Wine Royalty and Regional Identity

pontet canetAlphonso Cevola makes an interesting distinction in his discussion of inflated prices for luxury goods such as high-end cigars, Rolex watches and fine wine. The occasion was a visit to a Dallas grocery store in which he spots a Pontet-Canet 2016 for $200. (Pontet-Canet is classified as a 5th-growth in the original 1855 classification although it is now held in much higher esteem by wine experts.)

Before the great disruption event of 2016, you could have easily found a bottle of Pontet-Canet for under $80, still a price most people wouldn’t consider, except for maybe a special occasion, and well above the price I remember seeing the 1982 stacked in my local Safeway (for $12.99!). A Rolex, five years ago you could have gone into a local AD (authorized dealer) and picked one up, at retail. Still a pricey proposition, but reachable for folks with the means. And that Cohiba Splendido? Well, in Canada or Italy I saw them for about $10, back in the day. Still, a pricey smoke, but not a C-note!

Something is out of whack. Are we living in a world exclusively comprised of billionaires? Is there no ceiling on these consumer items? Have we all gone mad? Where in hell have we landed? Is there a way off of this planet?

Cigars, watches, and wine are everyday items.

But when they start becoming unattainable, even for folks with a little money in their bank accounts, what is it saying about who we are as a people?

Of course, it’s about scarcity, demand, and celebrity. Mostly celebrity. Screaming Eagle is of higher quality than most Napa Cabernet but only marginally so. it’s the prestige that comes with being on their allocation list that drives the price. What it says about us is that we are overly impressed with what everyone else thinks is popular. In other words we haven’t outgrown high school.

The interesting distinction Alphonso makes is between the Italian approach to such matters and that of the French (and by extension perhaps Napa.)

Italy has some of that. But Italy hasn’t built their brand on the premise of rare and unavailable. Oh yeah, you can look for, and find, a bottle of Soldera. And you will pay dearly for it. But Italian wine doesn’t orbit around that sun. For lack of a better term, the Italians have “diversified their portfolio.”

I think this is right. There are some very expensive Italian wines. But they don’t define what wine means in Italy.

But where’s the fun in seeing your wines become captive to a culture aroused by a fetishism of rarity. They’ve become a wingless bird, a rara avis. Prisoners in a wine cellar, seldom if ever to see the light of day, the warmth of the dinner table, the comradery of friendship and family. I couldn’t imagine an Italian wine like this, in my world. It would be barbarous.

In Italy, wine remains an everyday affair despite the prestige of Soldera, Sassicaia, or Ornellaia.

Here is a test for the “everydayness” of a wine culture. Can you readily find a representative of excellence for less than $100? By “excellence” I don’t mean “the best” whatever that means. I mean an excellent wine of its type. I think the answer is yes in any of Italy’s wine regions. Barolo or Amarone della Valpolicella may be exceptions but I’ve had several excellent examples from both regions for under $100.

This is not true of Bordeaux or Burgundy. I doubt if it’s true of Hermitage or Côte Rôtie. This is not to say there are no good wines for under $100 from these regions. Just that they don’t represent the excellence of which those regions are capable.

What about Napa Valley Cabernet? There are some for under $100. Ramey comes to mind as one example. But they are few and becoming fewer each year.

There is nothing wrong with expensive wine. But when “expensive” becomes your regional identity the wine culture suffers.


  1. Hi Dwight

    Your comment button doesn’t seem to be working today.

    The Italians in the wine business I know would certainly charge more money and make their bottles more expensive if they thought the could, but the international market just doesn’t support that approach. Note the changes in Chianti Classico as an example of the Italians trying to create more rarity, quality and higher prices for their wines. And they are far from alone.

    Much of the pricing structure for top French wines traces its root back to the consumption of wine by the British upper class. Those wines still commandeer top pricing in the world market. And just about every other wine region in the world wishes it could do the same. All you have to do is look and what any winery does when its wine received a stellar rating. The prices go through the roof, and all of their neighbors try mightily to board the same train.

    The French have a nearly thousand year-old advantage (back to the days of William the Conqueror and Eleanor of Acquitaine) in the British market, and the rest of Europe will probably never catch up-even though they’d like to.

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    1. Hi Paul,
      Sorry for the delay in getting your comment up. I’m not sure why the comment button wasn’t working.
      I agree at least some elements of the industry in most regions would love to emulate Bordeaux. But the fact they are largely unsuccessful suggests there are impediments to doing so. Is it just the historical factors you mention or are their cultural influences playing a role as the article I linked to suggests? Hard to say.

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