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Is inexpensive wine better than expensive wine because more people buy it?

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I blogged the other day about price points in California Chardonnay, and how the best scores that inexpensive ones seem to be able to get is in the mid-80s, maybe the high 80s and, very occasionally, a 90 pointer. Then one of my readers sent in the following comment.

Just something to think about. If the biggest selling Chardonnay brands are rated in the 80’s and low volume $75 Chardonnay is rated in the 90’s maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like. Maybe the biggest sellers deserve a higher score, they are after all 90+ point wines in the minds of those huge number of buyers.

This is a clever argument; one might even call it sophistic. It’s basically a version of “the customer is always right” or—in another era—“Forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” It suggests that the fact that so many consumers love inexpensive Chardonnay means that inexpensive Chard is actually better than expensive Chard, or at least deserves a higher score.

Well, the obvious thing for me—a former wine critic—to say is, Nonsense. The millions of Americans who enjoy these inexpensive Chardonnays don’t have the experience we critics do. They [the consumers] don’t understand fine wine; they drink inexpensive stuff; like somebody dressing in clothes from Target, they think it’s high-end. (No disrespect to Target!) But as soon as I write those words I realize how wrong they are. It’s not that consumers prefer inexpensive wines to expensive ones, it’s that they can’t afford expensive wines, at least on an everyday basis. So it’s a little cray-cray to say “the biggest sellers deserve a higher score.” In fact, based on my experience, when I offer a “regular” consumer a high-quality expensive Chardonnay (or Cab, or Pinot, whatever), they invariably appreciate its Wow! factor, and understand that it’s better than their $10 bottle.

But before I entirely dismiss the reader’s comment, he did make a point worth considering, and that was “maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like.” Well, what should wine “really taste like”? Darned if I know! I suppose there are critics out there who “know” what St. Joseph or Barolo or Napa Valley Cabernet “should taste like,” but what does that mean when people are breaking the rules all over the place? And why should anyone care if a critic says something doesn’t taste the way it should (or the way he thinks it should) if in fact it’s delicious? What this all comes down to is, Do we judge wines by popularity, or by critical consensus? I would think the latter, especially as the price ascends. But if you’ve been reading what I’ve been writing here for the last seven years, you know that there’s no such thing as “critical consensus,” so we’re really in the dark. If I were to write a third wine book (and I won’t), it would be on this precise topic: varietal character, typicity and quality.

Why, exactly, is one wine 87 and another 97? You readers—consumers—deserve an explanation. Is it enough to trust the critic? In what other areas of your life do you turn over your decision-making to third parties? Your 401(k) advisor? ROTFLOL.

What does this all mean? I have a feeling wine criticism and reviewing is changing in profound ways, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. “Through a glass darkly” and all that. It’s related to demographic changes in America, mostly among Millennials and the generation coming up behind them, who seem to be increasingly fractionalized, tribalized, peer-group-ized, and impervious to authority. I wish I had a crystal ball.

The White House goes screwy! (Screwtop, that is)



Good for President Obama for choosing to serve a screwtop wine at last Friday’s State Dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping. I do believe that’s a first for this White House, or any other for that matter.

Historically, the White House has served very expensive wines, finished with corks, at State Dinners. For a long time, these wines were mainly French. Thomas Jefferson served Lafite Rothschild; JFK served Haut-Brion Blanc; and when Nixon was President, he loved Chateau Margaux, although an anecdote revealed in Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men” told how Tricky Dick would have his butlers discretely pour him Margaux, wrapped in a white cloth napkin, while the other guests got Mouton Cadet.

That all began to change during Reagan’s administration (he was justifiably proud of California wines), and today, it would be very strange for a President to pour foreign wine, unless it was from the country of the visiting dignitary (at last week’s Xi-fest, for example, the White House served Chinese Shaoxing rice wine). Many are the California wineries that proudly display a menu in their tasting room or office showing how and when one of its wines was served at the White House. And, of course, these tended to be expensive wines.

