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Articles January,  2012

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Bitter Fruit

How Wine Became a Trophy Rather than a Beverage

Wine is supposed to be fun. It is supposed to be a beverage to be drunk with food and meals or sipped enjoyably on a porch or at a party, not be treated just as a commodity like pork belly futures. It is supposed to be drunk, not collected, not, in essence, hung on a wall like a prized painting to stare at. Somewhere along the way, someone forgot that.

At the prices requested by the wines with cachet these days, they often seem to be impossible actually to drink for all but the super wealthy (or those about to go into bankruptcy pursuing their obsession). Instead, they get traded, opened at huge tastings where people get an ounce and passed about. That’s what people call “drinking” for those wines. The concept of sitting through an evening with a great bottle that evolves and changes every 20 minutes…well, who can afford to open things so pricey and so rare (even if you’re seriously loaded, you’ll think twice about casually blowing a wine that you have 3 bottles of and barely exists in the marketplace) to actually drink with a steak at home?

To be sure, there have always been trophy wines. Thomas Jefferson could have attested to that, as he went up and down the wine roads of France seeking famous names like Yquem and others. But I think things are very different today, and very different even than they were, say, circa 1980 when I became obsessed with wine.  Increasingly, it seems like wine has become more and more about trophies and cachet, not about fun, not about utility and certainly not about adopting an attractive lifestyle. What it is not for many folks is a beverage that has much, if any, regular place in their lives. They just don’t drink much. At these prices, who could? If you’ve convinced yourself that there is no thrill to drinking anything but fabled and pricey bottles, why bother with anything else?

Let’s step back. We won’t even start with the hideously priced wines. Wine geeks talk casually about $60 bottles as if that is the cheap stuff, a serious disconnect from the typical marketplace.  People who talk like that either don’t drink much or are seriously well heeled, because, well, just do the math.  If you open even two bottles a week at that price point, you’re talking about spending over $6,000 per year. That’s in after tax money, too.  I wonder how many folks in the country can actually justify allocating $10k in income or more every year simply to wine consumption, not your kids’ college funds, or the new car you need, or the new deck, or the kitchen remodel, etc. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. It is just the actual wine consumption, and let’s be honest—there are lots of other costs involved once you’re all geeked up.  It’s not the meals that go with it. Not the inevitable accessories that get purchased. Not the related travel that people eventually do. Not the storage costs that bedevil all collectors. Just the actual wine.  How many can prudently do that? Not many, I suspect, given what the statistics are on median household income in this country. And remember—that’s only $60. And it’s only two bottles a week. It is a price level that won’t satisfy the urge for trophy drinking on the one hand. Yet, it is already way too expensive to be a consistent lifestyle choice with frequent consumption opportunities for the vast majority of consumers.

So, let’s take it as a given if that is supposedly what “good wine” is like in price points-- most people won’t actually be drinking much. They sure won’t be doing what the old time wine lifestyle would suggest—sitting down to dinner with the family several times a week, opening and passing a couple of bottles around each time. Not happening at these prices. The wine is as much a trophy as a beverage. Opening it is an event, not a lifestyle choice.

Now, go one level up because, again, this measly $60 price point only scratches the surface. To a lot of collectors, as noted, $60 is the routine stuff. It doesn’t have much cachet in many commonly followed regions (price issues certainly vary from region to region; in German Spatlese $60 gets you most things). It’s not really all that much of a collectible. If you’re a real trophy hunter…yawn. The higher the price, the less value you actually get, of course. Scarcity, hype, collectability and cachet don’t really make the wine any better. I wonder how those things taste. Evidently, they must taste great, since some don’t hesitate to drop a few hundred extra bucks a bottle to get them.

What happened in wine? Many things. Whenever things change this much—and I do think they have changed considerably even in the 30 or so years that I’ve been doing wine stuff—there are a lot of reasons for it. First, as many have said, people are drinking better, but less. The days when folks fill up from the spigot at a supermarket and drink a couple of bottles a day seem largely gone. Few want to drink that much, for various good and obvious reasons. Families seem neither as large nor as likely to be in one place at dinnertime. And people have learned a bit about wine quality. They don’t want to drink jug wine any more. Fair enough, and to that extent current trends are most welcome. Alcohol abuse seems likely to be moderated and people get to have a higher quality product.

The darker side is all too obvious, too, however. We have recently witnessed a remarkable run-up in prices for many familiar names. It is as if people simply do not respect anything that is sold cheaply. Why, it can’t possibly be that a $40 wine can perform like a $90 wine. Or a $290 wine. That is just impossible! You have to spend hundreds of dollars to get that transcendental experience, right?

Stories of pricing issues and disconnects are countless, popping in from every perspective. Where would you like to start? Any sommelier will tell you that customers in a restaurant hesitate to buy the cheapest wines on the list—even if they are well selected to be great values. With price comes a certain comfort level. It must be the best; how else could it be so expensive? For some wineries, it also means not having to take second place to your neighbor or concede that their wine is worth more than yours. It’s about the ego.

These days the ironic truth is that there is a surplus of nice wines at nice prices. I would posit that it is actually pretty easy to make wine given the spread of information about methods and technology. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing and everyone knows what the pitfalls are. The actual transcendental experiences posited seem pretty much few and far between. The reality is that a lot of wines simply evoke in me “Yeah, very nice, just like 80 others” as a response. Of course, some things are better than others, but that's not the same as saying that they have done something unique that merits an extra couple of hundred bucks a bottle. They are well made and quite enjoyable, often indeed excellent, but hardly truly irreplaceable. They do very little that I can’t find with many competitors. Often, they don’t compete all that effectively, either. I look up and wonder, “I wonder why this is a $200 bottle, but X is only a $50 bottle?” I don’t frankly see all that much difference much of the time and the real explanations have less to do with quality than extrinsic issues mentioned before like scarcity and hype.

After all, at a certain point, what can some of these wines do to possibly justify their price tags? When you take them home, are they going to walk your dog for you? Clean your house?  The point scale, to put it in those terms, ends at 100. There are no 150 point wines. On the face of it, that would seem to indicate that as the price keeps rising you are increasingly paying for ….absolutely nothing.

There isn’t much available in the marketplace that I have not tasted at some point in some vintage. I’ll concede that pricey wines usually—not always!—perform. The problem is not their lack of performance, but their lack of any relative value for the money and the assumption that other and cheaper wines can’t perform more or less as well. In tasting after tasting, I’ve seen that happen, blind and non-blind. If you’re going to put a $900 Lafite against a $60 Cab and find the audience voting 50-50 as to which they like better, there is a powerful statement being made, no matter how much you like the Lafite.  That statement is: once past a certain point (we’re not talking about $3.99 jug wines; at some point price does matter and it is a better indicator at some levels than others), price has become increasingly irrelevant to a determination of quality and the consumer is playing a game that the consumer is losing badly.

When increasing numbers of wines routinely get priced at a level where people can’t actually drink them –which is not a synonym for passing them around at big tastings where you get an ounce--something has gone seriously wrong, I’d suggest. There is one way to correct this—just say “no.” You can find a lot to like at many price levels if you have an open mind. There has never been more or better wine available at various price points. Or, as one retailer friend said to me, “After the economy crashed a lot of people started trading down in wine costs. Now they come back to me and say they don’t feel like trading back up. They’re just as happy with the less expensive wines they started buying.”

Just say “no.” It’s only wine.



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