Price Paradox

Speaking off the toque: Ronnie Berman is the owner of Maxim's Restaurant and Piano Bar [3755 Richmond Avenue, (713)877-8899]. In keeping with the restaurant's French-inspired style, Berman maintains an extensive wine cellar. Along with the famous labels, he acquires many little-known wines that meet his taste criteria.

Q: Wine stores are offering bottles from countries not known to U.S. consumers until recently as wine-producing regions -- countries such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Chile and Argentina. The quality of many of these bottles seems to be equal to the premium California wines, but they are priced, despite the added costs of importing, at one-third to one-half the price of the California brands. What's up?

A: A few things are at work here. First off, the value of land in the various countries versus California real estate: In terms of price per acre, California is at the top of the scale worldwide. Labor costs are also a factor, as is the cost of high-quality, high-tech equipment, which is always used by California wineries but may not be used yet in, say, Argentina. Finally, there is a prestige factor at work with California wines. But as far as seeming to be as well made as the California wines, many of these newer imports really are equivalent.

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George Alexander