“This bottle costs how much?!”

This question is usually followed by one of two actions: a look of astonishment and delight, as the person thought I was going to rattle off a price much higher than what the bottle costs; or an expression of disgust, because no wine is good enough at that price point.

Why are some wines more expensive than others, and why do some cheaper (ahem, value) wines taste better than their $100 counterparts?

As the owner of a wine shop, I’m often asked to justify the cost of some wines, whether the price is high or low. “It’s just fermented grape juice! Why is it so expensive?!” Yes, and the Golden Gate Bridge is just a pile of steel, and “Mona Lisa” is just a picture. Not all wine-drinkers think this way, but for those that do, it can be a confusing and frustrating reality. It’s like comparing an evening at The French Laundry to a dinner out at Applebee’s, because in the end, food is food.

As in any other industry—whether it’s art, restaurants, housing or cars—there are varying price points for wine that are dictated by the rarity of it, the quality of materials that go into it, and the talent that produced it. But that doesn’t always mean that the result is going to be everyone’s proverbial cup of tea.

Famous winemakers with hefty salaries, iconic estate vineyards in well-known regions, and opulent wineries with seasoned tasting room staffs are some of the obvious overhead expenses that contribute to high-price-tag wines. Combine that with vineyard management and labor, and materials (like bottles, labels, corks and wooden shipping boxes), and you have just scratched the surface of the mega-dollars some of these cult wine producers spend.

But wait … there’s more. One of the underlying price dictators of wine is time. Fewer wineries hold back wine to age it before it’s released to the public these days, so it’s not surprising that it’s also one of the things that no one really considers. In a crazy scheme to make money, wineries realized that making wine that needed to be laid down for 10-plus years before it was ready to drink was not exactly the best business strategy.

That said, some wineries still do hold back wine and age it. The great first growths of Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundies and some “cult” wineries in Napa are known to cellar their wines for years before releasing them—which, naturally, comes at a huge expense. This is wine that’s taking up valuable space while generating dust, not revenue. Add in the exorbitant yearly cost of the finest French oak barrels, and you can almost hear the money bleeding out. But they do this for a reason: These oak barrels create beautiful flavors of vanilla, mocha, baking spices and sweet pipe tobacco. Time brings these flavors together, helps soften the tannins, and creates a wine with a smooth and velvety mouthfeel. As Orson Welles used to say: “No wine before it’s time.”

When these high-profile wines are ready, they’re released with a lot of fanfare, and collectors and connoisseurs clamor to get their hands on some—the idea being that these wines are special, rare and worth the money.

So what about the value wines? How can some producers make wine for $10 or less a bottle? And how can it possibly taste good?

So why would some of these less-expensive wines taste so good, if not better, to some consumers? In a word: sugar.

In the last 20 years, we have seen the rise of the “virtual winery.” Get a rented space with the equipment you need to crush, ferment and bottle your own wine, and you can have your own label. No vineyard? No problem! Most vineyards harvest more fruit than they use for their own production, which means there are a lot of grapes up for sale. Have a few extra bucks in your pocket? Great! You can afford to buy some fruit from a prestigious estate in Napa, Sonoma or Santa Barbara. A little tight on cash? Not to worry; there are plenty of grapes for sale from lesser-known areas like Clarksburg, Suisun and the Livermore Valley, or up-and-coming places like the Red Hills AVA in Lake County and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Producers in countries like Argentina, Portugal, South Africa and Spain all offer up wines at an amazing value, due to low labor costs, inexpensive land and lesser-known grape varieties. The demand for wines from Italy and France has made these countries really aggressive with their pricing—without sacrificing quality.

The use of French oak can be cost-prohibitive, but there are other ways for wines to see wood. American oak is much more affordable and will contribute its own distinct flavors, like coconut and dill. Even if a winemaker is dead-set on using French oak but can’t afford it, there’s the option of putting French oak chips in the wine during fermentation to achieve similar flavors—without the time in expensive barrels. This means the wine can hit the market for sale in a few months, instead of years. And time is money.

So why would some of these less-expensive wines taste so good, if not better, to some consumers? In a word: sugar. When a wine is made, the yeast gobbles up the sugar from the grapes and converts it to alcohol. When some of the sugar is left in the wine, it can make the wine seem fuller-bodied than it is, and give a cheaper wine a sense of richness. And, let’s face it: Generally speaking, we Americans like our sweets. So when a wine can sneak in a little sugar and still be called “dry,” we love it!

So does this mean that all inexpensive wines are bad? No. Does this mean that all expensive wines are good? Of course not.

Just like a mom can love her child’s fingerpainting as much as a connoisseur can love her Renoir, there will never be a “one size fits all” in the wine world. There are some fantastic wines out there for less than $20 a bottle. There are some $300 wines out there for which I wouldn’t pay $50. Keep an open mind—and you’ll enjoy more wine.

Katie Finn drinks wine for a living. As a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and as a Certified Specialist of Wine, she has dedicated her career to wine education and sharing her...