Andrew Jefford September 2010 column: Paying the price

Andrew Jefford People & Places Articles
  • Monday 2 August 2010

As I write, London’s fine-wine traders are holding their breath. The Bordeaux 2009 campaign is about to explode. France’s Pentecostal bank holiday falls today; everyone knows that the big guns will begin booming tomorrow. All the scores are out, and they’ve provided Bordeaux proprietors with the equivalent of a book of blank, signed cheques. Ridiculous, obscene, outrageous: you could choose your adjective in advance. All are about to be justified by the prices whistled up by the top wines. Every last case, though, will sell; indeed, they’ll be fought over. In 20 years, the prices will seem cheap. Many of the wines, thus, will be bought purely as a financial speculation. It will be a sound one

As I write, London’s fine-wine traders are holding their breath. The Bordeaux 2009 campaign is about to explode. France’s Pentecostal bank holiday falls today; everyone knows that the big guns will begin booming tomorrow. All the scores are out, and they’ve provided Bordeaux proprietors with the equivalent of a book of blank, signed cheques. Ridiculous, obscene, outrageous: you could choose your adjective in advance. All are about to be justified by the prices whistled up by the top wines. Every last case, though, will sell; indeed, they’ll be fought over. In 20 years, the prices will seem cheap. Many of the wines, thus, will be bought purely as a financial speculation. It will be a sound one.

It’s brought to a head something that has bothered me about the wine world since I first began exploring it 35 years ago: you need money to play. Wine collectors are, by definition, wealthy. Outsiders coming into the wine world are very wealthy individuals (if they aren’t, they often fail). The fine-wine world is a rich boys’ and rich girls’ club.

Yes, I know that two months ago, I was extolling the virtues of Europe’s less-expensive wines; good cheap wines do exist, and you could live a perfectly satisfactory drinking life, appreciating both terroir and winemaking skill along the way, without ever spending more than £15 a bottle. But the fact remains that if you want to understand the grandeur of wine, and if you want to gauge the very highest and most intricate levels of beauty that wine is capable of offering, then you will have to buy bottles which cost £100 or more.

I love trying to trace lines of equivalence between wine appreciation and the enjoyment of the fine arts: literature, music, painting. Money, unfortunately, annihilates wine’s credentials in this respect. The appreciation of the fine arts is wholly democratic: the entry fee is minimal. I’ve picked up War and Peace recently; the paperback edition I’m reading cost £5.99. You can slip into The National Gallery in London and enjoy Vermeer’s A Young Woman standing at a Virginal or Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus in perfect personal quiet, for an hour or two, for free. A CD of Alfred Brendel playing all of Schubert’s Impromptus costs about £10; you can relish it 300 times if you like. But buying just one bottle of Château Latour, for a single drinking occasion, will cost vastly more than any of these experiences.

Fine wines are not creations of human genius, but skilfully crafted luxury goods. High cost, moreover, creates an entirely unreasonable aura around a wine. It gets in the way of true appreciation. You’re so programmed for reverence by price that drinking the wine either becomes a quasi-religious act from which all critical engagement has been excised – or you are doomed to disappointment, because nothing can really taste as good as a £500 price tag implies.

It shouldn’t be thus. To understand the nature and beauty of Latour in comparison with Mouton or Lafite (or La Tâche in comparison with Clos de Tart and Rousseau’s Chambertin) is something that those pursuing wine as both a sensual and intellectual pleasure akin to the enjoyment of great music might reasonably want to do. That would mean trying each wine repeatedly in a number of vintages, with full critical engagement but without the undue reverence instigated by price. Only the grossly wealthy will ever get a crack at that.

Another unfortunate side effect of the relentless elevation of fine-wine prices is that price itself becomes the primary reason for collecting, rather than taking that grand gallop across the alpine uplands of aroma and flavour. Many collectors don’t amass wine, but value; the culminating moment is not the pulling of corks, but the showy, record-breaking auction sale when they finally dump the lot and cash in. An alternative scenario (the Asian one, maybe) involves the pulling of corks and flaunting of the label – as the climax of a long social climb, and as an unrivalled way of trumpeting status. Fine wine as signifier of personal grandeur, in other words.

There’s no point moaning about this: it is just a fact of life. But it does go some way to explaining why the circle of wine enthusiasts will always be restricted. It’s a reason why those selling the finest wines must sometimes wonder if they have, in fact, fallen into financial services and wealth management by accident. It means that trying to organise comparative critical tastings of the finest wines will become harder to do, and it means that critical scrutiny of the best will become limited to a small clique. The world’s finest wines have never been finer than they are today – but their enjoyment is now plutocratic, not democratic.

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