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