Money & Wine: Good, Bad & Ugly

cattivoWe are living in a golden age for wine, or at least that’s what many people (including Jancis Robinson, Matt Kramer, and Richard Hemming) have said. Never before have so many wine lovers around the world been able to enjoy so much good wine from so many places in so many styles at so many price points. If that’s not some sort of golden age, I don’t know what is.

The wine world isn’t a utopia, of course. And, like all golden ages, this one probably contains the seeds of its own eventual demise. But I think it is pretty clear that these are s good times to be a wine drinker, don’t you think?

Jefford on the Money Problem

So was I a bit shaken when I came across Andrew Jefford’s Decanter column on “Money & Wine.”  Jefford doesn’t see a golden age at all. Wine is sick, terminally ill, and the disease that is killing it is money. He writes that

“The biggest wine contaminant (far worse than sulphur) is money. I don’t know how to put it any other way. The contamination is growing worse all the time. The better the wine, tragically, the more money it contains. Fine wines are now brimfull of money.”

Ironically, having written about the devastating disease of money in Decanter on Monday, Jefford’s weekend column in the Financial Times was about a completely different devastating plague: grapevine trunk disease. Wow, wine is really sick, sick, sick.

I suppose there is a good reason why Jefford didn’t talk money to money, which he could have done by publishing his anti-money column in the FT instead of Decanter. In any case, it is clear that Jefford believes that wine is cursed. Golden age? Nonsense!

Masters of the Universe investors sweep up the best wines, pushing prices beyond the reach mere money mortals. Price becomes just a way to score the game and higher is better. Worse, I suppose are wealthy individuals who say that they are investing in fine wines but actually just want to lock them up and treasure them like Gollum’s precious ring. I have called their behavior “conspicuous non-consumption” with a nod to Thorsetin Veblen.

Jefford’s Lament

Jefford takes this whole money-wine syndrome seriously because, as a wine writer and critic, he feels that he is part of the problem. Once critics like Jefford have identified an outstanding wine, it becomes a target for those with money and pretty soon money is all that matters.

Worse, critics sometimes praise ludicrously expensive wines, presumably because they are really good, thus unintentionally reinforcing the notion that wine quality can be measured in dollars, euro, pounds, and yen. “I am guilty of this myself,” he writes, “and wholly complicit.”

One ironic result, Jefford notes, is that the wines that wine critics praise are sometimes bid up to such extraordinary prices that the critics can’t afford to buy them.

“They may briefly encounter great wines at a tasting, but they don’t own them, drink them, or develop a relationship of understanding with them in the way that wealthy wine-lovers are able to. This makes those writers, at best, outside observers of a world to which they will never belong …”

Don’t Cry for Me …

There is truth in this, I guess, but one thing that I have learned from personal experience is that pretty much no one feels sorry for wine writers. They taste wines that most people can only dream of sampling. That they cannot afford to own cases of them and have personal relationships with them doesn’t seem like a serious problem.

I am not an A-List wine critic like Jefford, but even a wine economist like me has occasional opportunities to savor great wines and have memorable wine adventures. I have learned not to speak too loudly about these experiences, however, and to write about them with care. None of my wine enthusiast friends would have any sympathy for me if I offered Jefford’s complaint as my own. Maybe Jefford’s friends are more sympathetic to his needs?

To DRC and Beyond

Tom Wark’s reaction to Jefford’s column (“Andrew Jefford and the Contamination of Wine”) acknowledged that there is a sliver of the market (fine wine, as Jefford defined it in the first quote above) where money is out of control. Top flight Bordeaux and Burgundy get lots of attention, but they are essentially irrelevant to the vast majority of wine enthusiasts. To generalize, even implicitly, from DRC and Petrus to the broader market is to misunderstand the impact of money on wine.

Robert Joseph’s Meininger’s Wine Business International column on “Is Money Ruining Wine”  broadens the discussion in several interesting ways while still retaining the fine wine focus. Yes, great wines cost more today than 50 years ago, Joseph says, but global wealth has increased at the same time. Maybe today’s doctors and lawyers can’t drink Petrus every night (or have a relationship with it, I suppose), but they can afford to taste it on occasions if they want and that’s not nothing.9781442234635

Joseph doesn’t mention it, but part of the money problem, in terms of higher price, is that interest in wine has spread around the world, so that affluent buyers in China and the U.S. seek their share. Price allocates the limited supply — more for New York and Shanghai means London gets less. That’s how markets work

It’s Complicated!

As a wine economist, I am supposed to know something about money and wine. The more I learn, the less willing I am to make bold statements as Jefford has done. There are just too many sides to consider.

That’s how I ended up writing my 2016 book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I made a list of all the different ways that money could affect wine and then wrote this book to try to make sense of the situation. I ended up examining the good, bad, and ugly of money, taste, and wine. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note, which is how I will end this column.

