WRO readers who have seen Michael Apstein's column from last week on wine pricing will have noticed that he deliberately yanked on my chain in an attempt to provoke a response. Well, it worked. I had promised that this month's column would be a profile of Rieslings now coming out of Oregon, but I'll need to put that off for a month, since I can't resist the pleasure of a genuine dispute with an intelligent friend.
If you haven't ready his column, I'd advise that you check it out before returning to this article...
...since I'll only briefly repeat his basic points--for fear of giving yet more coverage to his partially misguided case.
When I write that his case is "partially misguided," I don't mean that Apstein is simply wrong. Indeed, most of what he writes is, technically, indisputable, and undisputed by anyone. It is clear that markets should be permitted to determine wine prices, and I have not heard anyone propose anything to the contrary in recent times. My friend Michael likes to kid me about not being a "real doctor" since he's an MD and I'm a mere Ph.D., but perhaps the political scientist should alert the physician that Soviet-style price controls are somewhat out of vogue.
Likewise, it is perfectly clear that producers and importers are entirely within their rights to price their wines as they wish. If they aim too high with their pricing in an effort to enter the market at a certain level, the market can impose an appropriate punishment in the form of sluggish sales, which might result if marketing efforts fail to support the wine adequately, or if the wine doesn't justify the price.
The question is, how are consumers supposed to know if a wine fails to justify its price--without getting burned first? Perhaps Apstein ascribes to the view of other free-market defenders that caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") is an adequate answer to this question. Under this view, if enough buyers get burned by a wine that doesn't warrant its price tag, they'll stop buying it (and perhaps bad-mouth it to others), sending a corrective message back to the producer via market mechanisms.
But here are a few questions to you, the reader: How do you feel about this view? Are you willing to get burned when you buy wine so that you can be part of the corrective mechanism of the free enterprise system? Or would you prefer to be warned in advance by a wine critic if a wine's price is conspicuously high relative to its cost of production? Isn't this one of the most important roles that a critic can fulfill on your behalf, right up there with describing the sensory experience you are likely to have when tasting the wine?
My disagreement with Apstein is really not about economic theory but rather about the responsibilities of wine critics. Indeed, I don't even disagree with the caveat emptor point raised above: Buyers should certainly beware of the perils of wine buying and the possibility of getting burned by overpriced bottlings. But what does that mean in practical terms for an average consumer who tastes, say, 150 wines each year? Wouldn't the rational course for a wary but relatively inexperienced consumer be to consult the views of those who taste 8 or 9 thousand wines each year, as Apstein and I do, and who know a thing or two about the costs involved in making particular wines, as well as the price of comparable bottlings?
If you agree that consulting one of us would be a more rational course than just taking your chances, I'd note that you'd better be careful about which one of us you consult. Apstein will apparently limit himself to just describing and scoring the wine for you, whereas I will try to consider the wine's quality in the context of its price, and will consider its price in the context of its likely cost of production. Which is to say, I'll consider the value it offers.
In fairness, Michael does that too at the lower end of the price scale, and he's happy to point to a bargain when he sees one. But he is apparently unwilling to explicitly question a conspicuously high price, whereas I'll tell you that a first-release Cabernet from Sonoma County costing $100 is good but has been "vanity priced" to keep up with the Joneses.
Moreover, I'll tell you to go ahead and buy that bottle of 2005 Pétrus mentioned by Apstein for $7,500, but only if you are a rock star or a drug dealer with inexhaustible funds. I'll also tell you that--if you are a mere mortal in financial terms--you'd be an idiot to buy that Pétrus if value means anything to you. When you buy 2005 Pétrus, 90% of what you are getting for your money is cachet and opportunity for ostentatious display. If you want a killer Pomerol and want 90% of what you pay to go toward wine rather than cachet, then don't get that Pétrus from Zachy's. Get 2005 Le Gay from them instead with your money--50 bottles of it.
Apstein might seem to have an answer for this point when he writes, "My argument to Michael Franz is that the motivation of many consumers for buying a specific wine is entirely unrelated to what's in the bottle. Hence, its production cost is irrelevant." He is half right about this. Some consumers do indeed buy wine for reasons unrelated to what's in the bottle. But production cost is not therefore irrelevant per se; it is only irrelevant to image buyers, and image buyers are not the constituency served by wine critics.
To quote Apstein at greater length, "People buy wine for a variety of reasons, not just for its inherent quality….Some collectors might buy wine because they, well, are collectors. Speculators buy in hopes of reselling at a profit. Others are image buyers. They buy a bottle, not for the wine, but rather the label, the rarity factor, or the impression it will make on their friends or associates."
I'm well aware that lots of people buy bottles because of the label rather than the wine. But I do not write for those people. This isn't to say that I sneer at them or disrespect their priorities. Rather, it is to say that if they want wines with really great looking labels, they shouldn't consult me but rather my sister Jean, who is an excellent graphic designer.
Similarly, my efforts as a critic are really not geared toward collectors, or at least not toward collectors of a common sort. A consumer simply does not need me if he is a collector bent on buying Mondavi Reserve Cabernet--no matter what it tastes like from the 2004 vintage--because he insists on keeping a "vertical" collection of every vintage going. However sharp my tasting skills might be, or whatever value my experience with the current world wine scene might hold, they are simply irrelevant to the purposes of this sort of consumer.
The consumer whom I do write for, and who might conceivably benefit from my tastings and travels, is one who holds an open and intense interest in wine, but whose funds are limited--at whatever ceiling. Those who are sufficiently fortunate to be unconcerned about value as a criterion for buying wine will do just fine without me. By contrast, those for whom spending $15 on a bottle is a big deal are the consumers I'm most eager to advise, though I'm equally intent on advising those who are bracing for the shock of buying their first $75 bottle and want to be sure they don't get fleeced.
How can I possibly do my job for these hypothetical consumers without employing what I know about production costs? If I taste a good rendition of Torrontes from the province of Salta in northern Argentina that carries a retail price of $15 in the USA, I need to consider the costs involved before I can responsibly persuade or dissuade a potential buyer. I need to consider the (relatively low) costs of land and labor in Salta, as well as the (typically high) vine yields for the Torrontes grape. I need to remember that the wine didn't require expensive French oak barrels to make, and that the dollar is much stronger against the Argentine peso than it is against the euro.
When I give it a score of 86 points, I need to forget all of these factors, because readers need consistent scores from me based solely on the quality of the wine. But when describing it, I wouldn't believe I was doing my job fully if I didn't note that the wine is conspicuously expensive. I know what costs went into making it and getting it to the USA, and I know that a comparable Salta wine like Alamos Torrontes is made by Catena and imported by Billington to sell for $10 here. And as a consequence, I figure I'd better tell you that the $15 wine is good but overpriced before you become the dissatisfied buyer who serves as Apstein's corrective market force.
Want to weigh in on this dispute? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org