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That pesky quality-price ratio: QPR reconsidered

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I suppose I can see the logic (if that’s the right word) of charging many hundreds of dollars for a wine of known provenance (Lafite, for instance). But when a new brand, right out of the gate, releases itself at triple-digit prices, some sense of justice in me is aroused to the point of disgust.

I wrote “releases itself” but that is, of course, an intransitive verb structure, the kind we writers recoil from, because nothing in this world occurs intransitively. So let me rephrase it: When a new brand is released by its owners at triple-digit prices, something in me is disgusted.

I could choose from among any number of Napa Valley wines to illustrate my point, but since I have to live, and get along, with these people, it’s probably a better idea for me to turn abroad. To Australia, in this case, where the new Thousand Candles winery has released a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz, both at the price of $110 U.S.

The winemaker, William Downie, told Bloomberg News’ Elin McCoy about “the surprising backstory” (McCoy’s words) concerning the wines’ “true expression of the site” (we’ve heard that before). “I believe a great wine tells one story: Who am I?” Downie said. (Never mind that Thousand Candles’ owner is anonymous, and Downie didn’t disclose his/her identity; what kind of “story-telling” is that?)

Downie did admit to McCoy that “We have been accused of hubris,” referring to the controversy that gripped the Australian wine scene when the wines’ prices were revealed. Indeed, Qantas Airlines’ online web site said “No inaugural wine release was more controversial than that of Thousand Candles…”. (I should add that I have not tasted the wines, nor has anyone at Wine Enthusiast, yet.) Such reviews of them as I’ve found online have been mainly positive. Most emphasize the wines’ uniqueness, and that may well be true.

There are certainly arguments supportive of releasing some new brands at high prices. One is the pedigree of their creators; indeed, this is generally the most-used rationale. Such-and-such a famous viticulturalist and winemaker is involved; such-and-such great terroir: these usually are the prime justifications. In the case of Thousand Candles, there seems also to be a desire, on the part of the winemaker at any rate, to reassure the world that Australia, despite its well-publicized woes, is capable of producing top tier wines. Now this gets us into the through-the-looking glass world of perceptions: If a wine costs that much money, surely it must be good!

We know, from studies and through anecdotal evidence, that the tendency of the consumer to believe that price and quality are related is practically hard-wired into the brain. I don’t quite understand what the evolutionary value of such reasoning is; perhaps someone can explain it to me. But it’s a powerful driver; even if you intellectually understand that price and quality aren’t that tightly connected, a high price has an emotional impact on most people that’s makes it hard for them to reasonably dismiss it. Look at art: if it’s a scribbled daub on the bulletin board at a local school, it’s considered minor. Put it in a fancy frame, in a museum, and suddenly connoisseurs are willing to pay millions for it.

There’s something else going on with these super-expensive wines that also touches in on human psychology. It’s the feeling that, even if you taste the wine and don’t particularly care for it, there must be something in you that’s missing in action, not something in the wine. If you tasted a Two Buck Chuck and thought it was a thin disappointment, you wouldn’t give it a second thought: It’s just a cheap wine that doesn’t deserve to have you lavish time and energy trying to understand it.

But a $110 wine is somehow different. Consider this review of Thousand Candles, from the Wine Will Eat Itself blog. The writer, Jeremy Pringle, is trying very hard (it seems to me) to be fair and objective in his assessment, for which I give him credit. He doesn’t robotically fall into line worshiping the wine, just because it’s expensive. Instead, he revisits it, thinks about it (a lot), considers the opinions of its critics, doubts himself, and retastes–these all are admirable qualities for a wine critic to possess. In the end, he writes, while the wine may not immediately dazzle (“Those who criticize this wine based on some sense of objective value for money are probably spot on”), he concludes that “it is a cerebral wine…best shared with others and within the context of a discussion if not a debate.”

I understand where he’s going…kind of. But why would you give a wine so much power over you, if your first impression of it is “Meh”? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s expensive, because it has a “surprising backstory,” because the chattering classes are all mumbling about it, and because you, as a wine writer, don’t want people to think you’re not “up” on the latest important developments. So you give that wine extra consideration–extra time in the glass–extra thought. You want to find great stuff in there, so you look, and look, and look, and talk and talk about it, and suddenly, Voila! There it finally is: great stuff.

Well, this of course is precisely the reason to taste blind. But I am not ignorant of the fact that there’s a huge other side to this debate, and that is, as Pringle writes, “There are occasions when context matters a great deal.” Evidently, tasting Thousand Candles requires context. Does tasting Lafite require context? Does Harlan Estate require context? Does an Arrowood Cabernet require context? Does Two Buck Chuck require context? Where is the line? How does the critic determine which wines require context, and which can be summarily dismissed?

Good questions; no good answers.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WINE PRICING AND PERCEIVED QUALITY . . .

    From New York Times “Dining Out” Section
    (May 7, 2008, Page D1ff):

    “Wine’s Pleasures: Are They All In Your Head?”

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/07/dining/07pour.html?pagewanted=print

    By Eric Asimov
    “The Pour” Column

    From Yahoo News
    (January 14, 2008):

    “Raising Prices Enhances Wine Sales”

    Link: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080114/ap_on_bi_ge/costs_more_tastes_better

    By Randolph E. Schmid
    Associated Press Science Writer

    From CNET News
    (January 14, 2008)

    “Study: $90 wine tastes better than the same wine at $10″

    [Link: http://www.news.com/8301-13580_3-9849949-39.html

    Posted by Stephen Shankland

    ADDENDUM: Go to http://www.news.com/8301-13580_3-9849949-39.html to see the accompanying exhibits:

    Exhibit # 1 caption: This graph shows the activity in the brain’s pleasure center; there’s more activity with wine subjects think costs $90 a bottle (top line) than the same wine priced at $10. The arrow shows the moment when the subjects started tasting the wine.

