The Price of Pinot

By Sara Shaw

Say you’re wandering through one of Oregon’s wonderful wine shops. You see bottles of rich, dark Malbec from Argentina for $10 on the shelf, juicy Australian Shiraz for $15 and rustic Rhone blends for a digestible $7.50. These look good, but what you really love are spectrums of cherry with ribbons of earth and hints of fall leaves that can only be found in Oregon Pinot Noir.

You want to drink the things that you love, of course. Like many of us here in Oregon, you want to buy from the small, local, sustainable producers that are found in our backyard. There’s just one thing standing in your way: the price. The shelves of cheaper imports are glaring at you from across the store with a price tag that is $10 to $20 less than the average price of a bottle of Oregon Pinot. At a mean retail price of $30 to $40 per bottle, our locally lauded grape seems like an expensive luxury while we endure the current economic conditions. 

Why is it that our Oregon Pinots fetch such a high price point? There are a number of variables at play, beginning in the vineyard and ending in your local bottle shop, and the most significant of these is the cost of fruit.

On average, Oregon Pinot Noir carries a price tag somewhere in the range of $2,500 to $3,500 per ton. One ton of grapes produces a little more than two barrels of wine, each of which contains about 60 gallons. One barrel of wine is about 25 cases, and 25 cases are equal to 300 750-milliliter bottles. In the end, if all goes well and there are no significant losses from grape to bottle, one ton of grapes should yield about 600 bottles of wine.

If you abide by the commonly applied procedure and price your wine by taking one-hundredth of the cost of a ton of grapes, your bottle of wine will fall into a price category of $25 to $35 per bottle. These estimations, however, signify a basic average during an easy vintage without factoring in all the other little variables, like the difficulty of producing the Pinot Noir variety in any given vintage, the application of organic and sustainable farming methods, the cost of labor, and the necessary purchase of barrels and other materials.

Winemaker Aron Hess of Daedalus Cellars and 12th and Maple Wine Company notes that vintage as well as the delicate nature of Pinot Noir are important factors in determining price per bottle.

In difficult vintages, more thinning passes are often necessary, which drive up the cost of labor, and result in loss of fruit per acre. Thinning is the process of cluster removal done by hand in the vineyard and is routinely used on the difficult-to-grow Pinot Noir vines to avoid rot by allowing airflow and encouraging nutrients from the vines to travel to fewer clusters and enhance flavors.

However, Aron cautions, “Thinning passes are quite expensive.” He and other Oregon vintners battle each vintage to obtain a balance between inexpensive crop management and optimization of ripeness to meet their stylistic aims. From the most ideal sites, which often boast older vines, the highest tier of grape quality is the common goal, and achieving this goal can be exceedingly more expensive. 

The cost of fruit also goes up when sustainable practices are employed, especially in a difficult vintage. Many Oregon growers are committed to some form of sustainable agriculture, and when growers farm organically, they must make considerably more passes through the vineyard to ensure fruit quality and catch potential issues before they become major problems.

Those who are focused on sustainable viticulture face pests and disease, which are often more difficult to control without the use of chemicals, and a more watchful eye must be kept on the vineyard. This additional time spent caring for the vines increases the cost of fruit, while also reflecting the Oregon wine industry’s commitment to quality.

Another factor in organic farming that reduces crop levels and contributes to inflated bottle prices is the sacrifice of profitable acreage for wildlife corridors.

Wildlife corridors are parcels of land set aside, which allow for deer and other large animals to migrate through vineyard land and maintain their habitats. When a vineyard is operating under the L.I.V.E (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) program requirements, these are necessary measures. The implementation of the corridors is less of a contributor to overall bottle price than the cost of fruit, but it is certainly an intertwined variable. For the vineyard owner, it means giving up purchased sections of land for planting, and in this, viable dollars.

In addition to supporting biodiversity and a sustainable earth, there are also new barrels to purchase each year, with the cost of the euro driving barrel prices up to $1,000 per barrel or more. There is the cost of winery labor, corks, glass, labels, boxes, taxes, and then there is the time and labor that goes into marketing and selling the wine. In the end, if there is a resulting profit, it generally goes into the purchase of winery equipment, vineyard development or marketing materials.

That $30- to $40-bottle price of Pinot Noir, then, is reflective of the cost of producing a fragile grape, susceptible to disease, which demands lower crop yields and detailed attention for a better class of wines. At this price point, you are paying for quality, and, if the winery you are investing in has done everything in its power to make a beautiful wine, you should easily be able to find superior wines in this price range. 

If that price point is still outside your budget, yet you want to drink delicious, locally crafted Pinot Noir from small, sustainable producers, think about purchasing “second label” wines produced by your favorite wineries for everyday drinking. Many Oregon wineries are now producing a second label Pinot Noir. These $10 to $20 wines are usually from younger vines and are simple, fruity, drink-now wines that reflect value over complexity and ageability.

A second label, like the Pappas Wine from Boedecker Cellars, the storied Runaway Red from Brooks, or the cheeky Jezebel label from Daedalus Cellars, allows for the highest quality, older vine fruit to go into the first label. It simultaneously retains an appropriate position for declassified fruit, and creates a delicious little wine at a great value. Pick up these second labels for regular occasions, and splurge on that special bottle when you know it’s appropriate.

If you aren’t sure what to spend your money on, do as Darryl Joannides, owner of Cork Wine Shop advises, “Get to know your local merchant.” They have the inside knowledge on what producers are doing, who is keeping it small and sustainable, and most importantly, how it tastes. 

Sara Shaw is a writer and wine professional originally hailing from Alaska who has chosen the Pacific Northwest as her home. She is currently the sales manager at Daedalus Cellars in Dundee.

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