Thursday, 28 January 2010

Why wine prices must be capped at both ends

To begin with, I was appalled by this interview. Firstly, it tells a readership of students that a great way to do business is to make the world's priciest Champagne (it costs nearly £1,000 a bottle) and flog it with the help of a superstar. Secondly, don't bother getting an expert to taste it guys (Anthony Rose writes for the Indie, at the very least he could have stepped in) or ask if its value-for-money, because that's not interesting is it? Why let the quality of the product get in the way when you can slap a whopping price tag on it and find a celebrity as an ambassador? I've written similar here.

And then a wave of apathy slopped over the bows of HMS Indignant. I admit I have a lot of sympathy with the make-money-from-the-dumb-rich school of thought. If someone somewhere thinks that a Mariah Carey endorsement and a price tag the size of a charity cheque makes a good bottle of bubbly, fair enough. Go for it. Empty your wallet. You certainly won't hear much protest about the pricing coming from Champagne because, let's be honest, our reply is likely to contain the words 'pot', 'kettle' and 'black'. Remember who's Moet & Chandon's 'brand ambassador'?

But then I steadied the tiller, rang the ship's bell, and set a different course.

Now, imagine you're that gifted of breeds: a winemaker. You've made your wine, it's all labelled and ready to go but you can't decide on the price. Filled with a sense of socialist values, you want to make great wine accessible to the masses, so you consider pricing it at about £6 a bottle. But you're also proud of your wine and it becomes clear that at £6 a bottle, no one is going to take you seriously. Sure, someone might give it the 'good value' or 'good QPR' moniker, but you'll never make a name for yourself. You'll never achieve greatness or cult status, even if your production is tiny.

So you price it at £25 a bottle and people will start to take note.

Now I'm prepared to accept that there are some holes in that scenario: it's always possible that a wine critic might see you as a £6 genius, or that your £25 bottle will be forced down by the market. But, be honest, it holds true.

A perceptive comment on my last blog inferred that there are two different markets - the lower echelon (Jacob's Creek, Yellow Tail, etc) and the more serious wines at a more serious price for more serious people. I might make a case for the middle ground (a third way, perhaps) in wine but I'll let it stand.

Both come in for attack. One is the embodiment of wealth, colossal fortunes and wine collection. This is lambasted by many, especially Robert Parker, because wines are not meant to be collected, they're meant to be drunk.

The other is the exceptionally low-priced wines found in supermarkets. So low that they are the focus of attacks by health groups saying this increases binge drinking. Personally, I never got wasted on cheap wine, but that's another blog.

So my conclusion is thus: wine prices should be capped at both ends. Make a bottle of wine a minimum £10 ($15) spend and make the highest £100 a bottle (perhaps with allowances for experimentation so that if the winemaker can prove he spent, say, £150 per bottle on overheads, he is allowed a decent, but not excessive, profit margin).

Not only do you start to tackle the problem of wine abuse, you tackle the problem of price abuse.

And once you take the motivation of money out of the winemaking equation and out of the satisfaction equation, everyone can get on and enjoy wine for what it is, rather than be concerned about who endorsed it or how many thousands of pounds, dollars or yen it cost.

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Monday, 25 January 2010

The wine news roundup (25 Jan 2010)

I was in London last week, tasting Burgundy, Oregon & Washington, anything that looked appealing from Liberty and tea. I can thoroughly recommend the TeaSmith masterclass and Canteen in Spitalfields is now confirmed as my favourite place to eat. Anyway, here's what you might have missed:

  • Maybe it’s to be expected that a financial institution, the FT, publishes a piece on investment in wine. But this time it’s as long as a column by their wine correspondent, Jancis Robinson. Who, one suspects, is likely to be less enamoured of the concept of wine as an investment vehicle.

  • A group of New Zealanders are to use their ‘marketing force’ (ie, wads of cash) to persuade the world that they make ‘fine wine’. Which is great, in and of itself, but what happened to the persuasive art of actually making fine wine? As I keep saying, wine experts will be bypassed in the future, with wineries relying on marketing and new media.

  • Mariah Carey turns bad PR into good by using her embarrassing acceptance speech to promote her Champagne. Good work by the Guardian but (a) no need to be quite so harsh – by all accounts her performance in Precious is very good - and (b) had you been reading my blog, you might have noticed this last year.

