Kudos to Jancis Robinson for decrying the hubris-inspired prices on so many of the world’s wines these days.
I don’t know if this is a new position for her to take, or one she’s held for years, as I have; but either way, it’s refreshing to see the most famous female wine writer in the world join the anti-high price crowd.
Jancis points out, in particular, three red wines, one from the Languedoc, one from Australia and one from our friend Raj Parr, a $90 Central Coast bottling I have not yet had the pleasure of reviewing. But since I know Raj, and I know California wine, let me share with you some thoughts.
First of all, it is simply fantastic that a new wine brand can charge $90 a bottle and expect to get away with it. I mean “fantastic” as in unbelievable, mind-blowing, and wrong. But what is even more unbelievable is that people are actually going to be lining up to buy that wine. Why?
For the answer, you have to look no further than the great People’s Republic of China. We Americans love to giggle at the Chinese, so pretentiously buying Lafite and putting it on the edge of the table in the restaurant so everybody can see just what they’re drinking. For we are defined by what we possess and consume, aren’t we? And if we lack the self-esteem to value ourselves intrinsically for who and what we are, then we turn to possessions, to fill that gap. I may be a worthless nothing, but if I can afford Lafite, that makes me better than you.
Well, I exaggerate, of course, but that is the view many Americans have of the Chinese. But let’s look at ourselves. Americans, too, line up to buy the most expensive, talked-about wines (if they can afford them). Why doesn’t everyone laugh Ray Parr right out of his shoes for attempting to foist an unknown, unproved wine on us at such a ridiculously high price?
Because he’s Raj Parr. He’s associated with Michael Mina. And that, my friends, is your window into the world of celebrity and wealth, a world closed to most of us. Yet the more closed it is, the more we want in, to make ourselves feel better than we are, to reassure us that we really are as good as the handsome, well-dressed and tasteful people whom we see laughing in the windows of Michael Mina as they dine on herb-roasted lamb ($47) washed down with Raj Parr’s new wine.
So you see the phenomenon is fundamentally psychological. Yes, it can be dressed up in Armani and Gucci and made to appear natural and tasteful, but this aspirational behavior, I would argue, is fundamentally neurotic. These vintners can get away with charging an arm and a leg for wines that–let’s face it–no matter how good they are, are not worth the price, because they take advantage of the human tendency to associate high price for quality, even when reason and common sense tell us this is a false association. In this sense, the enemy is not Raj Parr, or the Australian or Languedocian vintner charging those prices. No, as Pogo pointed out a long time ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This article about how well Gallo is doing in the super-premium tier ($15 and above) squares well with the chatter at the recent Napa Valley wine auction concerning the rather sudden turnaround in the wine business. From misery to marvahlous was the song on everyone’s lips, cults and commoners alike, leading me to believe that, while the general U.S. economy may still be tottery, wine has become a leading indicator of recovery.
(Until yesterday I might have said wine has become the canary in the coal mine of recovery, but Chuck reminded me that that metaphor has a rather unfortunate implication.)
Gallo is selling a lot of MacMurray Ranch, Louis M. Martini, Frei Brothers and Ghost Pines, all of which indeed do offer sound wines reasonably priced. So I thought I’d dig through the Wine Enthusiast database and see what some of my best-reviewed wines have been over the last year in the $11-$20 category.
Exactly 50 scored 90 points or above. Several brands appear more than once: Cameron Hughes, Minassian-Young, Tangent, Rodney Strong, Courtney Benham, Zaca Mesa. These may be described as a deep bench of talent. Of course, some of them also produce much more expensive wines (Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah, for example, is $60 retail), but I like it when a winery can do more than one thing well.
Other names on my list appear only once, but that was over the past year. If you go back further, they appear with greater frequency. Longboard, Sebastiani, Huntington, Tercero, Claiborne & Churchill, Firestone, Kendall-Jackson,Vina Robles, Geyser Peak–we’re lucky to have them (or the consumer is). It is brands like these (and again, some of them produce super-ultra-premium wines) that make me put on my populist hat and be happy that someone is giving consumers wine they can afford.
