A couple of weeks back I wrote in my What I've Learned post that, “consumers will always be price sensitive, but the goal is to create a conversation, sometimes about the wine itself, but more importantly with the people who are enjoying it. And if we are fortunate, a memory will be made not on the price paid, but the stories themselves.”
Well, a whale sized story hit the wine world this week. On Saturday, April 19, an anonymous “Beijing-based billionaire [had] splashed out a record $500,000 on 27 bottles of red wine, London-based Antique Wine Company said.” That's an average of $18,518.52 per bottle. The 27 bottle lot consisted of Domaine de la Romanee Conti wines from 1961 to 2002. No one will argue the sought after power of these wines; honestly, I had the good fortune of drinking a 2001 DRC Grands Echezeaux last week while dining in New York City. It was my first experience with DRC and even from a challenging vintage year this wine hit all the Elysian highs a wine drinker can hope for - seductive aromatics, silky mouth-feel and a mouth watering finish. I was angered to have to share this wine with my table mates. I knew the wine was credit card bending expensive but 180x more expensive than I am comfortable spending?!?
Flabbergasted when I read the auction results article this weekend, I did what any good wine geek does to feel the pulse of the people, I logged on to Mark Squire's bulletin board to see what the eBobber's were saying. With over 2,500 page views on the post regarding the sale, the 52 comments dissected the Reuters press release language (”moronic”) and the buyer's motives (”more money than brains;” “more money than taste”).
For the majority of us, we will rely on product cues (price, promotions, packaging, ease of consumption and consumption occasion) to choose our wine. When there is a limited knowledge of a region or producer at the tip of our tongue, price becomes a proxy for quality and strength of brand. Although “buying up” may excite some folks in the wine world, without proper appreciation we can easily be turned off and regret spending $10 or $20 more than what we could have spent on an acceptable bottle of wine.
Educated or less educated; to the individual consumer in either category, taste is subjective. Everyone has an opinion and a reason for their purchase. It is difficult to argue that one is right or wrong because taste means different things to different people. This happens to be a buying influencer that exists outside the appreciation of wine or shopping for clothes or a car. Some consumers will buy as a means to project an image about themselves, while others will make a purchase based solely on consumption occasion. Unfortunately, (part-time and/or legitimate) connoisseurship creates demand that drives prices.
So we ask, is a bottle of DRC more worthy of an accompanying libretto when someone writes a New York City sized mortgage check per bottle, than a bottle of Charles Shaw - “Two Buck Chuck” - which claims, a good wine for a great deal? According to an economist, a limited supply of a (quality) product will result in a subsequent price demand. But a 925,000% variance is only explainable by the self-imposed statement it makes about the purchaser. Is it true that DRC will be a vastly different wine than Two Buck Chuck? Yes, but 925,000 points different, no.
A few points of differentiation can be attributed to the wine's taste, but beyond a few distinct characteristics, as we established, taste is subjective in the mouth of the beholder. And in most cases, when tasting a wine that reaches astronomical price points, even to the educated consumer, there is an invisible bar that exists that carries a sign, “any who pay the price beyond this barrier, will probably not be able to tell the difference.” Is it as simple as saying a $300 bottle of 1997 Antinori Solaia is exactly the same as a $30 bottle of E. Guigal Chateauneuf-du-Pape from 1999? Both wines received Wine Spectator's #1 spot in the annual Top 100 in the last few years. The Wine Spectator uses criteria such as quality, value, availability and the excitement the wine creates in the consumer, i.e. the “X-factor.”
So, if your subjective taste delivers excitement (social status aside), it is safe to say that no price can be put on your enjoyment. Enjoyment is defined as the pleasure one receives while experiencing something. Wine has that unique ability to take on its environment, from production to enjoyment.
And therefore, wine is a complicated, and, at times, an expensive pursuit. But, wine in all its variety encapsulates a story in every sip. And with a little education we can descend on our neighborhood wine store or restaurant, and feel a connection to the wine shop owners who help our selection process, we will even be less intimidated by the restaurant's sommelier in all his sartorial splendor, who protects the leather bound wine list as if it were the Gutenberg Bible. As consumers, we “will always be price sensitive, but the goal is to create a conversation, sometimes about the wine itself, but more importantly with the people who are enjoying it. And if we are fortunate, a memory will be made not on the price paid, but the stories themselves.”
Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley. Dan has an MBA from New York University and worked as an Ad Exec in New York for several years, before switching it up and trading his suit for a move out west.