  • Bloomberg publishes an embarrassing gush-fest on the late Italian winemaker Edouardo Valentini. The opening gambit alone (‘I’ve been drinking wine with pleasure for a very long time…’) prepared me for the rest in the way saliva and stomach spasms makes me reach for a bucket. From the description of his personality in the piece, I doubt Valentini would have enjoyed it much either.

  • Eric Asimov produces yet another interesting piece for the New York times on affordable Bordeaux, saying that much of the low-end stuff is ignored and publishing the results of a small tasting of wines between $10 and $20. All well and good but when you look at the wines that came top, they’re still the likes of Liversan ’05, Olivier ’06 and de Sales ’06. Six of the top 10 were priced $19-20 and all were above $15. Perhaps not the best illustration of ‘affordable’ Bordeaux.

  • Worst article Goes to the Daily Mail (the paper you love to hate) for its piece on the Marques de Riscal winery which opened four years ago. Not that you could tell from the headline: ‘Guggenheim architect Frank Ghery to create City of Wine complex for Marques de Riscal’ which suggests the future but is in fact talking about a past event. Still, those kind of headlines are great for SEO, right? For a minute I thought the piece might be an examination of how the Marques de Riscal winery has fared since its opening, but it turned out to be yet another puff piece that left me wondering whether writer Graham Keeley had been a guest at de Riscal in the not-too-distant past.

  • Runner up for best article Only for the sake of puerile amusement, this goes to a bunch of lads who decide to microwave a bag-in-box wine. The whole thing explodes in four minutes. Or is it a fake? Either way, you might entertain a few people.

  • Best article Goes, without a doubt, to Mark Schatzker of the Toronto Globe and Mail for investigating the loophole in Canadian legislation that allows shops to sell, tax-free, ‘sacramental wine’. It’s no different from any other wine (albeit much cheaper) but you’ll need a signed letter from your Rabbi, Priest or Vicar to buy it.
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    Tuesday, 24 November 2009

    Mariah Carey shows me the way

    Actually, I've changed heart. I don't blame you anymore. Any of you. If there's a market for a $1,000-a-bottle Champagne to be created from nothing, and people are willing to buy it, then great. Good luck to 'em.

    Because Mariah Carey is endorsing a Champagne called 'Angel', it costs $980 a bottle (for the cheapest), the packaging looks suspiciously like Jay-Z's Ace of Spades, and much like Ace of Spades, there is no indication of provenance (other than that it uses Grand Cru vineyards), it seems no-one has tasted it and the only recommendation is that Carey likes it.

    She wants the winner to feel extra special and this champagne is certainly one way of making sure that comes true.

    Now I'm going to make a prediction here: it's not that good. Now I know I haven't tasted it, so I'm out on a bit of a limb but for the most part I can tell you that no wine that costs $1,000 a bottle is worth $1,000. And, considering it's endorsed by the artistic void that is Mariah Carey, this only reinforces my prejudice.

    All it does is open up the whole bloody problem, from Champagne to Bordeaux to Napa to Picpoul de Pinet. Anyone about to attack Angel (and yes, that includes me) has to look at the value of all the wines they pay for. Is Pétrus really worth it?

    But there's another, much more worrying trend. You know how annoying it is when your friends ask you 'but how much is it' when you pour them a glass of wine? Well, now you can tell them it's Mariah Carey's favourite Champagne. Or Christian Audigier's wine. Or it was in Jay-Z's video. Your friends will be able to relate.

    There is a market opening up for celebrities to get their own wine, or at least to endorse it. Wine experts and their views don't count, but the PR and the marketing does. Experts are annoying, fickle, know what they are talking about, and have tasted a lot of the stuff. Why let the possibility of a dodgy rating get in the way? Get Mariah to tell the press she loves the stuff and it wont matter what some bloke called Bob in Maryland (or some nerdy magazine for old people) thinks, because Mariah's got more of a following than any of them.

    You are witnessing the fantasmagorical world of celebrity crowbarring itself into the cosy world of wine. You wait til Sarah Jessica Parker buys a 'castle' in Bordeaux. It will be a very questioning time. For all of us.

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