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.
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.
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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.
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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?
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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 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.
“I know never to take a wine for granted. Drawing a cork is like attendance at a concert or at a play that one knows well, when there is all the uncertainty of no two performances ever being quite the same. That is why the French say, There are no good wines, only good bottles.”
This quote, from Gerald Asher, is pretty alarming, if you think about it: it means that you can take a bottle of whatever you think is the greatest wine in the world–I don’t care what it is, Romanée-Conti or Petrus or whatever–and be completely underwhelmed by it. How could this be?
The explanation is that wine is among the most psychologically complicated of all the world’s consumer products. By which I mean, subjectivity enters into your perception of it more than with anything else, with the possible exception of modern art. (The most subjective perception of things is, of course, a parent’s view of her child, but then, children are not consumer products.)
I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of the enjoyment of high-end wine. I’ve tasted enough of the world’s most famous ones to assure you that there’s not that much of a difference between a fabulous, high-scoring wine and one that’s “merely” very good. The producers of fabulously expensive wines–in Napa Valley, Bordeaux or wherever–don’t want you to know this. They go to great lengths to prevent you from knowing it, and they go to equally great lengths to persuade the wealthy people who buy their wines that there really are quantum qualitative differences that justify their prices. And in this dual quest, they are aided and abetted by certain critics, in what we might call the producer-critic complex, in which both sides stand to gain by the perpetuation of the existing system. (I adapted this term from Pres. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” remark in his Farewell Address.)
But really, most of the heavy lifting in this persuading is done by the buyers themselves. When they put so much money on the line, they have a psychological investment in finding the wine incredible. And, most of the time, they do. Notice I didn’t say the wine is incredible; I said they find it incredible. Big difference. In fact, what the wine is, is impossible to discern or define. The “thing in itself,” as Kant observed, is unknowable, because, even if it has a real nature, that nature is obscured in a welter of human expectations, thoughts, emotions, motives and conflicts.
This is precisely why alleged crooks like Rudi Kurniawan are able–for a time, at least, until they get caught–to get away with their counterfeit bottles. Even though the stuff being passed off as Romanée-Conti and de Vogüé obviously wasn’t, the suckers who bought it thought it was, because after all, (a) the labels said so and (b) they paid so much money for the bottles that their pride could not admit they’d been bamboozled. The kind of men (high-end “collectors” usually are male) who buy these rarified wines tend to have out-sized egos; they don’t suffer fools gladly, but neither do they suffer many intrusions into their inflated view of their own discernment. So Rudi was able to prey on them with their willing cooperation.
Thus we return to Gerald Asher’s wise dictum to “never take a wine for granted.” Each bottle in and of itself is a complete, indivisible reality. But, like all fragments of reality that we experience, it is nearly impossible to separate out what we, the perceiver, bring to the phenomenon, as opposed to what it is “in and of itself.” When I explain to wine novices how best to appreciate wine, the first thing I do is dissuade them from the stereotypes they’ve heard all their lives concerning “great wines.” There are no great wines, only great bottles. So lesson no. 1: Never take a wine for granted. Not a $700 one and not even a $7 one.
Am I part of the producer-critic complex? I have been. In this job, you can’t help but be part of something larger than yourself, unless you go entirely off the grid–in which case, my friends at UPS and FedEx couldn’t find me to deliver those samples. So, yes, I’m culpable. But I recognize it–I see the perniciousness that can result when critics who have given ultra-high scores to certain wines year in and year out feel that their reputations are on the line unless they continue doing so. What makes me different, I think, is that I give high scores to wines that aren’t on the A-list of cultdom, and so-so scores to wines that are. And the reason I do so is because in every case, they deserve them. Like Gerald Asher said, never take a wine for granted.
I blogged the other day about high prices and the way some people pay more for certain wines than those wines are intrinsically worth. So I thought it would be appropriate for me to suggest some wines I’ve reviewed this year that actually provide exceptional value. Here we go.
We have, at Wine Enthusiast, a special designation we reviewers can give wines, at our discretion. It’s called Editor’s Choice. It’s a kind of gold star on the forehead (I’m dating myself with that one) for a wine that is exceptional in some way that may or may not be related to its price. The concept of Editor’s Choice admittedly is a little loosey-goosey; I tend to apply it sparingly (maybe 2% of all wines I review), and it’s not always easy for me to spell out in words exactly why I do. It’s just a feeling, but it is based on my many years of appraising wines, and so I think it gives value to my readers.
For instance, I gave an Editor’s Choice to the Bonaccorsi 2010 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir (95 points, $45) for several reasons. One is because that’s a very high score, while $45 is not exorbitant for Pinot Noir these days. The vineyard, Fiddlestix, is famous and important down in the Santa Rita Hills, which provides for some thoughtful conversation about the wine. These factors–high score, fair price and an intellectual component–in my mind definitely qualify it for an Editor’s Choice.
I also gave an Editor’s Choice to the Chappellet 2011 Signature Chenin Blanc, Napa Valley (92 points, $30). My reasoning there had more to do with the variety than anything else. Had it been a 92 point Chardonnay for $30, I wouldn’t have given it the designation. And had it been a $60 bottle, I wouldn’t have done it, either. But Chenin is a wine so difficult to make well (in California), and this one was so good, at such a fair price, that, once again, it was a no-brainer.
A third example was Miro’s 2011 Wolcott-Bevill & Piccetti Zinfandel (92 points, $26). That wine didn’t qualify for a Best Buy designation (which is based strictly on a price-score ratio). But 92 points is pretty good for a 26 buck Zin, and this one moreover displayed classic Dry Creek character. It may have been this latter feature that inspired me to give it an Editor’s Choice. I like wines that are classic examples of their regions.
Here are selected other Editor’s Choices from this year:
Jaffurs 2011 Stolpman Vineyard Roussanne, Santa Barbara County) (93 points, $30. The vineyard is in the Ballard Canyon region of Santa Ynez Valley.))
Ehlers Estate 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena (93 points, $28)
Matanzas Creek 2010 Chardonnay, Sonoma County (92 points, $26)
Landmark 2010 Steel Plow Grenache, Sonoma Valley (92 points, $35)
Sbragia 2010 Home Ranch Merlot, Dry Creek Valley (92 points, $35)
Von Strasser 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain (92 points, $45)
Calera 2011 Chardonnay, Mt. Harlan, (92 points, $30)
Ziata 2009 Cabernet Franc, Oakville (92 points, $60. Yes, that’s pretty pricey, but the combination of quality and the fact that it’s a very serious Oakville red wine qualified it.)
Dutton Estate 2011 Kyndall’s Reserve Chardonnay, Russian River Valley (92, $38)
Eberle 2011 Mill Road Vineyard Viognier, Paso Robles (89 points, $23)
Morgan 2012 Metallico Un-Oaked Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands (89 points, $22)
J. Lohr 2010 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles (89 points, $17. What swung this for me was sheer drinkability. This would make a great house red.)