Class War in the Wine World

Pyramid_of_Capitalist_SystemLast week the wine blogosphere joined the class war. Oliver Styles, at Tim Atkin’s site,  launched the first volley arguing that the astronomical prices of the world’s greatest wines, as well as low wages in the industry, constitute a moral outrage that can best be mitigated by making these wines available to the wine working class including vineyard workers, cellarhands, marketing staff, and wine writers.

It’s interesting that, for all our talk of how wonderful and multi-faceted wine is, we have found no better way of doling it out than by income. From each according to their terroir to each according to their salary.

Styles’ draws his conclusion from three premises:

1) “… people in the wine industry are likely to be the most interested (and, dare I say, deserving) in trying these out-of-reach wines. People in the wine industry (sommeliers, cellarhands, retail staff, pruners, pickers, even wine writers)  are also some of most able to evaluate and form meaningful judgments from drinking them.”

2) The passion workers need to make and sell wine effectively is diminished if they don’t have access to the best wines available.

3) Interest in these great wines is diminished if people can’t drink them. Much of the energy and focus in the wine world is directed towards “the undercurrents and alternatives….Hybrid grapes, light reds, indigenous varieties.

To correct this situation, Styles would prefer a maximum pricing scheme:

To return to maximum pricing, I’ve argued that wine, as a cultural object (like art or music), should be priced like CDs – all broadly the same. You don’t pay more for Shostakovich than you do for Vaughan Williams. Maybe we could have a Spotify-style wine subscription service in which we pay a monthly subscription fee to a Scandinavian firm and, every month, we get to choose the contents of an unlimited, mixed 12-pack?

But since there is no governing body that could institute and enforce such a scheme, he would settle for wineries recognizing the folly of the current distribution model and making their wines available to their staffs.

This gesture in the direction of Karl Marx raised the hackles of Tom Wark. In a post entitled “The Stench of Envy is Rising in the Wine Industry” he writes:

I would again point out to Oliver that in the past 40 years it has not been possible for cellar workers and waiters (or many PR Dudes) to afford the most coveted wines. And I point out again, here we are with a wine industry that remains a vital part of international and domestic economies along with a far wider range of viable wine regions and wineries than at any time in human history. How has the wine industry thrived without providing the lower-paid access to benchmark wines?

A point well taken, but he goes on to weaken his argument considerably by raising the hoary platitude that price is the best determinate of quality. Responding to Styles’ lamentation that ‘“appreciation” of wine today appears to be linked to knowing what it costs,” Tom writes:

This is a straight-up crazy idea. There is currently a bottle of 2016 DRC Romanee Conti available at WineBid. Its value is $4,700. This is a fact. The way I know this fact is not because I’ve tasted it and deemed it to be worth $4,700. The way I know this is because there is a bid on the wine of $4,700. If, as Oliver and others before him, have implied that there is a better way of assessing the objective value of a wine, I’d love to hear it.

Contrary to what Tom asserts, there is utterly no reason to think wine expertise is linked to wealth. One might argue that because only the wealthy can afford the best wines only they are in a position to judge wine quality. But this argument is entirely circular. How do we know which wines are the best? The best wines are the most expensive wines.  Why think the most expensive wines are the best? Because people are willing to pay more for them. Why are people willing to pay more for them? Because they are the best.

The whole argument assumes what it’s trying to prove. To actually demonstrate this argument you would have to show that wealthy wine drinkers have more diverse experience, are more reflective, and have a better wine education than people who actually make, sell, and write about wine. That is surely not obvious. There is nothing “objective” about people with too much money paying too much money for a bottle of wine. We know the price of cult wines is driven by scarcity and reputation. If their reputation is built on nothing but their price, their price tells us nothing about quality.

For the record, I’ve tasted my share of cult wines. Some of them them were worthy of their reputation (Screaming Eagle, Chateau Margaux, Dal Forno, Vega Sicilia), some were not (Harlan, Sine Qua Non). YMMV. My point is, even at the high end, price is no guarantee.

In fact, the reputations of cult wines are built on more than price. Cult wines are highly rated by wine critics, at least the relatively few who have the opportunity to taste them. Which brings me back to Styles’ main argument.