On the other hand, here are two very good but expensive Chardonnays I’ve enjoyed lately. Both are from the Russian River Valley, and both are 2011: Rochioli River Block ($60) and Lynmar Quail Hill ($55). It never fails to amaze me how River Block–which as its name implies is on a bank above the Russian River, and whose soil consequently is pure, crumbly sand and gravel–can produce, not just Chardonnays of such exquisite poise, but Pinot Noir. In theory, it should not do so; and Tom Rochioli himself told me he doesn’t consider River Block his best. But don’t tell that to the wines! It just shows to go that, once again, the conventional wisdom isn’t always right. Or maybe all it shows is that great viticulture can make up for deficiencies in the soil. Or both.
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Trading down from Gucci to J. Crew may not seem like the toughest sacrifice in the world, but even the top 2 percent of upper-income Americans is “thinking twice” about spending their money on über-expensive goods, says Bloomberg News.
“These ‘2-percenters,’ unnerved by the most recent recession, are trading down to less-expensive” apparel and other items, the article says. It quotes the president of a luxury research firm: “The rich have lost their exuberance.”
Of course, “a small cadre of ultra-high net-worth individuals…is insulated and not cutting back,” but unless you’re in the yacht business, you’re not really concerned about these 1 percent of the 1 percent.
The article names names: On “the way down” in clothing and accessories are Prada, Armani, Gucci, Hermes and Gianni Versace. On “the way up” are Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters. In other words, brands that offer cachet and style, without the high price.
So the HENRYs (“high earner not rich yet”) are scaling back. What does it mean for luxury wine brands, particularly California Cabernet Sauvignons that have hit triple digits?
Unless you’re the owner or the winery’s banker, you can’t really know what the bottom line is. Is Screaming Eagle hurting? Harlan? How about Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Schrader, Abreu, Sloan? If these are the Armanis and Guccis of wine, then we have to expect that things are not quite as solid as they were pre-2008. The HENRYs are “thinking twice” about spending their hard-earned cash on them, and there’s no indication they’re going to return to their free-spending ways anytime soon.
Nor are there enough “ultra-high net-worth individuals” to absorb all of these expensive wines. I have to believe, based on what I’ve seen and heard, that the cults are hurting–although some of their owners are so rich that they can afford to ride out what they hope is a relatively brief soft period following the Great Recession.
What are the alternatives to the cults–the winery equivalents of the Banana Republics and J. Crews of California that the 2 percenters are turning to? Here’s my list of Cabernet Sauvignon producers whose wines are pretty much near as good as anything from the cults, but whose prices are more aligned with reality: Stonestreet, Von Strasser, Vine Cliff, Goldschmidt, Krutz, Hall, Sequoia Grove, Duckhorn, Conn Creek, Kendall-Jackson Highlands Estates, Long Meadow Ranch, Piña, Macauley, Stephen & Walker, Kuleto, Yates Family, Renteria, Creo, Snowden, Laird, Moone-Tsai, Hunnicutt, St. Supery, La Jota, Frank Family, Prime, Rubicon Cask Cabernet, Signorello, Trinchero, Stag’s Leap Artemis, Monticello, Charnu, KaDieM, Venge, Terra Valentine and Hidden Ridge. I’ve given scores of 95 points or higher in Wine Enthusiast to bottlings from each of them over the past few years, and none costs more than $90 retail.
The shortage of California wine is rippling through the system, causing serious if not quite catastrophic consequences.
Winery principles tell me that when their sales forces fan out across the country, buyers are unhappy at the lack of supply and in some cases are personally blaming the winery!
I’m sure that distributors as well as retailers both on and off premise find themselves in an uncomfortable position when wines they’ve sold for years are suddenly unavailable. Of course, the rational part of them knows that no one at the winery is responsible for short crops: Mother Nature is.
But there’s a vein of paranoia that runs through the end users of the three-tiered distribution system like a low-grade infection, and sometimes these buyers can’t be sure if the winery really is low on supply, or is just cutting them out and pretending to be short.
It’s bad for the winery. If buyers feel the winery is shorting them, they might turn to someone else they can get product from, thus terminating what might have been a long relationship.
We’ve all been reading about a wine shortage, for instance here and here, which cites BofA Merrill Lynch that “Global supplies appear to be tightening simultaneously,” with government policies in Europe and Australia deliberately discouraging production, while bad weather in South America had the same effect.
The problem is exacerbated by increasing demand from China for U.S. and particularly California wineries, some of whom are selling a surprisingly high percentage of their top wines there.
