Friday, July 31, 2009

Highly expensive wines: prestige, brand, name, history, quality, small production...still worth it or not? still as attractive? still selling?

Highly expensive wines: prestige, brand, name, history, quality, small production...still worth it or not? still as attractive? still selling?

As you may have realized by reading most posts on my wine blog, I like to write about lesser known appellations, unusual grape varieties and obscure wine regions. My job as a Wine Buyer and Sommelier, since I started roughly 17 years ago, has always been to find and buy (and share) these little wine gems scattered through out the whole world and to open the mind and more especially the palate of my customers.

Of course, a lot of amateurs, connoisseurs, collectors, Wine Buyers and Sommeliers only swear by the brands or labels and the most well-known producers and winemakers around, but as the grandson of a local winemaker myself, I've always preferred to support the smaller, more artisanal, winemakers. Don't me wrong, I also appreciate the established and expensive brands and labels too, for their quality, their prestige and their history, but I very often have little interest to buy them for the store due to limited sales and obviously can not really afford them for myself.

In most cases, I even find them way too overpriced and overrated. Moreover, for the past 3-4 years, they have become sleeping beauties with very slow turn-over, and although they are still selling from time to time, they do not trigger the same interest as they used to. People don't want to pay the high price for these wines no more, even despite their prestige and what they represent. And don't get me wrong (again), but even prestigious wine names have bad vintages.

I experienced it many times. Whether complementing a lunch or a dinner with family and friends or in a restaurant as a Sommelier or as a customer, at the property itself with the winemaker or during tastings, not all of these wines were great or unforgettable, some were really bad or didn't age well, and in most cases their quality didn't necessarily justify the asking price. Due to a degrading world economy, more overwhelming and omnipresent advertisings from cheaper and lesser quality brands and the ever increasing amount of wines available in the market, the era of highly expensive wines is, in my opinion, finished after nearly 70 years of reign.

It is quite unfortunate, because, in the last 17 years, I had the privilege to buy, open and taste (and share) many vintages (old and new) of thousands of these exclusive bottles from all around the world: during the "En Primeur" Bordeaux campaign nearly each year, but also in many wine trips all around France, Spain, Chile, Argentina, California (and a few more places else where), during tastings and wine dinners when I was a Sommelier (and Wine Buyer) in Bordeaux, Paris and London. Furthermore, since I arrived in New York, about seven years ago, I had the chance to taste many more of them, due to my position as a Wine Buyer for retail and wine boutique, which even brought me more occasions to taste these prestigious wines, less old vintages but nevertheless still from extraordinary names and regions.

As I said: "the era of highly expensive wines is, in my opinion, finished after nearly 70 years of reign." And here is my version of how they became established names and brands and how the end of their era did happen.

First, you have to remember that most of these well known names, brands and labels established their fame through out the last 30-40 years only, 60-70 years for the oldest. Before that, the few well known ones were the jewels of the table of rich and notorious personages. Luxury products estimated by the connoisseurs and the collectors and barely accessible for the general public.

Let me explain, (also read my previous post on the subject at or click on the following link: "Biodynamic, Organic, Sustainable Culture, Lutte Raisonnée, etc....").

Remember that although wine (and its variants) has always been a part of the culture and the history of man (and woman), since the Neolithic period (appearing somewhere between 8,500 and 4,000 B.C) up until about 500 years ago, wine (made from domesticated and tended Vitis Vinifera grape varieties as we know it now) was mainly and principally produced in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea from Lebanon to Morocco, then rapidly expanded and even better adapted to the western and northern Europe (then the rest of the world) where it is now one of the most lucrative agricultural products.

At this time, only a few hundreds wineries (at the most) constituted "la crème de la crème" of wine. We had to wait for monks then travelers and settlers, who brought the gapes and methods to the newly discovered continents and countries between the 15th and the 19th century, to see wineries mushrooming around the world and thus much more competition and choices in style (like North and South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and more recently Asia).

And as I said earlier in this post, up until the late 19th century, wine (especially for the more established names and labels) was still a luxury product reserved for the elite, the richest and the most fortunate. Even most producers of that time didn't enjoy much of it. The lands and the vineyards often belonged to aristocratic and "bourgeois" families, and the produced wines were sold mostly in bulk to rich négociants and other merchants to be bottled, marketed and sold. Even during this time, brands and labels were promoted by the vendors and established by the high society, not necessarily by the Châteaux or the estate owners, although they benefited of it.

The beginning of the 20th century marked a revolution and a renaissance for wine production and its consumption, especially after the devastating Phylloxera plague which destroyed roughly 3/4 of most European vineyards, the first World War and the different prohibition movements around the world between 1900 and 1935, which slowed down the market and the sales, and changed the public opinion towards alcohol production and consumption in general, including wine.