Four years ago, Republicans predictably and harshly criticized Obama for serving an expensive Washington State wine at a State Dinner for then-Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Tea Party website, Gateway Pundit, slammed the President for pouring a $399 bottle of wine to “Chi-Coms” [Chinese Communists], heading their hit piece “Sacrifice is for the little people,” and conveniently overlooking the fact that their hero, Ronald Reagan, also served very expensive wines: at one State Dinner, he poured a trio of California wines that, for the time, were quite pricy: Clos du Bois Calcaire Chardonnay, Carneros Creek Pinot Noir and Schramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec. More recently, there was President George W. Bush, who once served a Shafer Hillside Select ($245) at a similar dinner.

Perhaps it was criticisms like the one from Gateway Pundit, however selective and unfair, that prompted Obama to go screwtop. The particular wine he chose was a Penner-Ash 2014 Viognier, from Oregon, which retails for $30. It was paired with lobster (“poached in butter and served with traditional rice noodle rolls embedded with spinach, shiitake mushrooms and leeks.” Mmmm….but can we get rid of the word “embedded”?).

Obama’s screwtop embrace isn’t the most earth-shattering news ever. But it is a nice development in the sense of underscoring a new and, dare I say it, more democratic [small “d”] attitude towards wine that seems to be permeating across America, and that reflects an emerging sensibility that the most expensive things aren’t necessarily the best. Indeed, as I’ve long argued (and most critics agree), price is not always a reflection of quality; beyond a certain price point, you’re paying for image and psychological satisfaction.

Now, as to why wineries continue to be so resistant to screwtops, that’s another story!

California wine prices: Where are they going?



Interesting article by the Chronicle’s occasional wine writer, Jon Bonné, in yesterday’s paper, on a range of topics related to wine prices, but mainly more or less of a warning that they may be too high to be sustained.

Jon fairly points out that labor costs in California are very high (just look at the cost of housing), and vineyard prices also are increasingly beyond the means of all but the superrich, at least in prime coastal growing regions. These things all contribute to the cost of the bottle—but perhaps the prime culprit is a “we’re-worth-more argument” that prompts many winery owners, maybe too many, that they can charge just about any price they feel the market will bear, because…well, just because.

You can’t go into a fine wine shop and not agree. Prices really have shot through the roof—despite the Great Recession, which may temporarily have halted the inflation in some cases, but if it did, no more. At the ultrapremium end, prices just keep going up, and up, and up, which leads Jon to ask the (rhetorical) question, “Wouldn’t it be a shame if…progress was halted because the people…decided it just wasn’t worth the money?”

Good question. What will it take for consumers to say, The heck with it, I’m not paying $80 for a bottle of Pinot Noir when I can get something just as good for half that price, or less—whether it’s from California or some foreign country?

I myself can’t see far enough into the future to make a prediction. Ten years ago and more, I was wondering how so many Napa Valley wineries were able to get away with charging triple-digits for their Cabernets. I thought then that lots of them would be forced out of business. That didn’t happen. So I’m out of the prognostication game. In fact, nobody knows where prices are going, but in the history of wine in California and in Europe, they seldom, if ever, go down, so we can only assume that they’ll continue to increase, albeit possibly at a slower rate.

Some commodities and consumables do decrease in price or at least hold steady when market conditions aren’t so good. That’s why we’ve seen basically flat inflation in the U.S. ever since the Great Recession. Things just aren’t getting more expensive. But wine seems to able to disobey the classical laws of supply and demand. I’m not sure why that is. I think, in many cases, winery owners are independently wealthy, so they can ride out periods of decline, sometimes for many years. I think also that wine, alone of all alcoholic beverages, has the allure of luxury: it’s an aspirational drink. Like diamonds, or sports cars, or designer clothing, wine has managed to furbish itself with a glow, in a way beer and spirits haven’t. True, both beer and spirits are available in very expensive bottlings. But think about it: beer’s fundamental image, at least in America, is of a cheap buzz, in front of the tube on Football Sunday. The image of spirits is more complicated, but then, spirits are cheaper than wine, when you compare the two ounce-per-ounce in terms of alcoholic strength. A good bottle of Scotch might set you back $60, but you’ll get a lot of mileage out of it over time, and unlike wine, it won’t go bad in a few days.

