Enough With The Rich, Already

August 5, 2014

By: Matt Kramer

drinking out loud column

We all know why expensive things get attention: They make us dream. We’re bombarded every day with stories about expensive homes, expensive artworks, fancy cars and, of course, high-end (or wannabe, anyway) wines.

Now, there’s no sense in decrying either the stuff or the reportage about it. Big money makes good copy. And let’s be honest, a lot of things that cost more often are better.

Is it true for wine? Yes and no. I’ve gone down this road before and have no interest in reviewing old scenery. Suffice it to say that the high price of many wines is often more a function of fashion and recognition than of intrinsic quality. Supply and demand then do the rest of the heavy (price) lifting.

Yet the very real truth is that so many of today’s modestly priced wines are far better than their price tags suggest. You can credit a worldwide application of improved winery technology, better-educated winemakers, a global recalibration of ambition and, not least, a far more sophisticated consumer audience.

But do we hear about these fine but modestly priced wines as often as I, anyway, think we should? We do not. Wine Spectator, for its part, goes to considerable lengths to highlight wines of exceptional value. So it’s not as if attention isn’t being paid.

But there are structural reasons why “local heroes” get less recognition than you or I might think they deserve. A variety of causes are at work: small supply; limited distribution; a producer’s disinterest in, or lack of, marketing savvy; an unfashionable winemaking style or unrecognized grape variety; and, yes, an asking price that just doesn’t demand attention.

Make no mistake: Pricing plays a big role. Increasingly, we live in a world that, consciously or not, wonders how good something can be if it isn’t high-priced. With the possible exception of contemporary art, this is perhaps nowhere more true than with wine.

After all, few wine drinkers are secure in their sense of truly knowing if what they’re drinking is genuinely good. Most wine drinkers either like a wine or they don’t. And if it’s expensive, then they’re either inclined to like it (Psychology 101) or assume that if it didn’t appeal to them, it was somehow their fault for not appreciating it (see “contemporary art,” above).

Allow me, then, to make a few suggestions. There’s a huge world of wine that’s practically begging for attention. And what’s interesting—and this runs counter to what we all imagine as “self-interest”—is that a surprising number of wineshops are actually trying to sell you wines that don’t cost a fortune.

On the face of it this makes no sense. After all, the money is in high margins. Low-priced wines don’t offer such margins, ergo, wineshops only want to sell you expensive wines. But it ain’t so. That’s the amazing thing. Just about every good wineshop I know takes an inordinate, even stubborn, pride in digging for deals. That’s typically why they went into wine retailing in the first place.

After all, there’s no sport in selling high-demand, high-priced wines. Sure, they stock those wines and they’re happy to sell them to you because it’s good (and easy) business. But the sport lies elsewhere—and takes a disproportionate amount of their time and attention, too.

So if you want to know whether you’re dealing with a really good wineshop just look to see if they’re trying to persuade you to spend less. See if they’re trying to coax you into buying this bottle of Lambrusco or Muscadet or Loire red or Greek white or Mendocino County/Santa Cruz Mountain/Sierra Foothills wine. See if they’re offering some high-quality, small-production Oregon wine selling for less than the fancy-dancers (try Westrey or J. Christopher or Cowhorn, to name but three such star attractions).

Look to see if they’re promoting the often amazing deals from France’s Languedoc region, which is awash in overlooked, undercelebrated reds and whites. Southern Italy anyone? The mind (and palate) boggles at the deals pouring out of Campania, Basilicata and Sicily at the moment.

All of these wines, and many more, are not center stage. Their prices are—you guessed it—too low. The producers know it. Retailers know it. And you know it. But that doesn’t diminish their worth as fine wines and, not least, our pleasure in finding and drinking them. The rest is just … publicity.

– Matt Kramer