Value

The subject of value wines came up recently on a wine Web forum.

In both my career in the wine business and in my at-home wine consumption I’ve probably spent more time seeking what I consider value wines than I’ve spent seeking whatever it is we call the other wines: excess, premium, top-notch, status, I don’t know.

I suppose when wine is a hobby the named wines of the world, the status products, the ones that a hobbyist “must have” are important. But hobbies like that can be quite expensive. Even those of us in the wine business have to think twice about the cost of wine, especially wine priced first in euros and then converted to dollars.

My wife says that she’ll know when I’m about to die; it will be two seconds after I refuse a glass of wine and a meal. Being that intent on consuming wine means that wine is not my hobby, which accounts for the relative paucity of the “great named” wines that have gone down my gullet when compared to the volume of daily quaffers, value wines, and general nice stuff that I’ve consumed—with dinner.

Years ago, learning wine meant reading about it—not about its ratings, but about wine, from writers who took us on a journey of exploration rather than on a ride through their palates. What some of us learned is that, like most anything else, there’s a hierarchy to wine. That lesson never meant to me that something on one end of the spectrum is worth more than something on the other end of the spectrum, not unless I’ve tasted it and it touched me. It meant that some wines are regarded one way and other wines are regarded another way—end of story.

As I began to learn the nature of the establishment and maintenance of the wine hierarchy  I began to have questions about it, but I digress.

The first time I tasted a top hierarchy wine, Chateau Petrus, the wine touched me. It seemed worth what people paid for it—other people, of course, as I couldn’t afford it.

Likewise, the first time I tasted a lesser Bordeaux, a 1982 Chateau Coufran, it touched me, too. It was a wine that I could afford more regularly, and that about the wine touched me all the more; It was a value wine, since it expressed 1982 well and it did so without me having to take out a mortgage to try it. But that Coufran may not be a value wine to others today, because it costs well over the $14 or so that I paid for it two decades ago.

I just finished taking a look at a book called The Wine Trials, by Robin Goldstein. He’s the fellow who recently made a splash concerning wine list awards that Wine Spectator gives out.

Despite its title, The Wine Trials is not about people caught perpetrating frauds. The book is about experiments that Goldstein, et al, performed which he claims prove that high-priced wines are rated and prized not because of their quality but because of their status.

I won’t go into the evidence Goldstein presents to prove his case, I’ll just say that it isn’t a revelation to me—I’ve witnessed the phenomenon many times, but I’ve finally learned to shut up about it when it happens in my presence.

Most wine hobbyists don’t know what a blind tasting is—many don’t accept its value—but that is the only way for Goldstein to have proven his point, and that is why I value the results.

Still, people generally aren’t interested in being told that critics successfully manipulate them, never mind that their own brains are likely manipulating them, so even after doing the research, Goldstein’s findings will produce detractors, and many of them are likely to be wine hobbyists.

Non-hobbyists probably like the idea that lower priced wines can please people as much or more than the status giants. The idea has value, and it makes them value wines.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2008. All rights reserved.

7 Responses to “Value”

  1. Henrik says:

    Thomas, Thats whu money are better spent on Markedting than an enolog to improve quality…

    Henrik

  2. Thomas says:

    Henrik,

    That’s why money IS spent on marketing.

    Quality is a fleeting concept.

  3. Jay says:

    Thomas,

    What are some of the highlights of Goldstein’s “Wine Trials” ?
    Care to comment why few wine evaluations — possibly excluding decisions by retailers and others in the trade — seem to so seldomly gauge what they’d be willing to pay for a bottle before learning what its price is ? Couldn’t such practices partly counter the hype by critics and other inflationary agents ?

  4. Thomas says:

    Jay,

    Goldstein’s single premise, which he backs up with a series of tastings around the country and among consumers and wine professionals, is that his statistics plainly indicate that when tasted blind, the overwhelming majority wine preferences are in the so-called “value” class, or priced even lower.

    He further provides evidence that the overwhelming majority of wines that reap high ratings from major critics at magazines and newsletters are upper priced wines, which goes against the blind tasting findings.

    He digs a little into why this may be so, not the least of which is that the critics often don’t bother with evaluating lower priced wines, and they more often than not evaluate wines with far too much advance information about them.

    According to Goldstein, many critics and others in the trade evaluate wines already knowing the prices, rendering moot the idea that they would gauge what they would be willing to pay for a wine they had just tasted, and it is a main reason he feels that they provide a disservice to consumers.

  5. Jay says:

    Thomas,
    Your blog prompted me to pick the book up yesterday. My initial impression is mixed. I empathize with and applaud his somewhat populist approach (to a degree). He begins to skate on thinner ice when his arguments leave the distinction between “everyday wine drinkers” vs. “wine experts” as a distant memory. That critical distinction explains several things that seem easy to underappreciate. For instance (p 15): “At press time, Wine Spectator had rated 6475 wines from the 2000 to 2007 vintages that cost $10 or less. Of those, only three of them — four hundreths of one percent — scored above 90 on the magazine’s 100-point scale, and none scored above 91. … [Last sentence on p 15] How could our results diverge so dramatically from the magazine critics’ opinions ?” Remember that the “wine experts” showed a slight positive correlation between price and scoring, so it seems something reminiscent of a straw man argument? He also seems to favor certain brans himself, including Harvard and Yale. Overall, his countercharges against hype are useful. Cheers.

  6. Thomas says:

    Jay,
    I agree with some but have reservations on other Goldstein findings. This is the man who perpetrated that big restaurant wine award fraud on the Spectator, which exposed the magazine’s less than beautiful method of giving out the award. It may be that he has something against WS.
    Having said that, ratings and awards would stand on much firmer ground with me if they were all handed out from blind evaluations, with the price being revealed to the tasters after they’ve made evaluations concerning wines about which they know nothing other than wine is in the glass.
    Anything short of that system is surely to include a bias here and there, and even a small inconsequential bias taints the whole evaluation.
    In our Riesling taste off, the only thing anyone will know is that it is a Riesling taste off between similarly styled wines from two continents, and for me, that’s too much information.