Wine by contrast seems to lift any occasion into the realm of special and celebratory. People still ooh and aah over wine: even a meal in a place like Chili’s or Applebee’s is heightened when wine is set on the table. People perceive this about wine, consciously or not; either way, wine makes their meal feel more special. And because wine has this quality of glamour, consumers seem willing to pay extra for it.

How much extra? That is the question. I’m not as worried as Jon is about California wine pricing itself out of the market. There will always be moderately priced California wine—say, under $20—and as for the under-$10 segment, I don’t really think that much about it, except that I’m glad it’s there because it gets people to drink wine who might not otherwise.

But I do continue to wonder about these Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and, now, Chardonnay prices that are skyward bound. I suppose the wineries who are taking price increases know what they’re doing. At least, I like to think so. But Jon, coining a phrase, referred to “the neuroses of [California’s] prestige” as a way to pointing out that some wineries are taking increases, not because they know what they’re doing, but because they think they do; they think they’re riding the same bubble as Bordeaux.

Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. Maybe Bordeaux’s bubble is unsustainable. Like I said, I don’t play the prognostication game anymore. But, if you look at the history of Bordeaux prices over the centuries, they have just one direction: up.

How wine can be as cool as beer and cocktails



It’s certainly true, as Robert Parker pointed out in his recent interview in The Drinks Business, that high wine prices are “a problem and a concern” and that they are creating “a caste system” in which “the younger generation” cannot afford top wines from regions such as “Burgundy, or Bordeaux, or from California.”

But there’s nothing really new about this situation. It’s been so forever. In fact prices for Bordeaux today, adjusted for inflation, are no higher than they were 100 years ago. What is interesting, to me, is the complex psychological contortions by which consumers (and some critics as well) arrive at the conclusion that price is a determinant of quality.

Long ago, vintners understood that the public suffers from this misapprehension. According to Edmund Penning-Rowell, who wrote what is still, to my mind, the most authoritative book on Bordeaux (“The Wines of Bordeaux,” 1969), Baron Phillippe’s [de Rothschild] intense conviction [was] that Mouton-Rothschild was as good as any first growth, and for his money better than most. The only way that this [i.e. rise in its perception by the market] could be achieved was by asking a price as high as any first growth and if possible higher than all.” As Penning-Rowsell later makes clear, the Baron “was able to do this successfully.”

Baron Rothschild, of course, also was the partner of Robert Mondavi in establishing Opus One, which, at the time of its launch (the first vintage was 1979), was the most expensive Californian wine.”

This strongly suggest that Mondavi learned his lesson in pricing from his friend. And we know, from personal experience, how many wineries, faced with tough sales, raised their prices, only to find demand radically increased.

Nowadays, the price of Opus One (about $240 for the 2011) pales in comparison to that of Screaming Eagle ($2,400 for the 2012 in the aftermarket). If your mind works the way most peoples’ minds work (including mine), it can be hard not to be impressed by that kind of price. A rational part of you thinks, “If it costs that much, and knowledgeable people are willing to buy it, then it must be one of the most fabulous wines in the world.” And, of course, these very famous and rare wines always are fabulous. But their prices bear no relationship to their quality, with respect to similar wines from similar appellations. This is why seasoned wine critics taste blind.

Back to Parker. He knows as well as anyone that the Bordeaux, Burgundies and Californians he helped push to astronomical heights can be very difficult to suss out in blind tastings. Why some people continue to buy them is, in fact, a matter for behavioral and cognitive scientists, not wine critics. As for the “younger generation,” I’m not so worried about them. They couldn’t afford Bordeaux First Growths in 1929, when Latour et. al cost nearly three times the price of Gruaud-Larose and Langoa, and they can’t afford it now.

