20 March 2014

The murky world of overpriced wine

I loved this recent post by Jancis Robinson addressing launch prices for relatively new and unknown ‘artisan’ wines.  I particularly love her openness in naming the culprits – wine writers are often accused of never giving a poor review in order to maintain favour with producers.  Of course, you might say that’s all very well if you are the most powerful woman in the wine trade, but Jancis still eloquently manages to get to the root of something that makes all of us in the trade a little uncomfortable.  Namely, that we don’t like being ripped off, and there really isn’t another expression for what some of these so-called artisan winemakers are doing.

Mind you, if someone somewhere is stupid enough to buy these wines, should we be pointing the finger at the winemakers?  Every industry has characters whose controversial work divides people.  Look at modern art – for decades Tracey Emin’s unmade beds have been confusing people, while Damien Hirst’s enormous pickled dead animals and pictures made of flies have been repulsing the masses.  It amuses me how passionate people get about hating such art. The haters can’t just enjoy the spectacle, they have to voice their fury that “IT’S NOT ART!!” very loudly.  Reacting strongly.  Just as the artist would want them to do.

The world of fashion is another one that bemuses me.  I used to work with a chap that often wore designer gear, but being on a modest income it tended to be the designer gear that one can purchase from either Ebay or TK Maxx.  Now, I know Ebay can be hit and miss, but I can’t help noticing that a lot of the designer clothes that make their way into TK Maxx are not very nice.  Needless to say, my former colleague regularly looked like a dog’s dinner on our nights out, and I learned quickly that ‘designer’ does not necessarily mean better.

And then there’s music, of course… I know a lot of people that are far more snobbish about music than I am about wine.  They tend not to see it that way, but as long as they are shouting at me for having the audacity to watch The X Factor and “not hating One Direction enough”, I’ll quietly disagree.  Now music is slightly different from fashion and art in that it just costs what it costs whether we like it or not, but let’s face it, concert tickets don’t.  And just because you’ve forked out over £100 to go to a gig doesn’t mean the artist will try harder to put on a good show.   Within music, there is an interesting parallel with what Jancis said about Bordeaux at least having a proud history on their side as a justification for high prices.  The Rolling Stones caused controversy during their last tour regarding the jaw-dropping price of their tickets.  But you’ve got to hand it to them, why shouldn’t they be the most expensive live act in the world?  They’ve been touring since the dawn of time and are known to put on a brilliant show.  They are a known quantity.  It’s not like attending a similarly expensive Justin Bieber gig – apart from the inevitable dismay at discovering you are at a Justin Bieber gig, there is the likelihood that he won’t bother turning up for half of it.  Inexperienced, immature and known to be erratic – remind you of anything in Jancis’s article?

I appreciate you probably weren’t anticipating when you started reading that I would be comparing artisan winemakers to Justin Bieber but since I’ve come this far, I will continue.  The difference with artisan winemakers ripping us off is that we as consumers are far removed from the screaming teenagers whose hearts the unpleasant teenage star so regularly breaks.  At £2000 for a mixed case, it is not as if anyone is buying this wine with their pocket money.  These are consumers with high incomes and disposable cash.  While that certainly doesn’t mean they deserve to be ripped off, they are certainly savvy enough to know what they are doing and won’t take the decision lightly to buy an unknown wine with a bizarrely high price tag.  I suppose this is why Bordeaux is so popular and Stéphane Serre’s wines are, as yet, so remarkably unpopular.

The danger of believing your own (unproven) hype in the wine industry is that it is not just Jancis Robinson that will see through you.  Consumers are not there to fund your science project – you need their loyalty too.  You need them to buy a second case and a third, otherwise your wines will be no more than a passing novelty.  You are not an artist or a fashion designer or a pop star, you are a winemaker.  You need a good review or an award or two, and a few decent scores, THEN you can start hiking the price up, if you must.

Artisan winemakers.  You are not Mick Jagger.  You are not even Justin Bieber.  But your audience is a lot more savvy than Bieber’s, so don’t insult their intelligence, they won’t stand for it.  But like Bieber, you have an awful lot to learn.  Bravo, Jancis.



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Posted 20th March 2014 by Steph in category "Wine Blog