Several highly placed producers have openly fretted to me about the shortage, wondering what their companies are going to do. But the truth is, they have few options. They can’t turn to Oregon because crops there run so short due to natural circumstances. Washington has huge, fertile spaces in the east, but that state’s frequent hard winter freezes intimidate California producers, who aren’t used to having entire vineyards wiped out in a single night.
The 2012 vintage, California’s biggest ever, threw the industry a lifejacket, throwing it into temporary balance, but it probably won’t be enough to overcome the result of prior years of below-average crops, coupled with increasing demand. As Gomberg Fredrickson’s Jon Fredrickson told the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium earlier this year, “California ran out of wine.”
The result? Higher prices. The trend is especially notable at restaurants, where by-the-pour prices are inching up. It’s curious that all this is happening just as the country (and world) seems to be emerging from the Great Recession, putting a little more money into the average consumer’s pocket. Are consumers willing to dig deeper for their daily Pinot Grigio and Merlot? I expect they are–and that’s good news for wineries that have gone through the hell of the past five years, and survived.
I’ve suggested repeatedly on this blog over the years, and especially since the extent of the Great Recession became apparent in 2009-2010, that Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was in danger of pricing itself out of the market.
This was due, not only to the effects of the Recession itself, when even the Rich were trending down their spending habits, but to the simultaneous rise in this country of a new demographic: MIllennials, now hitting their 30s, whose tastes in wine (and in much else) are radically different from those of their predecessors.
For one thing, Millennials are much less interested in what “everybody else is drinking” or in what “historically has been regarded as famous” than in finding things that are unique, different, unexpected, surprising, edgy, story-driven, bold, undiscovered, hip and (let us not forget) affordable. That certainly does not bode well for triple-digit Napa Cabernet, which is none of the above.
The people who do like the cult wines are the kind that collect and store wine in large cellars, who dine at Michelin-starred restaurants with wine lists the size of phone directories, and whose selection of these wines may be inspired as much by the desire to show off than by actual interest in them. Don’t believe me? Talk to any [honest] sommelier who works in such a restaurant. They’ll tell you [off the record] exactly what they deal with, night after night.
But these customers—these sorts of wine harlots—are an endangered species. It’s so clear: it couldn’t be more apparent if the Finger of God appeared out of the sky and wrote it on a vast wall. Even in Bordeaux, the top Chateaux are struggling: Decanter yesterday reported that “American merchants bought less high-end and high-priced Bordeaux 2010 en primeur than they had for the 2009 vintage,” with buyers gravitating toward crus bourgeois and balking at the likes of Angelus, Palmer and Leoville-Las-Cases. A buyer for Sherry-Lehmann said anything above $25-$40 U.S. was just “far too high” for his clientele.
I doubt if the Bordelais care. They’ve been through the ups and downs of the economic cycle for centuries, through wars, peace, phylloxera, revolutions, depressions, recoveries, and they know that, no matter how long the market stays down, it always come back up again. This may still be true with regard to Bordeaux.
But Napa isn’t Bordeaux. It’s become so crowded in $100-plus wines that they seem to be more the rule than the exception. For every expensive Cabernet with a true pedigree–Phelps Insignia, Harlan, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Diamond Creek, Mondavi Reserve–there are 3,4,5 newcomers with no provenance, no history behind them, manufactured ersatz out of thin air by hiring an expensive viticulturalist and consulting winemaker, slapping something together in the bottle and then hoping enough gullible snobs will buy it.
Unfortunately, this is all too often the case. But how long can they get away with it? I suspect there remain enough white-tablecloth restaurants with big spenders who want wine lists containing verticals of big names, and that isn’t going to go away anytime soon. But it cannot last; its days are numbered; that game is going to be over, whether in five years, ten or fifteen, I cannot say.
Yet there has to be a tipping point at which Napa no longer can sustain so many overpriced wines. I don’t expect Napa itself to understand where the tipping point is, or will even recognize it when it comes: Napa is very, well, Napa-centric, as perhaps it should be; but it does tend to see the world from within its own rarified bubble.
No, the tipping point will be installed upon Napa by that outside force, the free market. We’ll know it has happened only when we begin to see prices start to plummet on the most expensive wines. I myself believe I’m already seeing that, but to accurately track it, one would need the services of a staff, utilizing databases able to track real-time information in individual markets, across hundreds of individual brands, including their clubs, mailing lists and favored accounts. This forensic accounting is obviously beyond my capabilities. The tipping point therefore already could be happening, but be invisible.