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Why high end wines are entitled to hype themselves

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This fellow Rob Asghar wrote a very clever and accurate piece about wine marketing in Forbes, and I am not going to disagree with a single thing he said.  It’s all absolutely true, and shows a keen perception into the minds of high-end wine marketers, who have to have a little P.T. Barnum-style hucksterism in their hearts.

But rather than jump on the bandwagon of criticizing the high-end for “suckering,” “cajoling” and “hustling” consumers, I’m going to try to understand them.

What critics of expensive wine fail to understand is that the wine drinking experience is infinitely more complex than mere tasting. It involves every aspect of what it means to be human. Yes, perhaps it’s true that “a supposed 1982 Margaux” that’s actually “a $90 knockoff” might fool all but the most discerning taster, but that’s not the point. It doesn’t mean that the experience of drinking ’82 Margaux isn’t worth the price (about $1,000 retail). Here’s why.

Every day, I look at my Facebook timeline and see photos of faraway places my “friends” are visiting. It might be a view from a hotel window in Greece, or a tropical beach in Fiji. It might be rolling vineyards in Croatia, or a plate of steamed clams in Italy. Whatever the image, the message can be boiled down to this: “I am experiencing something unique and vastly pleasurable.” Of course, this experience comes with a price: it costs money to travel, to stay in a nice hotel and eat good food. But that doesn’t matter. The message continues: “It’s my money, I can spend it however I like, and if it buys me something this special, it’s worth it.”

When people spend money on something discretionary, they want to feel that there’s something extra special about it. Value-added, you might say–it brings them to a heightened level of pleasure and perception. And the more money it costs them, the more they want, and expect, to reach that heightened level. I suppose one might object to this and ask, What’s wrong with ordinary life? Why do people always have to be seeking higher experiences? Well, if you’re some kind of renunciate, sitting in a cave, then the tedium of ordinary life might be your thing. But most of us haven’t renounced pleasure: indeed, we seek it out. And on occasion, we seek it out with relentless enthusiasm. One sublime experience might be enough to get you through a string of ho-hum days.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only human. Translated to the world of fine wine, it means that the guy who paid $1,000 for the ’82 Margaux doesn’t really care if the wine is the real thing. I mean, he does, on some level; but he’s not going to send it to Enologix and have it tested. Instead, he’s willing to buy into the romance, the fantasy of drinking ’82 Margaux, with all the implies.

What does it imply? Vintage of the century. Parker 100 [or whatever his score was]. First Growth of Bordeaux. Thirty one years old. And so on and so forth. The pleasure, then, is just as much in the mind as in the mouth. It is glorious fun to turn over these pleasurable thoughts as one is experiencing the wine. They augment the experience, the way a soundtrack augments a movie, making it more than the simple fact of images and voices on celluloid. (Do movies still use celluloid?) Can you imagine “The Godfather Part 1” without that music? For that matter, part of the thrill of “The Godfather Part 2” was knowing that it was the next installment of “Part 1.” The greatest movie of all time! Coppola! Oscars! Brando! Pacino! In other words, one viewed “Part 2” with heightened anticipation, based on the previous understanding of “Part 1.” The pleasure was in the mind, and when the film reached those lofty expectations, the pleasure was all the greater.

Critics of this subjective interpretation of wine enjoyment often point to studies proving that consumers prefer a wine with a higher price point than a lower one, even when the two wines are the same. Well, sure: you can always design a lab study to show that humans are basically idiots who can be programmed to believe anything, even if it defies their senses. We know that. “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…”. In this sense, we’re all ventriloquist’s dummies, marionettes whose strings are jerked around by some playwright we cannot even perceive.

But this fails to do justice to what makes us particularly human: our aspirations, and the dignity with which we pursue them. That is what is involved in a heightened wine experience: it is as much philosophical and physical.

Now, if you want me to relate all this to the 100-point system, I’d be happy to. Another time, perhaps.

  1. There’s also a touch of oneupsmanship here. “I think the 1982 Margaux is simply extraordinary, don’t you? Oh, you haven’t had it? You must try it sometime.”

  2. ‘ “…the message can be boiled down to this: “I am experiencing something unique and vastly pleasurable.” ‘

    No. This is Facebook. The message is “I am experiencing something and you’re not!!”

  3. @ dr: Haha!

