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Parker vs. Bordeaux? Mais non!

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The Telegraph, out of London, is reporting that Robert Parker “has warned that wine-lovers of the Western world could end their affair with Bordeaux should its chateaux raise prices on their latest vintage once again.”

Why wasn’t he doing that twenty years ago? Lots of coulda shoulda stuff here. It seems that prices have gotten too high even for the Pope, who made his bones praising Bordeaux and has ridden that horse past the finish line successfully for the last 29 years even as prices have risen a gazillion percent. The Telegraph says Parker “was ‘saddened’ to see the ‘loss of market share of Bordeaux on restaurant menus or wine shops, as the prices seem too high.’”

I’m sure Parker is putting up black mourning crepe all over the Monkton manse, but it’s a little silly for him to be upset about Bordeaux prices in 2011. Bordeaux has been daring consumers to “end their affair” with it for the last 200 years (read “The Wines of Bordeaux” by Eddie Penning-Rowsell and see), and the more they jack up prices, the more people crave it. That’s because a lot of people who buy Bordeaux are aspirational showoffs who have no taste and fall for the oldest trick in the book: If it’s expensive and people I’m jealous of want it, it must be good.

Parker got his comeuppance, too. Listen to this retort by a guy named Simon Davies, said by the Telegraph to be head of marketing at a fine wine merchant. Asked about Parker’s lament, Davies “said Mr Parker’s warning was a case of ‘sour grapes… Whenever a big new player comes into the market, the last big player moans we can’t afford to buy. While the world’s most important wine critic is still an American, I’m afraid a new wine superpower on the rise and that’s China.’”

Ouch! That’s putting the cat’s claw into Parker’s hide. Parker is “the last big player.” And an American to boot! That must hurt.

I don’t claim to have a Ph.D. in Parkerology. I don’t know if he’s expressed sadness before over Bordeaux prices, which always have defined hubris. But if it’s true that China’s where the world’s wine action is at, Parker understands it well. He’s been playing the China card for years. He made his first foray into the PRC back in 2008, and of course last year held a widely reported “Ultimate Parker in Asia” event, one of whose organizers called him “god.” If I were Parker looking for one final go-around before I hit the golf course, I’d certainly play to people who thought I was “god” and if that means China then by God that’s where I’d be.

The important thing to keep in mind, for those who don’t already know it, is that Bordeaux always has been overpriced, and there have always been enough foolish people who were willing to pay whatever the Bordelais demanded. I was down at the Hearst Castle recently, on a private tour where they took me to old man Hearst’s wine cellar. It was filled with empty bottles of Bordeaux, from the earlier part of the 20th century. The lady guide said Hearst didn’t even drink–he stocked the wine to amuse his Hollywood guests. I can’t imagine that the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich and William Powell were particularly knowledgeable about the wines they drank, as long as the labels bore famous names like “Lafite” and they could convince themselves that they really must have been superior human beings because, after all, they were drinking superior wines that ordinary people could never have and that William Randolph Hearst himself was serving alongside his tapestries and Old Masters. That’s what happens when someone starts with an inferiority complex and then suddenly turns nouveau riche. A certain arriviste vulgarity ensues. It’s sad that so many Chinese are in exactly that position, but they are.

  1. How right you are. I gave up fine Bordeaux long ago because it simply priced me out. On the other hand, there are some good reds from here that are not in the huge price market. Try Chateau Bonnet 2007. Around $15 in the States, but less in Europe, there is the the Bordeaux “taste” there, good flavors and balance, and can be a great house wine. There are others. But first-growths are definitely out until the chateaux change their policies. If the Chinese can afford Margaux all the better for Margaux, but we normals are out of luck.

  2. A good friend, Joe, who is no longer with us told many stories about his stays at San Simeon. He was from Hollywood, but the thing that made a visit to Hearst home exciting were the other guests. He said you never knew who would be there, but you knew it would be an incredible mix of world leaders and titans of industry.

    A story Joe loved to tell regarded a British ambassador to the U.S. who was seated next to Joe’s wife at dinner. Right off, the ambassador asked her, “And may I ask, what do you do?” Joe’s wife answered, “I’m a housewife.” Astonished, the gentleman stood up, bowed to her, and said, “I am so delighted to finally have met one.”

    It could be that Hearst’s wines were there not just Hollywood celebs, but for a more worldly set of guests who knew wine. Joe, by the way, owned a vineyard in Rutherford and probably had more wine in his own cellar than Hearst did in the castle.

  3. Alec White says:

    The late David Niven wrote two great books, “The Moon’s a Balloon” and “Bring On the Empty Horses”. In one of them he wrote about weekends at Hearst Castle with other Hollywood luminaries, where because of Hearst’s fierce dislike of alcohol the guests would get sloshed in their bungalows before dinner, knowing that W.R. would only put a few bottles of wine at a dinner table serving thirty guests. Evidently after his death they found dozens and dozens of bottles of great Bordeaux in his cellar gone over the hill.

  4. I have to heartily agree that the fine french folks of bordeaux have been cashing in on the legendary names of their wines. There are some great wines to be had but the prices are, in my estimation, artificial. There used to be a saying here, a quote supposedly from a bordelais….’the vintage is better than last years so we must raise prices’ and the next year….’the vintage is not as good but the cost of making it has gone up so we must raise prices’.

