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The Price Is Right?
By Robert Whitley
May 19, 2009
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I know I flashed a brief smile as I hoisted the bottle of Georges de Latour Private Reserve, the flagship wine from Beaulieu Vineyards. The price had caught my eye. Only a few vintages back this Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon fetched better than $100 a bottle. Now? A smidge above $50. Markets do work, I thought. And I bought a bottle.

That got me to thinking about the high price of collectible wines, particularly from Bordeaux, but also Burgundy and the Napa Valley. I remembered foraging through the wine shops of Saint-Emilion last fall only to leave disappointed and empty handed because the wines I fancied were all beyond my financial means.

The onerous exchange rate aside, I fairly choked at the thought of paying $900 for one bottle of freshly minted Cheval Blanc. I can remember a time when I purchased Cheval Blanc by the case, back in the day. That was before the world lost its mind, at least the part of the world that covets rare wine.

So I was encouraged at the sight of BV's top Napa Valley Cabernet at a price even I could manage, though it wasn't exactly the bargain bin. I realized the price had more to do with the scandal a few years back, when an entire batch of tainted Georges de Latour was sold before the winery discovered it had a storage problem, than current economic conditions, but I was comforted nonetheless.

Call me an optimist, or a hopeless romantic, but I continue to believe price rollbacks loom in our future. There is too much evidence that the market has collapsed for high-priced wine to believe otherwise.

Consider Las Vegas, which has been in the news in recent days. The recession has all but crippled Las Vegas, and with it the many upscale restaurants that cater to the gambling crowd. Las Vegas has been a huge market for classified Bordeaux and scrupulously allocated Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Now that the river of cash has dried up, those allocations are going unclaimed and cases of previously unattainable wines are being offered around the country to markets that are still in the game for the glamour stuff. I know there is a sense of desperation in some corners of the Napa Valley as warehouses back up with unsold inventory.

Makes me want to party like it's 1982 all over again. I say that somewhat tongue in cheek. No one wants to see a business fail, and I certainly have nothing against the good folks at BV, Cheval Blanc, or anyone else who has the desire and the skill to make great wine.

I simply believe in the marketplace. Any business that makes a product that is meeting resistance from consumers over the issue of price has but two options: Sit on it or lower the price.

I suspect there will always be a market for that handful of wines that are so rare - La Tache, Penfolds Grange, Vega Sicilia, etc. - collectors will pony up regardless of economic conditions. But between Grange and Two Buck Chuck there is an ocean of wonderful, albeit overpriced, cellar-worthy wine.

I'm waiting.