Money has many and varied effects on wine, just as it does on everything else. But wine is resilient and wine lovers are, too. Money and markets bring the world of wine to us, creating this golden age. Does the fact that the Golden Rule — he who has the gold makes the rule — is part of the golden age package (at least when it comes to fine wine) ruin everything? That’s up to you to decide.

It’s Not About the Wine

In the meantime, Jefford’s most recent Decanter column, Wine & the World, argues that money isn’t the world’s only curse — politics, culture, and environment are all being corrupted and society itself fragmented. If wine, with its privileged global status, isn’t part of the solution, Jefford argues, it is part of the problem.

The world is a messy place and Jefford’s goal seems to be to make you consider that fact and what you are doing about it with every glass of wine you drink. It’s not really about the wine, it is about you.

Heal the world — that’s a lot to ask of wine, but the healing needs to be done and wine is as good a place to start as any.

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The Wine Economist will take a brief break for the end-of-summer holiday and return in two weeks.

6 responses

  1. I enjoyed AJ’s piece as I have also enjoyed reading yours. There’s no absolute correct summation but the biggest point I agree with your piece and one I made on AJ’s piece is, as you call it, “conspicuous non-consumption”. Wine is made to be consumed and enjoyed, I’m sure no wine maker has ever set out to make an investment piece (although I’m sure they enjoy the revenue their wines bring), rather to make the very finest expression of the raw materials delivered from some of the world’s most expensive land using the very best and most refined winemaking techniques. I plead guilty to harbouring the green-eyed monster who so often rears its ugly head when I read reviews and check wines whose individual bottle prices is more than the value of my entire collection but remind myself of the realities of living in a supply and demand governed capitalist world, heck at a much lower level, I can afford wines others can’t. It is the conspicuous non-consumers that I find indefensible, those who shell out huge amounts of money to buy wines they have no intention of ever drinking, maybe they’ll keep them in a gilded cage until they become undrinkable or maybe they’ll just sell them to another C n-c at an even higher price. The terroir’s bounty and ultimate wine-making skill never to be savoured, that surely is the biggest crime of wine. But then, how can I say that, when I’m a self professed embracor of a capitalist world, ultimately, governed by the rules of supply and demand. Maybe I’m just conflicted and more jealous than willing to admit.

  2. Gotta disagree with Jefford and the whole non-consumption thang. This may be true for a tinest slivers of the market – let’s call it the rarefied air above $200/bottle (which seems to include many, but actually is less than ~1% of all bottles sold. I don’t buy these, neither do 99% of wine consumers. While the press loves to fawn over them, they are not “mainstream”. It is good press, sells magazines (or attracts eyeballs), and many are worthy targets of adulation. But let’s not generalize the whole…just like no one assumes Bezos or Gates are typical Americans. Over half the US market is <$10/bottle; and the remainder probably average $20/bottle or so. And so much of that wine is superb!
    The reality of today's wine world is that more countries are making better wine than ever before in the history of wine. Sure, plenty of plonk still out there, but even that's gotten better. The variety of vino available locally, and the multitude of info about each wine at your fingertips, has broadened the wine experience for all around the world. It is surely still the "Golden Age" in terms of access, info, and sustainability. As per our (US) politics, ignore the hype and explore the delicious realities of today's amazing marketplace.

  3. I cannot agree more with your conclusion of this great post Mr Veseth!

    My reaction after having read both AJ posts was to ask my facebook followers “Now which wine would YOU drink, after reading this article” and from the few answers I read until now, including my personal view, I understood that people tend to seek their wine locally, in their village, next available wine region or country the furthest. A small trend (or is it bigger?) of anti-globalisation in wine consumption. Drink locally can be sustainable in many aspects. And consumers start realising that.

    As to the money and wine topic, the measure of the wine quality, apart from the price, has been in the last years its note (tasting note). And thank God, there are some wines who earn the highest notes for much less money than the legends… And this definitely leads to your embarking remark of a golden age for wine. We are lucky, not unlucky!

    Have some nice vacation,
    Angeliki

  4. If ink related to consumption, wine at $100 a bottle would warrant a period rather than articles. Anything over $50 is marketing, not winegrowing. Spending $110+ for a 2015 Napa Cabernet should put you into the Inferno. That could fund three months of college education in a third world country.
    Auto writers love to write about a Ferrari produced in single digit numbers and readers love to read about them. Apparently $400,000 cars are fascinating.
    Great for people with stupid amounts of wealth and no moral conscience. Does Bill Gates still drive a Honda Civic?
    I drive a ’98 Geo Metro at 50 mpg.
    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol

  5. Well I’m a wine fan. However it keeps getting more expensive. I’ve just purchased 20 bottles for $900. I’m retired I can’t do this anymore. I’ve solved the problem I’m drinking much more bourbon and IPAs these days.

    • Maybe you are buying the wrong way? Our customers can get lovely, ingredient labeled wine made from organically grown grapes for under $100 a case. Satisfaction guaranteed.
      Of course I’d be happy to sell you wine for $45 a bottle.
      Paul Vandenberg
      Paradisos del Sol

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