    (Credit: Caltech, Stanford)

    Exhibit # 2 caption: This chart shows that people ranked taste of a $45 wine higher than the same wine priced at $5, and the same for a different wine marked $90 and $10.

    (Credit: Caltech, Stanford)

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Since the Yahoo News report can’t be accessed, let’s give your readers the San Francisco Chronicle version.

    ~~ Bob

    From San Francisco Chronicle
    (January 15, 2008):

    “Taste test seems to confirm that drinkers do enjoy costly wine more”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Taste-test-seems-to-confirm-that-drinkers-do-3298116.php

    By Randolph E. Schmid
    Associated Press Science Writer

  3. Given the kind of work I do, people are often surprised that I don’t drink a lot more wine. The simple reason for that is that many of the wines I like are priced beyond my ability to afford them. I remember working in fine dining back in the late 80’s (where my interest in wine first started), and pushing Napa Valley as offering great wines at good prices. Now I can’t afford most of them on a regular basis. Of course, I like to find the great priced wines, but my rate of consumption (it usually takes a couple of nights to get through a bottle), affords me little opportunity to experiment with my hard earned capital. I’ll admit that for special occasions, price can sometimes be a shortcut, as long as I know the geography warrants it. Unfortunately, I know I will never have the opportunity to form my own opinion of Thousand Candles wine, or their back story.

  4. OK first off I am going to refer to Bob Henry(above) as Link.. and say Comon Man.

    As you write Steve, “Taste Blind”.. agreed

    And some consumers want a wine and will buy a wine right out of the shoot for $100 plus just because they can say to a friend.. “OK this wine cost a $100″ that friend will love it just because of that. And hell maybe close the deal with that $100 ; )

    Every wine deserves some Context

    Cheers !!

  5. Blake Gray says:

    Regarding your conclusion, I would argue that drinking and enjoying any wine requires context. As with you, I taste plenty of wines blind, but that’s work. In a restaurant, if somebody brings me something and says “try this,” I’m always happy to do so, and give an opinion. But that’s a couple of sips. Before I get down to the fun part of drinking it, I want to know what it is.

  6. Keith,

    No doubt “gifting” someone with an expensive bottle of wine can win favors from folks, maybe even “close” a business deal. (That’s why the IRS recognizes “travel and entertainment expenses” as a legitimate business expenditure.)

    Yes, it’s the thought that counts. But the purchase price is a way of “keeping score.”

    Wine Business Monthly trade periodical recently disseminated this article via their e-mail news blast:

    “Wine Knowledge Extremely Limited Among China’s Wealthy Elite”

    Summary: Almost one third of China’s richest citizens have admitted they know nothing about wine and just buy top end brands for gifting or displaying.

    Link: http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2013/09/wine-knowledge-extremely-limited-among-chinas-wealthy-elite/

    ~~ Bob

  7. Patrick,

    Consider: How many wine store salespersons can actually afford to buy the “high end” offerings they stock, given their incomes?

    How many Ferrari or Bentley or Rolls Royce dealership salespersons can actually afford to buy what they sell, given their incomes?

    That’s the frustration of those rarified retail worlds: few who work in luxury goods can personally afford what they sell.

    Don’t despair about not being able to buy as many “great” wines as you would like. Form a wine tasting group, pool your resources, and throw tasting parties.

    I have little doubt that you will come away from those experiences convinced that there are too many “over-priced” wines in the retail market that “under-perform.”

    (Aside: That was the motivation behind my organizing over 100 sit-down Saturday “single blind” winetasting luncheons in Los Angeles – so I could taste before having to commit to buying a case of some expensive wine. A partial chronicle of those events, attended by winery owners, winemakers, distributors, wine merchants, restaurateurs, wine writers and wine collectors: http://www.kirktech.com/bob_henry/)

    And from your group’s tasting parties you may form a renewed appreciation for some of the “old guard” producers, who have been turning out well-made, fairly priced wines for decades.

    ~~ Bob

  8. john murray says:

    There is an abundance of “over-priced ” wines in the market place from all over the world ! I find ,some not all, have a direct correlation to the EGO factor ! Vanity has a price!

  9. Bob Henry says:

    John,

    Economists recognize — and have labeled — two such “ego” priced goods:

    Veblen goods – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veblen_good

    [Excerpt: “Some types of luxury goods, such as high-end wines, designer handbags, and luxury cars, are Veblen goods, in that decreasing their prices decreases people’s preference for buying them because they are no longer perceived as exclusive or high-status products.”]

    Giffen goods – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giffen_good

    [Excerpt: “Some types of premium goods (such as expensive French wines, or celebrity-endorsed perfumes) are sometimes claimed to be Giffen goods. It is claimed that lowering the price of these high status goods can decrease demand because they are no longer perceived as exclusive or high status products.”]

    ~~ Bob

  10. Bob Henry says:

    A supplemental comment to Patrick . . .

    The paradigm I based my winetasting events on is this organization:

    http://www.vintnersclub.com/about.html

    An example of their events:

    http://www.vintnersclub.com/scores.html

    Events schedule:

    http://www.vintnersclub.com/schedule.html

    Events which spawned this tome “in the day”:

    http://www.vintnersclub.com/book.html

    Steve, did you ever avail yourself of these events “in the day”?

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