  4. @Larry: Yes, there’s quite a bit of that going around. Always has been.

  5. Well said, Steve.

  6. What fantastic insight into the bigger picture (and pathos) of the wine life and experience!

    Bravo!

  7. Not just high end wines are entitled to hype themselves. The added value (exclusivity) of a high price point is just one way that marketing can increase the end experience of the wine consumer. It is the same trick of the mind that makes a wine of a winery you’ve visited, a winemaking you talked to, or evoking packaging more enjoyable.

  8. Rob Asghar says:

    Steve — thanks for your kind words about my column, and thanks for your own great insights. I’ll admit that I drink a lot of wine and I put a lot of effort into trying to develop a nose and palate for the stuff. I’ve been to Bordeaux twice, and those trips are maybe my favorite vacations ever.

    At the same time, I find something odd and intriguing about the drama of fine wine. I sat at a wine bar n the heart of Bordeaux, skimming through a book about Chateau Margaux. One chapter talked about the “proper” way to serve a 1982 bottle, painting in exquisite detail how the bottle should be coddled and cradled and protected from light. And I thought, “Wait a minute, does such delicate handling really make a difference? How the hell do they know that the bottle didn’t spend a little too much time in a greenroom over the past 30+ years?”

    Then, a few weeks ago, I indulged in a Bordeaux tasting at Harrod’s. Some great stuff there. But I went home depressed, halfway through, when I realized I just couldn’t appreciate some of the $400 wines as much as some of the $20 ones. But I watched lots of London financiers bloviate about what they claimed to know about each wine.

    It did remind me that wine and art are similar — half of the experience involves the quality of the craft, and half involves the imagination of the consumer.

    In any event, I’m enjoying a cheap Meritage right now. Thanks again for your excellent column.

  9. Totally agree. I think wine enjoyment is subjective, and should remain so. For me, it’s not about some objective wine score. If paying more for the wine or seeing that it’s a famous wine makes me feel better, then it serves its purpose. That’s why I don’t like blind tastings, even though they are more objective. I don’t care about making wine evaluation into a technical discipline, I care about the feeling and enjoyment. That said, with experience, for me at this stage probably 80% is fairly objective, and the other 20% is psychological. If the ’82 Margaux tastes like crap, maybe I will give it the respect not to say it’s crap, but I won’t praise it either. If 2-buck-chuck tastes like crap, I will have no hesitation to say so. Objective? Hmmm…No. Human? Yes. (Btw, I did write about the 1984 Margaux on my blog – and called it as I saw it then — like a $30 bordeaux, unispiring.)

  10. Bob Henry says:

    STEVE AND ROB,

    INTRODUCING TWO ECONOMIC TERMS TO WINE COLLECTORS’ LEXICON . . .

    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.”]

    ONE THE SURPRISINGLY LOW COMPARATIVE COST OF PRODUCING “EVEN THE [WORLD’S] BEST WINES . . .”

    Excerpt from The Atlantic Magazine
    (December 2000, Page Unknown):

    “The Million-Dollar Nose”

    [Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/2000/12/langewiesche3.htm

    By William Langewiesche

    . . . For those in the business, maintaining that [elite drink] image is important not only for commercial reasons but also for reasons of personal prestige. Every stage of the trade is involved in establishing the high prices, but ultimately those prices can be sustained only through the retailers and their sales efforts. The problem for the retailers is that wine — unlike luxurious hotel rooms and other hyperinflated products generally covered as business expenses — is usually paid for directly out of the consumer’s pocket. This makes for a scary business, especially toward the high end, where The Wine Advocate roams.

    The truth is that even the best wines cost only about $10 a bottle to produce, and they are not inherently rare. If the initial cost is tripled to allow for profits along the path of distribution, one can reasonably conclude that retail prices above $30 are based on speculation, image, and hype. . . .

    ~~ BOB

  11. Steve,
    Do enough double blind tastings with wine drinkers(the industries most important group) and you believe the studies showing no reason to spend over $30 on a bottle. Some exceptions, botryisized wines, aged wines.

    “61 Petrus was a wine that would not have won a bronze in a Washington wine show.

    $1,000 dollar bottles are like $200,000 road cars, a sign of an ego typically associated with inadequacy.

    Know a marketing guy who can sell my wine for a grand? ;-)

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