In the second of his 'August essays' series, Andrew Jefford considers the 'contamination of wine' by money.
The biggest wine contaminant (far worse than sulphur) is money. I don’t know how to put it any other way. The contamination is growing worse all the time. The better the wine, tragically, the more money it contains. Fine wines are now brimful of money.
Yes, they contain a lot of hard work — and luck. Yes, the quest for excellence they imply is sincere, sometimes even altruistic. Yes, they contain a very beautiful alcoholic beverage of unique sensorial profile.
More prominently than that, though, fine wines are stuffed with fifty-pound notes, fifty-euro notes and fifty-dollar bills. It’s the money that makes ‘top wine’ an object of popular fascination. A swelling percentage of those buying them do so principally in order to grow money, without any intention of drinking them, as an investment prospect. And a substantial minority of those who do finally pull the corks chiefly enjoy the taste of money inside them. Thanks to the social-media revolution, their peers can now instantly watch them sip money in this deliciously coded manner: a uniquely stylish opportunity to enhance status.
Wine critics and wine writers make matters worse. In two ways: first of all by lavishing their most fervent praise and extravagant point scores on the world’s most expensive wines, and secondly by writing about wine as if its price was an incidental or trivial attribute, rather than a matter of life, death and everyday survival.
I am guilty of this myself, and wholly complicit. Of course: professional ethics pushes me to focus on the work of the wine grower, the attributes of the soil or the hillside, the constitution of the vintage, the intricacies of scent and flavour. These are the lovely and noble truths we are duty-bound to pursue; this is the information we are bidden by readers and employers to supply. It would be presumptuous and patronising to speculate about the wealth or otherwise of readers; while discriminating against expensive wine simply because it was expensive would be the grossest philistinism.
There are, though, limits to innocence. The weekly median income in the USA, the world’s richest large nation, was $865 weekly for full-time workers in 2017. When you’ve paid for housing, transportation, childcare, food and clothing, health insurance and the essential incidentals that each week throws up, there isn’t going to be much left over for wine at $250, $100 or even $50 a bottle. Those living elsewhere have less disposable income still. Tax regimes in newer consuming cultures (like India or Brazil) are especially prohibitive, intensifying the economic gulf between ‘normal’ drinkers and the price of fine wine.
Wine writers (a wealthy minority aside) know all of this from personal experience. They are modestly remunerated specialist journalists, and therefore have long ceased to enjoy (supposing they ever did) the familiar use of the most interesting and complex wines they find themselves writing about. They may briefly encounter great wines at a tasting, but they don’t own them, drink them, or develop a relationship of understanding with them in the way that wealthy wine-lovers are able to do. This makes those writers, at best, outside observers of a world to which they will never belong (there’s honour, if little insight, in that). At worst, they become a set of adjective-juggling courtiers, fools and jesters, there to lubricate the relationship between wine-making kings and queens and their luxuriously wealthy global public.
Yes, I know that the average price of a bottle of wine was $8.98 in the USA in 2015 and £5.56 in 2017 in the UK – not the cheapest form of alcohol available, thus rarely the choice of street drinkers, but hardly prohibitive either. Such wines, though, tend to come from colossal industrial wineries or valiant co-operatives struggling to keep their enterprise going in the teeth of social changes and rural decline. Politically interesting, perhaps, but not the source of great copy; there isn’t much mileage in Corbynist wine writing. You’ll get better material, and more wine insight, after an hour with Christian Moueix or Angelo Gaja.
There is also, of course, a vast market of fairly priced wines crafted to the highest ambitions their sales potential allows: the £20 or $25 bottles which middle-class readers, at least, can afford to buy once in a while, and about which wine-writers wax in unapologetic enthusiasm.
Even here, though, money is a contaminant. Once such wines are ‘discovered’ and win market acclaim (like François Cotat’s Sancerre, for example), they set off briskly for £50/$65, making them an expensive treat and putting them beyond familiar use. I don’t begrudge the extraordinarily modest M.Cotat the difference – but I also suspect he doesn’t see much of it; it’s those in the middle who swallow most.
An alternative scenario is that producers channel great efforts and resources into making outstanding wine – but do so in an area about which the wine trade holds unshakeable prejudices, or where (since terroir itself is elitist) there are no distinguished sites. Those efforts go unrewarded, and in the end come to nothing; their energy becomes entropy. Winners take all in the wine world.
To those who say ‘it was always like this’: it wasn’t. My first serious wine purchase was Pichon Lalande 1982, delivered in 1984 at a final price of £9 a bottle, the equivalent of £30.19 in 2017 prices. I bought Angélus `89 in May 1995 for £26.16 delivered (£47.79 in 2017 prices) and Chave’s Hermitage Blanc 1990 in the same year at £24.24 (£44.29). The 2015 vintages of those wines are priced at £120, £290 and £190 respectively per bottle. What was always a special purchase has now become an inconceivable purchase; these great wines are now lodged in the stratosphere. The contamination is clear.
Is this all that matters about wine? Of course not. Wine is an emotional way to apprehend the beauty of the earth, and a source of great solace on a daily basis: that’s what matters most to thoughtful drinkers. Under the right circumstances, you can find that in a £10 bottle.
Those who care for wine’s broader culture, though – a dappled landscape of intricacy, depth and subtlety – have to concede that great tracts of it are now being burned off by money, and rendered forever inaccessible save for those for whom money is a wine’s primary marker.
As I’ve pointed out previously, the contamination of fine wine by money has another lamentable consequence. Money means that fine wines are tasted ritually, reverentially and unspontaneously, as an act of worship: the wine has become (as it is indeed sometimes described) ‘unreal’. These are no longer open encounters in good faith; their capacity for surprise, for insight and for education have been subverted or curtailed. In this sense, the contamination of wine by money is even impoverishing the understanding and appreciation of the world’s finest wines.
There is no solution. This should be a concern for all.
Read Andrew’s first ‘August essay’: