The Wine Price Dilemma

quality valueEsther Mobley’s article for the San Francisco Chronicle [behind a paywall] articulates an important perspective on wine pricing in California.

Her main point is that, despite the occasional bargain wine that provides good value, we should not expect cheap wine going forward if we care about the environment and economic justice. She writes:

There are scores of honest, hardworking, small-scale producers here who simply can’t afford to sell wines for $10 — who are doing everything they can to put out a good-value product while still eking out a living for themselves. I’ve heard winemakers in the Bay Area earnestly swear to me that after accounting for the costs of labor, real estate, grapes and more, they can barely make any money off a $50 bottle of wine.

Even winemaker’s committed to making affordable wines are having doubts about whether their approach is sustainable. Winemaker Lauren Bissell of Inconnu Wines reports:

“If you’re committed to working against climate change, I think it might be impossible to make a $21 bottle of wine anywhere,” she said. It simply costs too much, in her mind, to farm responsibly, to pay employees a living wage, to buy packaging — like glass bottles — from companies that treat their workers equitably, too….“Wine to me is this quiet, long dedication,” she said, “a place of repetition and learning to make something beautiful.” That doesn’t come cheap.

The issue of wine pricing has always been vexed. Some wines are egregiously overpriced, and the practice of premiumization—the assumption that consumers are willing to pay more for mediocre wine—has no doubt harmed the industry. We know from the data that the relationship between price and wine quality is inconsistent and certainly non-linear. But that does not entail there is no relation. Quality costs money even if the wine industry is inconsistent in how it prices those quality increments.

And we cannot consistently lament the poor pay for vineyard workers and the use of cost effective but damaging pesticides if we’re not willing to pay more for wine from wineries that actually do something to solve these problems.

Everyone loves a bargain but the constant clamor for cheaper wines is a race to the bottom. Wine can be both a popular, everyday beverage and a beverage for connoisseurs only if we maintain a distinction between commodity wines and wines designed to provide an aesthetic experience.

5 comments

  1. Or, alternately, we could abolish capitalism, thereby stoping the climate crisis and improving our aesthetic experience. Of course, wine precedes capitalism by millennia, but will it outlive it? Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but the history of wine and history of capitalism should be brought into dialogue with one another explicitly.

  2. Hi Chuck. Thanks for your comment. Agreed. Wine and capitalism in the contemporary world are inextricable. But abolishing capitalism doesn’t appear to be on the agenda, although climate change will have its say in the matter..

    1. Hi Dwight,

      Abolishing capitalism is very much on the agenda today: from Occupy Wall Street to the rise of Bernie Sanders, there are countless indicators that people want and will fight for an alternative to capitalism. It is presently part of popular discourse in a way that it hasn’t been since the late 1960s.

      It is not part of _your_ agenda and of course that is different.

      And I think that it is a mistake to assume that wine and aesthetic experience must necessarily occur in the context of a capitalist society. Although capitalism mostly governs these things now, that has not been the case for most of human history and there is no reason to assume that it will be—or should be—the case in the future.

      And unreflexive position on capitalism creates all kinds of problems. In this piece, you have backed yourself into sanctioning class hierarchies: you argue that good wine and the aesthetic experiences that it provides are expensive and, by implication, only available to the wealthy. Following this logic, one could also argue that aesthetic experience is primarily available to men and white people, given the intersection of class and race and gender hierarchies. And if experiencing beauty is a way to claim the fullness of humanity, then presumably rich, white, men are a little more human than the rest. It is a horrendous position.

      But an alternative is available: one can argue that cultivating aesthetic experience involves building a new society, particularly one without class hierarchies. Thus, although good wine is presently only available to the rich, that need not and should not be the case. I believe that this position is morally and historically defensible (and one of the reasons why so many people have mobilized against capitalism in the last decade or so).

      1. I agree that the discourse has changed, remarkably so. But the just past election shows we are much closer to fascism than socialism. My post was about the reality of the situation, not what I would prefer. If there is hope it is with generational change. But that is slow.

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