  5. Steve, speaking of emergence, an Indian friend of mine was talking about a surge in interest in wine in India as well. I know that Steven Spurrier heads the Wine Society of India, but one can only guess at how large the following is. Any insights?

  6. Christopher O'Gorman says:

    “If it’s expensive and people I’m jealous of want it, it must be good.”

    $51,000 for a case of 09 Petrus! The emperor has no clothes.

  7. Tone Kelly says:

    If one looks at Bordeaux pricing since 1982, the price increases didn’t really start to exceed inflation until 1997 which was an excessive rise especially given the so so quality of the wine.
    The boom really got going with the 2000’s so it is really in the last 10 years that Bordeaux price rises have been excessive vs.inflation.

    That said one can argue that prior to 1996 the Bordeaux was underpriced. Given the increase in world wealth and the number of new wine consumers on a world wide basis – fine wines were bound to increase more than inflation (for a while).

    The rate of increase is starting to more than exceed the rate of inflation and even wealth creation. At 18% increase per year (for example) wine prices will double every 4 years. In 10 years a $100 Bordeaux will be $500 and heading toward $2000 in another 10 years. Typical wine buyers will pass, and new winebuyers will have to be very rich to even start buying Bordeaux. For all the talk about China’s wealth, I don’t believe that they will pay these prices. When the first recession hits China, the wine boom will bust.

  8. I remember sitting in a very nice Shanghai restaurant a few years back, watching a very nice bottle of (latest vintage) classified Bordeaux arrive at the next table, occupied by three young, affluent-appearing locals. Each received a small pour, after which they examined the bottle carefully and positioned it strategically near the edge of the table, front label facing toward the room, where the remainder sat undisturbed for the rest of their dinner.

    Me, I just sipped on my Tsingtao and sighed.

  9. george kaplan says:

    Unfortunately the rising Bordeaux tide lifts all boats, like the cult cabs of our good old USA. Oh, for the day when Joe Heitz shocked, shocked us by raising Martha’s 1985 to $60, with the pretty sensible argument “Have you seen what a tie costs today?” I haven’t bought a tie in a long time, and damned few high-end Cali Cabs. Other fine euro wines cost about twice what they cost in 2000 because the dollar has fallen 50% compared to the Euro: back in 1989 a Jadot Clos St Jacques sold here for $60, 2006 around $120. Another good reason to fix all that deficit/ balance of payments stuff. I wouldn’t mind being homeless in SoCal drinking Montrachet out of a brown paper bag.

  10. I work in a wine tasting/retail room in Napa and in the short amount of time I’ve been there I’ve had a few Chinese customers who simply ask “what’s the most expensive wine you have here?” and then purchase that $200 bottle. We always give them a taste from an open bottle before they complete the purchase, but I don’t think they even care how it tastes. They would have bought it without trying it first.

  11. Goodness Brian, that is amazing!

    From the perspectives of the Greeks, the Romans must have seemed to have demonstrated the most deplorable “arriviste vulgarity”. How “sad” it is, is debatable.

    What has rarely been discussed, is exactly, precisely how all of this money is being made. Human misery is a lot sadder than any perception of taste.

  12. I am not sure why buying something for its brand is all that shocking to folks. We do it all day long it is what the advertising industry is built on. Adding value to a product outside of its physical value or utility. From the car we drive to the condiments in or refrigerator to the clothing on our back rarely do we strictly by something because it “we like it” it is usually a combination of comfort with the brand and how we will be perceived for making the purchase. We were all new consumers at one point and many of us probably did not even like wine when we first tasted it but we drank it because it had some sort of cultural value but have learned to love it. Sure some will buy the wine and waste it but I am sure many others will come to truly enjoy the product and good on them we can always use one more interested wine consumer driving business. Let the new wealth enjoy Petrus for a while it’s a big world of wine I am sure none of us will go without a glass for dinner tonight or anytime soon.

  13. “Bordeaux always has been overpriced” – not entirely true. There’s quite a bit of inexpensive, decent Bordeaux wine. However, most of the 1st growth wines (and many of the critical darlings from the last 25 years) are ridiculously overpriced and have been for a long time, and based largely on a classification system that is no longer relevant and quality pyramid that, as a result, is effectively upside down.

  14. I just sent to auction last week, despite a total distaste for wine speculation, 1986 Lafite and 1985 Sassicaia. I have never sold wine before. I bought the Lafite for $75 and the Sassicaia for $45 on release in the late eighties. Both have reserves set well in excess of $1,000 a bottle. Both are rated 100 points by Parker. The Chinese are probably focused more on first growth Bordeaux than they are on Tuscan wine. Agreed?

    If you are trying to understand the Parker impact on price escalation, just think about this example. If you are trying to understand the impact of Parker on China, check out how the hammer prices over the last 8 years track with Parker points.

    I am selling the wine as a little revenge against the forces behind Bordeaux price escalation, and will turn a dozen and a half wines into 100 beautiful wines that are under the Parker and Chinese radar screen.

  15. 1WineDude, read “The Wines of Bordeaux” and see. I was talking about the top growths, both before and after 1855. They’ve always taken advantage of every fluctuation in the market to fleece buyers. Nothing wrong with that–it’s just good old fashioned capitalism.

  16. Will do. I recommend “What Price Bordeaux” – brilliant analysis of the Bord’x market and what’s wrong with the classification system, etc.

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