What is the meaning of super-expensive Cabernet Sauvignon?
I’m amazed by how many Cabernets that cost triple digits I’m seeing lately. Once upon a time, a $300 Cab would have been an older one, with a decade of bottle age to justify its price. Or it might have been a currant release listed on the pages of an expensive restaurant’s wine list, marked up four times its retail price.
But in the last year, I’ve reviewed 156 Cabs and Bordeaux blends that cost $100 or more. That’s more than twice the total number of classified growth Bordeaux (not all of which retail for more than $100 US). And, as you’d expect, nearly all of these costly Cabs come from Napa Valley.
How are we to account for this breathtaking inflation in the price of Cabernet? One possible reason is that proprietors, with their fingers endlessly probing the retail winds, sense a new inclination on the part of the wealthy to spend money. This could be a canary-in-the-coal mine sign of the end of the recession–at least, at the upper end of the income bracket.
However, another theory is far simpler: proprietors have no more clue where the economy’s headed than you or I do, but they do have enough hubris to charge these prices. There’s a herd mentality at the upper end of the boutique winery class that mirrors that of the lower and middle classes of wine. If Fred Franzia establishes a benchmark price for Cabernet (or Pinot Grigio, or whatever), the brands that compete with him are forced to match it, or concede defeat. This is what goes on everyday in the wholesale wars. If Clos du Bois sets a price on a mid-tier Chardonnay, everybody who competes with Clos du Bois has to decide whether or not to meet it or even better it by a buck.
You might think this take-no-prisoners battle doesn’t occur in the rarified, dignified ranks of high-end wineries, but it does. When Screaming Eagle raised their price to $750 a few years ago, all those wineries who feel they compete with Screaming Eagle had to raise their prices. If they didn’t, they believed (correctly or not) that the market would perceive them as inferior to Screaming Eagle–or not caring enough to compete hard with them. In professional sports, the worst reputation an athlete can get is as a guy who doesn’t fight. That’s why Kobe Bryant is such a superstar. No matter what’s happening on the court, the guy is battling it out.
I called this pricing behavior “hubris” just now, but that may be a little unfair. No one would accuse Kobe of having hubris. Pride, yes. Competitiveness, yes. An utter belief in his ability, yes–that’s confidence. And the belief that, as a leader, he’s got to set an example for his teammates, and for his fans. Looked at that way, the behavior of the high-end Caberent houses in raising prices may be more a function of their belief in themselves and in the quality of their wines, than of any egotistical attention getting.
And let there be no mistake, the great majority of these $100-plus wines are very great in quality. A few outliers scored in the mediocre range, but mostly, these are wines that deserve their scores. Of course, the anti-Napa crowd will carp and complain that they’re all the same, a bunch of overripe, overoaked, high alcohol wines that “pall” after the first sip. That’s the standard gripe: the first sip is delicious, but you can’t finish a second glass, because the wines “tire the palate.”
Which is nonsense, of course. Most people I know would happily drain entire cases of these wines, if they could, which they can’t, because they can’t afford them. Anyhow, I think the reason prices are arching upward is a combination of my two theories: proprietors do sense an easing of tight money among the one (or two, or three) percent, who never were as hurt by the recession as the rest of us. And they do believe in the quality of their product. (I should also mention that these high-end Cabs are extraordinarily expensive to produce, when you consider the vineyard work, the price of new French oak, employee costs and the prices they have to pay to the new class of traveling consultants. Every high-end Cabernet seems to require a retinue of associated famous-name consulting viticulturalists and winemakers.)
Where these prices go in the future, though, is anyone’s guess. A year from now, will there be more or fewer $100-plus Cabs than the 156 I’ve reviewed in the last 365 days? I’ll let you know.