Is Bordeaux Still Relevant?

The brand is Bad Boy Bordeaux

Is Bordeaux still relevant? Relevant to those of us in the United States, I mean. It used to define fine wine, but now we don’t seem to buy much of it – the momentum’s shifted to Asia. It’s just another “brand” to many Americans, and not one that is especially successful.

Shanken News Daily recently published Bordeaux export data that suggest that interest in Bordeaux has dropped off sharply in the U.S., now the world’s biggest overall wine market but no longer a powerful player in the Bordeaux game.

Bordeaux By the Numbers

Germany leads the Bordeaux export league table measured by volume with 2.9 million 9-liter cases in 2010. China, Belgium, the UK and Japan follow, with the U.S. and Hong Kong lagging behind.

Things change markedly when the ranking is by value not volume. Hong Kong received €251 million worth of Bordeaux wine followed by the UK, China, Belgium, Germany and then the United States and Japan. U.S. Bordeaux purchases amounted to €99 in 2010, down from €247 in 2008 (when the U.S. was second only to the British in Bordeaux imports).  Outrageous pricing is the problem, the Shanken report suggests, and not just the dismal economic climate.

U.S. importers paid €99 million for 1.3 million cases of Bordeaux in 2010, or about a bit more than €76 per case. Germany, on the other hand, paid €111 million for 2.9 million cases, which works out to less than €40 per case — a very different kind of Bordeaux. By comparison, Hong Kong paid €251 million for 0.8 million cases of Bordeaux for an average of over €300 per case. Obviously there are many Bordeaux wines and markets, not just one. And obviously the United States is not a leading player in any of them.

Vintage Arias

I was thinking about all the fuss that there is about Bordeaux, the annual en primeur circus and the critic ratings of these wines and suddenly I found myself humming an opera tune. What can opera teach us about Bordeaux wine? Maybe nothing! But please read on anyway.

Bordeaux’s problem is that it is so expensive. Opera has that problem, too. Opera is arguably the most expensive form of art. Large capital expenditures are required (have you priced an opera house recently?). The sets and costumes used in high end opera are so expensive that they are stored for future use and rented out to earn a few extra bucks. Opera is enormously labor intensive, too.  You need soloist singers, a chorus and an orchestra and conductor. Dancers are often also required. Most of these artists have trained for years and years, so we might add in human capital costs, too.

There may be some type of regularly produced art that is more expensive to make, but I don’t know what it is. It isn’t a surprise, therefore, that opera evolved as an art for rich elites and the opera houses became gilt palaces of conspicuous consumption. The tunes made it out onto the street, of course, and into the parlor, too, when sheet music publishing caught on, but the focus was on Grand Opera, the elite patrons who watched it and the elite artists who performed it.

Opera video: Champagne not Bordeaux and J. Strauss not R. Wagner, but you get the idea.

Elites and Masses

Opera soon went global as the influence of European elites spread to the Americas and Asia. You can still see evidence of this cultural flow in the beautiful opera houses scattered across the world wherever colonial centers emerged  and in faded news articles about the famous (if fading) touring opera stars who performed in them.

Then technology in the form of broadcast radio and recordings (and then television, dvds etc.) brought opera to the masses. Opera on the radio here in the U.S. began  in 1931 with the first Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. The regular Saturday performances, sponsored for years by Texaco, became  part of the common experience of American life. Opera really meant something.

But technology, which initially democratized opera, eventually became a corrosive force, too. Technology allowed opera to move from free broadcast media to pay-to-listen satellite radio and pay-to-view HD opera showings in movie theaters.  More significantly, however, communications technology opened up an alternative universe of tunes to whistle and performances to enjoy.

Back to Bordeaux

Opera lost its privileged status and became just another artistic niche. Attention was paid, as it must, because of the quality of the works and the sacrifices of those who organized and performed them, but opera’s high cost became harder to justify. Attention became focused on the tried and true “war horses” that would be certain to sell tickets. New operas were still written and sometimes performed, but not as often as one might hope. Opera still means something, but it is not the same.

It seems to me that the attention given to Bordeaux bears more than some superficial similarity to our attitude towards opera, although I naturally do not want to push the analogy too far. Bordeaux, like opera, used to be a signifier of taste both among elites who could afford it and the masses who could not. (And probably still is in Hong Kong and China.)

Like opera, top flight Bordeaux is a victim of its successes and excesses – now so expensive that even rich Americans balk at the prices. The focus is on those wines at the top of the 1855 Classifications and a few others that have been identified by Parker and other critics.

It is What it Is

But Bordeaux is not the only game in town. The globalization that made Bordeaux prices soar has also opened up a world of excellent alternatives. There are a lot of great wines; maybe Chateau Lafite is as great as La Traviata, but only a few will have the money, taste and opportunity to sample either one at its best.

I started this essay by asking if Bordeaux is still relevant and I have decided that it is, but in the particular way that great opera is still relevant.   Opera no longer informs us about music (or culture)  generally as it once did. Opera is about opera now and that is good enough. And Bordeaux is (just?) Bordeaux. At least that’s how it looks here in the U.S.

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Reading this post, I think it is a fair criticism to say that I may have overstated the prior cultural significance of both opera and Bordeaux in order to make their current status seem like a great fall from grace.  This may be true about opera, but I’m not sure about Bordeaux. I see a great disconnect between the attention given Bordeaux and sales here in the U.S.

Another criticism is that I have ignored Bordeaux’s premier status in the wine auction market. This is true, although I am not sure if the fact that Bordeaux has become a prized “alternative asset class” investment necessarily weakens my argument.

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4 responses

  1. You seem to have as a starting point of your logic that the “success” of a product means “success in the US market” (“Like opera, top flight Bordeaux is a victim of its successes and excesses – now so expensive that even rich Americans balk at the prices”). Why?

    “Top level” Bordeaux is undeniably one of the most successful wine categories at the moment. I can not think of any other category that have managed to raise its prices so consistently over a decade. (Which, unfortunately, is not the case for the majority of – generally less expensive – Bordeaux wines though.)

    Isn’t it more relevant how successful a producer is in selling his products in total rather than just looking at how successful he happens to be on the US market?

    The appropriate question seems rather to be “Is the US market still relevant?”

    -PK

  2. Here in the UK, Bordeaux is quite popular. People still think wine can actually help you live a longer life. There is a certain amount of truth ot it, but concorde grape juice will probably provide you with the same amount of nutrients and life expectency.

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