Cheap wine: Everything you always wanted to know

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Alan Cuenca is a qualified wine connoisseur and owner of Put a Cork in It, an intimate Durango wine shop. He keeps his operation small, opting for quality over quantity (he doesn’t carry Budweiser, Coors or Jim Beam). The customer service Cuenca offers is highly personalized; customers are asked about the flavors they prefer, their price range and whether the bottle is for them or for a party. The wine store owner’s responsibility is vast: Alcohol is expensive, and the product Cuenca puts in someone’s glass can make or break an evening. It’s important to build a level of trust with regulars – you come to know their tastes and predict their future favorites. DGO sat down with Cuenca to discuss cheap wine, the unfair negativity surrounding boxes and screw-cap tops and what you’re supposed to do when a server pours you a snifter of vino at a restaurant.

Can cheap wine be good wine?

Ninety percent of wine sales here are under $20 a bottle. My demographic is age 21 to 70, from all backgrounds. Right after the recession, everyone spent the same amount of money on wine, but they bought more inexpensive bottles. Now we’re starting to see average bottle sales coming up again. I get nurses, engineers, musicians, college students – though I get less college students, because they go to Wagon Wheel and Star Liquors. I don’t carry big bottles of Barefoot. We never discriminate against someone who says they want to buy a $10 bottle that will fit within their budget. We ask everyone “how much do you want to spend?” As a wine professional, you never want to make people feel bad about what they like. A lot of stores put ratings on their wines, which help sell stuff – but I don’t do that. I want to hand-sell it and talk to people. I know what my regulars like. I’m trying to train people not to trust ratings.

Should we care about the stigma surrounding boxed wine?

There’s some phenomenal boxed wines out there! It’s for somebody that wants a glass of wine or two a night, that can’t finish a bottle. It gets your cost down to $5 a bottle. The days of Franzia are over, even though it’s still on the market. We’re going to be seeing, over the next 10 years, a huge increase in the quality of boxed wines. There’s less recycling, lower shipping weight because there’s no glass, less spoilage. It’s not very romantic, but it’s a preconceived notion of status. I personally don’t give a shit about that. That’s why I named my store Put a Cork In It. What makes the wine industry function is everyday wine drinkers, who want to be in the $10 to $15 range. They are the norm. Nobody likes wine snobs – at the end of the day, it’s just fermented grapes. (Side note: during the course of this interview, a woman bought a Folonari box of Pinot Noir. Alan recommended the brand, describing it as “very light, bright, delicate and silky.”)

What about the contempt for screw-cap wines?

It’s not very romantic if you go out to Eolus or Seasons for fine dining, and they bring your bottle of wine and it’s [screw-cap sound] as opposed to [cork-popping sound.] But the imagery around screw caps is definitely changing for the better. Hands down, it’s the best closure for wine. You have very few spoilage issues. In my bi-weekly column for the Herald, I just wrote about flawed wine. Wines sealed with traditional corks can become flawed (maderized, oxidized, corked) and that affects 7 percent of wine – so one out of 12 bottles is flawed! You can’t tell until you open the bottle and pour it into a glass. Screw caps have a failure rate that is minimal to nil. If you’re going to have one bottle of wine in the house, make sure it’s a screw cap. A few years ago, it was way more common for people to snub screw caps. Now it’s rare; typically the person that snubs just hasn’t been taught otherwise yet.

So what are corks good for?

There’s still nothing better for aging wine than a cork; a cork slowly breathes, to gracefully age the wine.

The cliché goes “wine gets better with age.” What’s the benefit of aging wine?

It gets softer, turns to a liquid silk. Becomes more subtle, nuanced, delicate. And it’s amazing to drink a wine that’s 20 years old. You’re enjoying a moment in time. When wines are young, they’re pretty up-front. The fruit hits you in the face, the tannins and the acids are up front. As a wine ages, those elements integrate and become seamless. But not all wines are ageable. Most wine can probably age up to 10 years.

What’s with the wine service at restaurants?

When you go out to dinner, the server pours you an ounce or two of wine for you to approve. Most people, because they’re nervous, don’t know what to do. The server hates doing wine service. Everyone is confused by it. Most people just kick the sample back and say “It’s fine,” because they want that experience over as fast as possible. The server will put the cork in front of you, and you should inspect the cork. A cork can tell you a lot about a wine. It can be dried out, and then it shrinks – which opens the possibility for wine to get out and air to get in, which will oxidize the wine and turn it to vinegar. We live in a dry climate; the Southwest is hard on corks. Don’t smell the cork; you see in movies people smell the cork and say, “Mmm, good vintage!” It’s just a bunch of Hollywood shit. It smells like cork. Then they’ll pour a sip in your glass; you want to smell it – does it smell like cork or vinegar? If it’s a red wine and you smell fruits, then you’re pretty confident the wine is good. If it’s a white wine, if you smell tropical fruits, then you know the wine is good. Taste to confirm what you smell.

Why are some wines wildly more expensive than others?

First and foremost, place. Is it coming from a reputable, famous region? Is it a hillside vineyard or on the valley floor? Hillside is better for sun and drainage; on the valley floor, roots are sitting in a water table, which waters down the concentration of the grapes. Barrel aging – how long were they aged in a barrel? How many barrels were new oak versus old oak? What was the yield of the harvest; if it was a single vineyard wine. The broader the range of where the grapes come from, the less expensive the wine. The more pinpointed you get, the more expensive, so it’s site-specific. Vineyards even three miles apart will have radically different conditions and will taste different. The cheaper wines aren’t meant to be collector wines. There’s a difference between making a wine that won’t be drinkable for 10 or 20 years, versus making a wine that will be drinkable upon release. I’m confident that the average person could tell the difference between a $10 Chardonnay and a $150 bottle from Burgundy, France. You’d be like, “Damn it, now I’m ruined.”

Why aren’t more young people into wine?

It’s expensive. How many sandwiches can you buy with $20? You can get four meals or four glasses of wine. I personally think a $20 bottle of wine is expensive. But there’s this idea that people have to spend a lot of money on wine, and that’s not the case. It’s perception, the common mentality on the street. We can sell you a $10 or $12 bottle of wine that you will feel good about.


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