As I argued in Beauty and the Yeast, if these wines are indeed the best in the world it’s essential that a broad cross-section of the wine world can drink them. Otherwise, people in the wine world have no understanding of the standards and criteria by which wine is judged. Unless you are acquainted with the best, you have no way of judging whether a wine approximates it or not.

This situation is not the case with any other form of art. If you live near a major city you can visit museums with some of the finest artworks in history. The wonders of mechanical reproduction make music from Beethoven, Miles Davis, or Radiohead available to anyone with a phone and a set of headphones. It would be unthinkable that students of art or music could complete their programs without a thorough understanding of the finest works available. Only in the wine world do we think this is acceptable.

This is not about envy. It’s about people who make wine knowing what it is they’re making.

5 comments

  1. I often draw the parallel between wine and cars when I teach this topic in my classes. Does anyone believe that those who buy Rolls-Royces are the most “car-knowledgeable” people in the world? Of course not. Rolls-Royces are shockingly expensive. Those who buy Rolls-Royces do so because they believe they are getting very good cars, and they want to show the rest of the world (and themselves) that they have enough money to buy one.

    Is it possible to appreciate the world of automobiles without owning (or even driving) a Rolls? Possibly. Probably. But I don’t care. I am not an aficionado of fine cars. Should the makers of Rolls-Royces make them available to the general public, so that we can all have that experience?

    That, my friends, is a marketing decision. And most luxury goods brands do not think that the best way to enhance and maintain the image of their brand is to make it publicly available to anyone who might show an interest.

    Why should the producers of luxury wines be any different?

    1. Hi Paul,
      The difference is that automobiles, even a Rolls, are not, as Styles says, a “cultural object like art or music.” There are, of course, people who are really into cars, appreciating either their engineering or style. If it’s the visual style they are interested in I doubt you have to own one to appreciate it. If it’ the engineering well perhaps. But automobiles are in the end mechanical devices and you can learn the standards of excellence in engineering without owning a Rolls.
      I agree though that luxury brands can’t maintain their image of exclusiveness if their products are widely available. But that doesn’t solve the problem I was addressing–a benchmark has to available at least to the people whose responsibility it is to make, sell and judge benchmarks (which is not the same as the general public).

      1. Hi Dwight

        I’m not sure I agree about automobiles…nor does the MoMA: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5210

        As for getting exposure to these wines, here is the list of wines I am pouring next month for a class on the legendary wines of the world. No reason others can’t do the same.

        2013 Louis Roederer “Cristal” Brut Champagne

        2019 Domaine Joseph Drouhin Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru

        2020 Domaine du Petit Clocher Cabernet d’Anjou Rosé

        2020 Commanderie de la Bargemone Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé

        2020 Domaine Huet “Clos du Bourg” Vouvray Demi-Sec

        2011 Domaine Rossignol-Trapet Chambertin Grand Cru

        2001 Roger Sabon “Cuvée Prestige” Châteauneuf-du-Pape

        2018 Chateau Branaire-Ducru St. Julien

        1995 Chateau Latour, Pauillac

        2003 Rieussec, Sauternes (375ml)

        2016 The Royal Tokaji Wine Co. “Red Label” Aszú 5 Puttonyos (500ml)

        2019 Selbach-Oster Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese** Mosel

        1999 Broadbent Colheita Madeira

        Baco Imperial Olorosa Sherry Solera 1848

        1994 Dow’s Vintage Port

        1937 Kopke Colheita Port

  2. Excellent article as always!

    I want to make a clarification, however. I’m not claiming that “wine expertise is linked to wealth.” I’m taking issue with Oliver’s claim that ““appreciating” wine today only appears to be knowing how much a wine cost, not whether said wine is objectively worth that much.”

    My point is that the value of a wine is nearly completely disconnected from the quality of a wine, particularly when considering value in the aggregate. One can’t say that the $500 of Napa Valley cult cab isn’t worth the price when the wine sells out at that price. What you can say is that the wine is absolutely worth that price, and possibly more. Quality and value and largely disconnected. “Value” is a concept that is best understood via Supply/Demand.

    1. Hi Tom,
      Thanks for your comment. Well sure if you define value as economic value then the price is a marker of value. But Style’s point, as I read it, was that we shouldn’t define a wine’s value solely as economic value.

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