-quality wine for under $20.So he dubbed himself the Reverse Wine Snob––”Thumbing my nose at bottles over $20″––and launched a blog that attracts thousands of readers each month. Just about every day, he and his wife review a new bottle, ranking them based on taste (1-10) and value (1-10: “As price goes up, the rating goes down.”).
In a recent chat with Business Insider, Thorsen answered our questions on how to find the best bottles on a budget:
Q: OK. Time to get real. Where are you finding all this cheap, high-quality wine?
A: Costco and Trader Joe’s. Costco simply because they take a lower margin than any other store. Combine that with the huge volume they buy as the largest wine retailer in the U.S. and you simply can’t beat their prices if they carry the wine you want. The downside is the smaller selection. Trader Joe’s is also a good spot primarily due to the number of wines they carry that are under $20 and even under $10. They do a lot of private label wines, which again, keeps the costs down. There are also a ton of really good independent wine shops out there that usually have really knowledgeable staff, you just have to do some work to find one in your area.
Q: Grocery stores are known for designing aisles specifically to put higher-priced items right in shoppers’ lines of sight. Are wine shops following suit?
A: No, not really. The best advice I can give is to find a wine store with a knowledgeable staff and taste some of the wines they recommend until you find a person with similar preferences to you. If they’re good, they’ll be able to point you to lots of value priced wines you will probably like.
Q: Americans have formed a pretty illogical correlation between fancy brand names and value. What’s your take?
A: A lot of time you can find great deals on lesser known varieties simply because they are not well known. Macabeo, a white wine from Spain, or Bonarda, a red from Argentina are a couple good examples. Another trick is to look for better known varieties from atypical regions. So for instance, instead of buying the California Cabernet, try one from South Africa. Or try a Malbec from Chile.
Q: You cap your budget at $20, no questions asked. Does that mean you think everyone should turn up their noses at pricier bottles?
A: If you are not really well versed in wine, I would not recommend spending more than $15-$20 on a bottle. There is a ton of great wine out there under that price. That’s not to say that wine over that price is not good, a lot of it is, but there is just as much bad wine over $20 as there is under $20. Price really has little to do with quality so until you really develop a good sense of what you like, don’t waste your money.
Q: When in doubt, what’s a go-to brand for someone on a budget?
A: The Robert Mondavi Private Selection line is quite good across the board. They offer just about every variety and type of wine all for around $10 or less. And they are available just about everywhere. In the $5-$7 range I’ve been enjoying the Flipflop brand of wines and Redtree Wines recently. Both are widely available. Some other consistently good (and widely available) brands that offer lots of different types of wine around $10 include Santa Julia from Argentina, d’Arenberg from Australia, the Douglas Green Beach House series of wines from South Africa, and the Banfi Centine line from Italy.
Q: Where would you NEVER suggest buying wine?
A: Restaurants are the worst offenders. In fact, there are a lot of people who think wine under $20 can’t be good, but then they buy a $30 bottle of wine at a restaurant, not realising that it would actually cost them $10 at the store. Many restaurants still follow the old rule of pricing their wine by the glass at slightly above their cost for the entire bottle, under the rationalization that if they open a bottle and only one person has a glass they’ll still make a little money. Of course, in reality that never happens so this is a huge profit centre for restaurants. Just remember when you buy a wine by the glass you’re paying about the same as buying the whole bottle at a store. Look for restaurants with a lower mark-up or better yet those that will allow you to bring your own wine with a small corkage fee.
Q: Last question. What’s the deal with screw tops vs. corks?
A: Personally, I prefer screw tops. No risk of the wine being corked, easier to open and close and many think it keeps the wine better. Virtually everything from Australia and New Zealand uses a screw top and I’ve even heard of some high end French wines switching to a screw top so, yeah, I think the lower quality stigma is going away slowly. Honestly, not sure if it really affects the price at the consumer level—it probably does for some wineries but others probably take the increased margin and hold the price steady. For the under $20 market and especially the under $10 market I don’t think there’s any stigma at all about a screw top.