The 30's first few years were marked by the Great Depression that had a traumatic effect worldwide. Especially in Europe where, in response to this weak and desperate times, authoritarian regimes and "dictatures" emerged in several countries, in particular the Third Reich in Germany, but also in Italy and Spain. The subjugation of weaker states around the globe by their stronger expansionist neighbors, as well as the expansion of communism and the rise of extremist ideas and political parties ultimately led to the Second World War by the decade's end. The decade also saw a proliferation in new technologies, including intercontinental aviation, innovative inventions, faster vehicules and the birth of radio. It was the beginning of a new fast paced era that will never stop to accelerate to even go faster over the last 10 years, and who knows for the next years to come....

By the mid 30's, in France and a few other countries in Europe and despite the difficulty and the consequence of it, wine was being promoted as a healthy product (which it is, in moderation of course) to increase the sales and encourage people to buy and drink more, which was a bit difficult but needed during these modern dark ages with the subjacent and up-on-coming second World War.

See (and enjoy) this very convincing French advertisement from 1933-34, on the front page of the "Cartes Taride" France Routière Kilometrique Reference # 75, which contains one of Pasteur's most famous sentence:

"Wine is the most healthiest and hygienic drinks"

and few more funny French classic sentences and statistics of this period:

"Give the preference to restaurants that include wine in the price of the meal."
"Human Life Average: 59 years for a water drinker against 65 years for a wine drinker"
"87 % of the centenarian are wine drinkers."
"Wine is the milk of the elder."

What a great advertising, isn't it? I love it! I know, I know, some people will be offended... well, sorry, but I still love it. Let's get back to our subject of the day.

By 1940, except a few exceptions amongst the most recognized and established names and labels which succeed by getting even more attention, more than 80% of the wine production in the world consisted of low quality, chaptelized, often sour, bitter and tannic, even sometimes sweet or fortified wines.

Basically, the wine production suddenly and drastically increased after the second World War, in the 50's and more especially the 60's. The world population nearly double in 30 years after the 40's (also read my post on Biodynamic, Organic, Sustainable Culture, Lutte Raisonnée, etc...."). New techniques were applied and many more wineries mushroomed as well as new talented winemakers arisen. But due to over-planting and over-production, quality was still a bit of an issue for most producers everywhere, and only a small bunch of them came out of the lot as classics and benchmarks in their own appellations.

Nearly 20 years passed and the "Baby Boom" generation, born just after the 2nd World War and now in age to be drinking, was ready to take over the world in everyway possible and was more educated and attentive to their drinks, especially their wines, than the previous generations. New techniques, researches and studies brought more accurate knowledge and information about the soil, climate, microclimate, topography, geology, importance of drainage and exposure to the sun, leading to a new era of wine making and vineyard management. Bringing new ideas and new tastes to the wine world, as well as accelerating and increasing the wine production due to constent, increasing demand.

During the late 60's and begining of the 70's, when bottling at the estate began to be a less expensive and more common practice for Chateaux owners and other producers, and especially since the label saying "bottled at the Chateau" or "bottled at the property" was firmly established as a sign of quality and provenance of the grapes and the wine itself, the fame of some of the most established brands of today's market became even greater and quality somewhat risen.

By the mid 80's and beginning of the 90's, with the rise of the rapidly-growing-in-popularity-and-influential wine critics, like Robert Parker Jr., in order to consolidate and maintain their heights compared to others and satisfy the ever increasing demand, established names with prestige, history and quality had to produce and promote more. Evolving as quickly as the marketing methods to keep their undeniable advanced on the new talents and somewhat more innovative and better marketed new comers from all around the world.

Also in the 80's and 90's, after further studies and researches, producers and winemakers attached a bit more importance to the different types of soil and micro-climate, and Terroir in general, and began to uproot old inefficient parcels to replant better adapted grape varieties in accordance with the different types of soil, consequently increasing quality and producing greater and healthier wines.

But there is no secret, if these wineries were and remain some of the best in their own appellation, it is due to the fact that they have better Terroir (soils, microclimates, sun exposure, etc...), location, history, "Savoir-Faire" and surely more finance than their neighbors and competitors to produce higher quality wines, i.e.: Châteaux Margaux will probably always be the best Margaux; Domaine de La Romanée Conti will surely always be one the best Burgundy; and so on....

Therefore, gradually from the late 80's to roughly 2006, partly due to their quality, history and prestige, and partially due to the ever increasing demand and interest from emerging wine interested countries (like Russia, China, Japan, Corea, Brazil, some of the United Arab Emirates, etc...) but, in my opinion, mostly by greed, prices attained never-reached-before-ceilings. Skyrocketing even further more to outrageously expensive prices between 2000 and 2006, with vintages like 2000, 2003 and 2005.

For example a 2000 vintage Bordeaux 1st growth like Château Margaux or Château Latour was sold at an astonishing $125-150 a bottle en Primeur in 2001 (and much more when it arrived in the market in 2002), against $550-575 for a 2005 vintage of the same 1st growth Château (and way much more when it arrived in the market in 2007), which is roughly a increase of 500% in 5 years and Bordeaux wasn't the only region to unjustifiably increase their prices. Many other regions readjusted their prices to higher grounds to match, compete and reach the same level of popularity, some without any apparent reasons and some for sudden increase in popularity but not necessarily in quality.

