We’ve devoted several radio spots to the question of how wine is priced and whether it’s always possible for even experts to accurately guess a wine’s price by taste alone. Recently Chris and I discussed a similar question, one that I know troubles many wine consumers: What factors contribute to making one wine more expensive than another?
I know this is a vexing question because I hear it asked in all sorts of ways when I’m talking one-on-one with guests in the Formaggio Kitchen wine department. I might offer two or three options that I think fit the profile the guest has described, each at a different price. What typically follows is an explanation on my part of the qualities that attend the more expensive wine and that are lacking in the cheaper one. Occasionally the shopper decides that it’s worth spending a bit more to get a bit more; at other times it’s the lower-priced wine that seems like the better value and gets the nod.
For some consumers, the proof is, as they say, in the pudding. What I mean by this is that they will be content to spend more if they sense that they’re getting something appreciably more for their money; namely, more density, weight, ripeness, presence on the palate—what I like to call drama.
One might liken this to the experience of a person in an auto showroom who is being upsold from an economy car to a midrange one. Often these pricier models are built on the same chassis and with the same quality of engineering as lesser models, but with stylistic or cosmetic differences that are distinguishing enough to give the impression of additional money well spent. You might even argue that automakers are forced into this sort of behavior since few but the geekiest of car buyers are likely to spend another $10,000 or $20,000 for engineering upgrades that are essentially invisible. Not much drama in that!
Unfortunately, many wines are built the way midmarket cars are: with just enough added cosmetics and stylistic elements to distinguish them from those one or two steps lower on the scale. And there are lots of cheap ways of adding drama to wines of this kind, including taking steps to darken and thicken the wine with commercial additives, smoothing the texture with techniques that mimic the effects of long maturation, and enriching with oak staves, oak chips, or even sawdust “teabags.”
One might liken this to the experience of a person in an auto showroom who is upsold from an economy car to a midrange one.
The worst of these excesses may be confined to the most commercial kind of wine made on an industrial scale, but the idea of convincing the consumer that he or she is getting something of substantially better quality by providing drama through dubious means is discouragingly pervasive.
So, if wine quality isn’t determined by superficial dramatic flourishes of the kind I‘ve described, what kind of wine is worth paying more for? It’s not the easiest question to answer, but it helps to understand that there are really only a handful of factors that can be relied on to translate into quality in wine. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that each of them means extra expense for the winemaker. For the sake of brevity, let’s look at just four.
1. Vineyard character. Wine grapes don’t grow everywhere, and even where they thrive it’s a fact of life that some plots of ground can be relied upon to produce more wine-worthy grapes than others. This means there’s plenty of competition for the best sites. In prestige appellations the cost of proven vineyard acreage can be very high indeed. The need to achieve a return commensurate with its value legitimately raises the price of wine.
2. Competition for fruit. In many places there is a tradition of making wine with purchased grapes, and the variation in prices winemakers are willing to pay for a ton of grapes is a stark reminder of how differently fruit from different sources is valued. For example, E & J Gallo source most of their grapes from California’s Central Valley, where they may pay growers on the order of $350 per ton. Meanwhile, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from good sites sells for an average of around $5,000 per ton, with top sites fetching more than $20,000 per ton. That’s a huge difference in cost for base material that’s directly reflected in the price of the resulting wine.
3. Low yields. You might think that the best way to make money from an acre of vineyard would be to get as much fruit from it as possible. But this doesn’t work with wine grapes since quantity and quality are inversely related. For many growers the first step in raising the quality of their grapes (and the prices they receive for them) is to reduce the weight of fruit each vine is asked to ripen. For this reason, appellation rules typically put an upper limit on the amount of juice that can be extracted from each acre (in Europe, hectare) of vineyard. Generally, the more prestigious the designation, the lower the permitted yield. But the rules impose no lower limits, and conscientious vintners often operate at the lowest yields consistent with making a reasonable profit.
4. An artisanal approach. Commercial-scale wine-making is capital-intensive, risk-averse, and fiercely competitive. It is sharply focused on doing things as quickly and cheaply as possible. As an essentially industrial process, it is dependent on other industrial processes to be productive; thus, it prefers machine labor to human labor and looks to chemical additives as a means of maintaining soil productivity. To succeed, it must raise itself to a certain scale; to achieve scale it must aim at a mass market.
Compare artisanal wine-making to this sketch and you will find it at odds with it in every respect. Dedication to satisfying a relatively small number of consumers with products issuing from a facility operating more as a workshop than a factory and that are made with real care and reflect the personality of their maker means that economies of scale achievable by other means are almost never within their reach, and this is reflected in the prices of their products.
In the end, we may never know why a particular estate sets the price it does for a given wine. But it’s good to understand that every step taken by a grape grower or winemaker that is the result of a legitimate effort to build quality—and not just drama—into his or her wine will add to his or her costs and ultimately to the price you pay.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at email@example.com