Is price, as Bob speculates, “one reason why such people are turning to drinks other than wine.” ? It could well be, although good craft beer cannot be described as cheap. As I, and many other, observers have noted lately, beer and spirits seem to have the wind at their sails in a way wine at the moment does not, at least in our urban centers. Another question: Has this trend been created and fostered by the media, or did the media simply pick up on something that was already occurring on the street? As usual, it’s a little of both. What craft beer and cocktails have done—which wine has not—is to rise to the level of being cool. All those tattooed young mixologists, those hip brewmeisters, the trendy bars that have popped up from the Mission to Soho—they are the modern face of beer and spirits. What is wine’s modern face? As far as I can tell, it’s a young woman who opts for Pinot Gris on a date, your grandfather, or a somm.

I don’t overly fret about wine’s future because these trends come and go. Wine has been the most successful alcoholic beverage of all time for a very good reason; and what has worked for humans for thousands of years is likely to work for them for thousands more. Nor is wine in any particular financial trouble in the U.S. But it has lost a certain frisson of coolness, or at least the perception, the optics of frisson. In reality, wine is as cool as anything: winemakers themselves are as cool as any dashing mixologist, if not as visible.

But beer, in particular, is on a roll. In Britain, the brew industry is sponsoring a “There’s a beer for that” advertising campaign, crafted by the wildly successful filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes), that was launched on Downton Abbey, and also is huge on Twitter and other social media.

If the industry is to lure the under-35 crowd away from beer and spirits to wine, it has to find ways to speak to them in their own language, on their own turf. This involves an accurate and fearless study of how beer and spirits are actually succeeding. One could do worse, as an academic enterprise, to hang out in a Valencia Street bar and study who’s drinking what. I volunteer for this vital work in the field, as the Margaret Mead of the cocktail lounge.

Thursday throwaway: Rutherford dust, Bordeaux prices and Parker, Parker, Parker!



Went up to Napa yesterday for the annual “Day in the Dust” tasting of the Rutherford Dust Society. I wanted to see if I could discern a “Rutherford dust” characteristic to the wines. If there was one, it was pretty well disguised. All the wines were very fine, as you’d expect, but they were different: Some more tannic, some less, some rustic, some refined. Some wines were oakier than others. The fruits tended toward reds: cherries, sometimes sour candy, sometimes freshly sweet, but there was plenty of blackberry and cassis and also, some pleasant herbaceousness. (The vintage was mostly the cool 2011.) Most of the wines were ageable. But Rutherford dust? I don’t think so. Andre Tchelistcheff’s phrase was pure marketing genius (or was made so after others latched onto it), but I defy anyone to consistently tell the difference between a Rutherford Cabernet and one from St. Helena, to use but one example.

* * *

The drinks business has a nice little article where they went back to something Parker said ten years ago, and it has proven to be right. “If my instincts are correct,” he predicted, “10 years from now a great vintage of these [Bordeaux] first growths will cost over US$10,000 a case…at the minimum.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened in some instances. Now I’m seeing certain recent Napa Valley Cabernets that cost close to $1,000 per bottle, which would put them well over $10,000 a case. I always have to rub my eyes at these nosebleed prices, but nothing seems to be slowing them down. Not the Great Recession, nor the incessant bashing Napa Cabernet has come under in recent years has changed wealthy people’s inclination to buy them at any price.

* * *

I’ve always held that wine tasting is both objective and subjective, even in the supposedly “greatest palates” in the world. How could it not be, when the proof lies in the prices I just referred to. Is any wine “worth” $1,000 a bottle? Not objectively. Instead, “emotional associations…affect what we taste,” says a scientist whose work was reported this month in The New Yorker.

By “emotional,” he means the “expectations” people have when they see a bottle of a wine they know to be rare, esteemed and expensive. “Every time we have a wine,” the article says, “we taste everything we know about it and other related wines.”

Fascinating statement. Think about it. I taste, let’s say, a Parker perfect 100-pointer and I know a lot about the history of the estate and the vineyard, the winemaker, the fact that the wine has been celebrated throughout the vintages as one of the world’s greatest. I know that it costs $1,000 a bottle or more on the wine lists of the world’s greatest restaurants. I know that it sells for multiples of that on eBay. I know that there are people who have been waiting for years to get on the waiting list for the mailing list. I know that the wine is so celebrated across the globe that counterfeiting it in China has become big business. I know that people buy it and put it in their cellars for their grandkids to drink (or sell). And that’s only the beginning: not only do I know stuff about that wine, I feel things about it that stir my emotions—that cannot be put into words, but are perhaps all the stronger for that very reason: they tap into my dreams, my fantasies, my hopes and aspirations. These are truths about wine as powerful as the objective truths of alcohol level, varietal composition or pH, and we should keep them in mind always when we ask the (now answered) question: Is the evaluation of wine objective or subjective?

* * *

Speaking of all the above, a bearded and hairy Robert Parker—looking more and more like Orson Welles in his Paul Masson days—has been on what looks like a P.R. fix-it campaign lately. First he gave a rare and unusual interview, published on the Hawk Wakawaka blog, that wasn’t so much about wine as RMP’s views on film, spirituality, raising kids, the 24-hour news cycle and lots more. It’s a compelling peek inside the head of the most famous wine critic in the world.

And now, today’s Wall Street Journal has yet another exclusive interview with Parker, not particularly interesting because it’s predictable and says the same-old, same-old things. So why is Parker on the mashed potato circuit?

My guess is that after all the bashing, he’s decided it’s time to rehabilitate himself in the public’s eye (and also to publicize his new magazine). And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with either of those motives.

That’s it for now! Have a nice day.

Whole Foods: The canary in the coal mine?



“Whole paycheck,” somebody once dubbed Whole Foods. I’ve understood why ever since they built a Whole Foods around the corner from where I live.

People are willing to pay a premium for the food they buy there, but those days may be numbered. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had two articles, one on the cover of the Marketplace section called Slow to Cut Prices, Whole Foods Is Punished,” while the other, shorter piece was headlined “Biting Into Prices at Whole Foods.”

The upshot: on Wednesday, the 380-store chain’s stock price plummeted, “vaporizing more than $3 billion of the company’s market value” due to flat earnings and “a key measure of sales growth [that] hit its weakest pace since early in the U.S. economic recovery more than four years ago.”

The flat growth apparently is because consumers are wising up to the fact that they’re paying far more for organic kale and fair-trade chocolate than they have to. Other grocers are moving in on Whole Foods’ turf, and “this competition is just getting started,” the WSJ predicted.

The comparison with overpriced wine begs to be made. I bet you that the demographics of the Whole Food shopper and the buyer of premium wine are more or less identical. According to this analysis, Whole Foods customers

  • Gravitate to lifestyle brands
  • Form a loyal customer base
  • Are better educated and wealthier
  • Are willing to pay higher prices for higher quality food in a pleasant shopping environment
  • Are largely Baby Boomers – the largest consumer group in America is getting older and they are seeking healthy, preservative- and pesticide-free foods to ensure a long and healthy life

That sounds a lot like premium wine drinkers, doesn’t it?

Are people getting smarter about what they buy—less willing to pay a premium for something that makes them feel good, but doesn’t actually taste better? If so, it’s undoubtedly an after-effect of the Great Recession, which made more of us more frugal than we were in the high-spending pre-Recession days. My own feeling, living in a Bay Area that’s increasingly young and diversified, is that people are less susceptible to marketing and more sensitive to the actual value of the things they buy, whether it’s groceries, clothing or wine. This could be very good news for value wine brands—not necessarily cheap wines, like Two Buck Chuck, but those wineries that offer the high quality of their competitors, yet at a lower price point. We’re already seeing signs that high-priced wines are having a hard time—witness such deep discounters on the Web as WineAccess.

There’s no evidence that consumers aren’t still swayed by famous name wines and glorious appellations, but there’s plenty of evidence that younger consumers, unlike their parents, aren’t quite so willing to shell out big bucks, if they feel there’s a bargain to be had. And thanks to the vigorous competition we see all around us, especially on the Internet, there are bargains galore to be had.

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