I know that we have to take in consideration the cost of living that has increased tremendously in just a few years since 2000 and also the European change of currency to the Euro since 2001, which didn't help either, etc... but common! Isn't it greed or what? I think that Bordeaux really shot itself in the leg, killing both their fame and their sales since the 2000 vintage which was the first vintage of series of a few more vintages that attained never reached before ceiling. In fact, many other regions followed that trend between 2000 and roughly 2006, like Burgundy, Châteauneuf du Pape, California, some regions of Australia, Piedmont, Tuscany, Priorat, Ribera del Duero, etc...

However, and in my opinion, since roughly 2006, I 've seen a shift in the market and the interest of the customers going from highly expensive brands, labels and names to more interesting wines made from unusual grape varieties crafted in lesser known and somewhat obscure regions at less expensive thus more attractive prices and delivering as much or sometime even more complexity and layers of aromas, flavors, texture, structure, balance and depth, than much more expensive wines .

Moreover, for the past nearly two years, people have been restricting their weekly wine budget in New York and everywhere else (or monthly or yearly as you prefer, you got the picture). They do not want to spend their money the same way, compromising and making wiser choices. In my opinion, this crisis started 3 or 4 years ago and has gradually infested everyone of us. Customers that used to spend $75-$100 and more a bottle, are now spending between $30-$50 (at the max); those that used to spend $40-$75, now only buy between $20-$35; the ones between $18-$25 are now between $12-$20 (at the max)...and all the $15 and under, are now trying to spend less than $10.

In fact, since September 11th 2001, after the destruction of the World Trade Center (which is by the way not rebuilt yet, 8 years comment...), then the gradual collapse of Wall street, the real estate market, the banks, the insurance companies, and the consequently degrading world economy, lack of opportunities and jobs, and the ever increasing number of unemployed people, customers and consumers have been more and more careful about how they spend their money.

Whether on the wine list of a reputed restaurant down town or on the shelves of their favorite local wine boutique, patrons have been hesitating on buying and ordering the most exclusive wines, leaving aside the highly priced names, labels and brands that have been the proud leaders of their own appellation for decades to choose lesser known yet as interesting and enjoyable wines for a price more appropriate to their wallet. Not by lack of faith or taste, but because they don't want to spend the kind of money these wines demand.

Moreover, people are more and more educated about provenance, quality, taste and especially pricing due to a blooming and very lucrative wine education market with multiple classes and tastings, and an explosion of wine magazines, wine websites and wine blogs (like mine) on the internet. People know how to diversify the source of their information, and nowadays, more than ever, form their own opinion rather than listening blindly to the critics. The reign of the names, labels and brands is slowly fading away, especially due to their prices, to leave its place to a new era of wine discoveries for a younger public in quest of better quality wines for lesser prices.

That is why I'm asking openly these questions to whoever wants to answer them: "Highly expensive wines: prestige, brand, name, history, quality, small production...still worth it or not? still as attractive? still selling?"

Still worth it? Probably for some of the rare and immensely rich amateurs and collectors who can afford it but surely not for the rest of us (most of us should I say) that will never be able to afford it or never be willing to pay these outrageous prices.

Still as attractive? Well, not really either, because I find fantastic values nearly every week, which I found much more attractive and often delivering as much or sometime even more complexity and layers of aromas, flavors, texture, structure, balance and depth, than much more expensive wines.

Still selling? Unfortunately not anymore and definitely not as much as they used to just only 3-4 years ago. For the past 5-10 years, these names, labels and brands have become more acquainted with cargo plane, shipping boat and truck to go from one place to another, like auction company to collectors to auctioneers again to private cellars to retail or special distributors, through out the world, but they rarely get opened. It is a shame, somehow, that these prestigious bottles have lost, over the years, the respect of such loyal consumers because of greed and unbelievable prices. No offense but it is true!

Some of you may not understand what I mean by names, labels and brands, so here is a list of some of these wines that I bought, tasted, drunk, shared and enjoyed over the past 20 years as a wine amateur and 17 years as a Wine Buyer and Sommelier. It is also for you to better understand that I do have nothing against these wines that I had an immense pleasure to open and drink, however they are now back to their old place as luxury products only available and accessible to very few of us. I hope that you will comprehend my way of thinking behind this long post and take no offense of it, especially the owners and winemakers of the following wines.

From a region dear to my heart, Bordeaux:

Chateau Petrus, Chateau Lepin, Chateau Ausone, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau d'Yquem, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, (to be continued soon with more brands)

Despite Bordeaux, where I come from, I also tasted many other distinguished wines from many other regions and countries, from producers like:

Dagueneau, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Vega Sicilia, Billecart-Slamon, Krug, Moet & Chandon "Dom Perignon", Louis Roederer "Cristal", Taittinger "Comtes de Champagne", Pol Roger "Cuvee Winston Churchill", Conterno Barolo, Trimbach, Raveneau, Dauvissat, Morey, (to be continued soon with more brands)


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