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Monday Manifestos
Why is Fine Wine So Expensive?

By Stephen Eliot

There are those who believe that no wine is worth or should cost more than $10.00 a bottle, and, while I understand their frustration when looking at where wine prices have gone in recent years, I am afraid I must disagree. Fine wine is the result of many things that cost money, not the least of which is quality vineyards, attentive viticulture and skilled winemaking talent.

I do not know what a reasonable price would be for any particular wine, and I do not think there is some equitable formula, some cost-against-profit calculus for pricing that should be imposed by trust-busting champions of consumer protection. Do I think that a good many wines are far too expensive? Yes, I do, but so are San Francisco apartments and fine automobiles and the fare of my favorite restaurants and…well, you get the idea. What sets the price for any of these, fine wine included, is ultimately the consumer.

A regularly asked question during my years of teaching at the California Culinary Academy was “why does any wine cost what it does?”, and my pat answer then was simply that the price of any wine was determined solely by what someone was willing to pay for it. It still is.

The bottom line is that there apparently are enough people willing to pay the price of admission. There is not some secret conspiracy on the part of greedy winemakers or the market manipulation of their corporate masters that has caused wine prices to rise. It is the free market speaking in a very clear voice, and, while I admit to being outside the circle of those who can afford an $100 bottle more than once in a blue moon, I still do not hold any grudges against those producers who are able to command the prices they do.

The market for fine wines is nothing like it was a generation back, and, while it seems to be changing with increasing speed today, the fact that wineries and wines will rise and fall at the will and whim of the consumer is fundamental and final. The world has become both a smaller and much bigger place, and there are far more people for whom wine has become a part of daily life. If only a tiny percentage of the new wine-drinking population has the desire and means to indulge in the pricey stuff, that still means a big consumer base.

Good wine, really good wine has always been expensive, and the more people there are who chase the best, the more expensive the best will become. A good many old friends from great estates are for me now no more than a memory, but the simple fact that they are no longer affordable in no way diminishes my respect for them nor incites in me sour-grapes disavowal. There are more than enough very good, price-worthy wines to keep me happy and smiling.

I sometime wonder if the latter-day recreational lambasting of critics is, perhaps, driven in part by the fact that so many of the wines that win critical laurels are found on the loftier end of the price spectrum. I would argue that the increasing cost of finding a good bottle makes reliable, professional wine criticism more useful rather the less. Yes, I understand that the statement is self-serving, but I mean how many individuals can spend several thousand dollars to work their ways through a few dozen high-ticket bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, for example, before finding those that satisfy? I tip my hat to those who can and do my daily best to provide useful guidelines and recommendations for those who cannot.

I very much believe in trusting your palate and not being hopelessly bound and beholden to another’s taste, but your palate is useless until the wine been purchased and poured. It is the business and responsibility of any critical discipline to at least preliminarily winnow the wheat from the chaff and to act as a guide in warning where the road is rocky and pointing out where it is smoothest... especially in an era of very high tolls.


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