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Considerable economic analysis has been done on how people choose wine, with the primary findings being that choices are rarely connected to taste and that prices do not accurately predict taste. People appear to buy wine based on color, brand name, label and ratings -- which are frequently argued by experts -- but carefully conducted large blind tastings show more expensive wines are actually not preferred.

Some people buy wine because it is expensive, though, either because they are buying wine as a gift, don't know anything about it and are reassured by buying an expensive one; or because they believe buying expensive wines will make others think they are wine connoisseurs.

There are people in the world who can actually tell the difference between a Romanee Conti vintage 1990 and 1991, and 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

Wine Spectator

, and the trend is toward better but less expensive bottles.

Wines from Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa are gradually replacing European wines in the U.S. in part because they are good and cost less to produce than their European competitors. As the U.S. buyer becomes more knowledgeable, European (especially French) producers will lose the the price edge they enjoy by marketing a region -- for example, Burgundy -- rather than the dominant varietal -- for example, Pinot Noir.

Liquor stores also lack counter space for more wine. That means a new wine must replace an existing one, and that's a tall order. It will take an extremely low price or a varietal that catches on, with examples of varietals that have done so being a domestic Pinot Noir, Malbec from Argentina, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Shiraz from Australia.

That may be hard to repeat. Those countries became large wine exporters by becoming known for one grape: Argentina for the Malbec, Australia for the Shiraz and New Zealand for the Sauvignon Blanc. But becoming associated with only one varietal can cause marketing problems. Chile and South Africa don't have such a limited reputation, and that should help roll out new product in future years.

All five nations offer a large number of relatively inexpensive wines in stores. To best see the relationship between price and quality, I've done a survey focused on

Wine Spectator

ratings. (The magazine describes an 85-89 rating as "very good," and wines it puts at the upper end are really even better. Anything over 90 is as rated as "outstanding." I normally don't buy a wine it rates less than 88, and I agree wines at 90 or above are normally outstanding.)

I searched the magazine's database by varietal for $10-to-$15 wines bottled between 2004 and last year with ratings of 88 or higher. The findings suggest buyers will have no trouble finding high-quality, inexpensive wines.


"heavy reds"

I looked at cabernet sauvignons, shirazes and malbecs.

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I included French Bordeaux in this category because its primary grape is Cabernet Sauvignon. I found 15 Cabs priced at $10 or less with

Wine Spectator

ratings of 88 or more, led by Australia and Argentina. Increase the search price to $15 and 97 wines appear. For exceptional wines (rated 90 or more), eight appear -- two each from Argentina and Australia and four from the U.S. In a previous large liquor store survey, I found a total of 86 Cabs in the $8-to-$16 range, with no reference to quality; more than half were from the U.S.

The conclusion: There are plenty of high-quality, low-priced Cabs available. Well-known brand names are included, such as Columbia Crest, Hogue and Peter Lehmann, making them not hard to find.

If you like to buy expensive wines, Cabs are still for you.


, a wine auctioneer, is estimating that six bottles of 1990 Romanee Conti will be sold in Hong Kong for between $9,850 and $15,012 a bottle.


Australia made Shiraz a popular varietal, and their wines dominate the inexpensive, high-quality Shiraz listings. I came upon 56 in my store survey. There are plenty of good, inexpensive Shirazes available, with 15 rated 90 or more but costing $15 or less. Again, well-known brands show up, such as Lindemans, Jacob's Creek, Penfolds and Greg Norman.


Argentina has popularized -- and dominates -- Malbecs. Again, good, inexpensive Malbecs are available, with 11 rated 88 or more but costing $10 or less. The $10 or less group includes brand names readily available: Alamos, Dona Paula, and Terrazas de Los Andes.

In the


we'll look at one light and one heavy:


is the dominant light white varietal. It is also the dominant grape in the French Sancerres and Pouilly Fumes. The wines are plentiful in the U.S. High-quality, inexpensive Sauvignon Blancs are widely available -- I found 69 of them in my store survey -- with New Zealand the leading provider. The many widely known and readily available brand names include Babich, Santa Rita, Neil Ellis and Chateau Ste. Michelle.


Chardonnay is the dominant heavy white grape, and there are plenty in stores -- I found 78 in my survey and again, many inexpensive, high-quality ones. The U.S. has eight Chards rated 90 or higher by

Wine Spectator

, along with two each for Australia, Chile and New Zealand. These wines are widely available, with well-known brand names including Columbia Crest, Thorne-Clark and Babich.

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Elliott Morss is an economic consultant and an individual investor in developing countries. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Harvard University and Boston University, among other schools. Morss worked at the International Monetary Fund and helped establish Development Alternatives. He has co-written six books and published more than four dozen articles in professional journals.