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What Happens When Only The Very Rich Drink Great Wine?

By Charles Olken

For years now, as I have watched new wine enthusiasts make the switch from drinker to wine professional, I have wondered how these folks are going to educate themselves about the world’s great wines. That is no idle consideration. If a sommelier has no idea how good wine can be, then how does that person know how to put together a really good wine list? If the ordinary wine drinker begins to see his or her hobby take over all their spare time, how does that person progress in knowledge when there is no affordable great wine to sample.

Here is why this question is bugging me today. I taste thousands of wines a year. Most of them are decent, clean, acceptable offerings. And a few really set my taste buds alight. But how good are those wines? The only way I or anyone else can know is to taste lots of great wines. I have history with Cabernet Sauvignon and top-rated Bordeaux and Burgundy going back to graduate school when even fancy wines were affordable. If I no longer drink First Growths, Domaine Romanee-Conti, California cult Cabernets, and I am in the business, what do the newcomers do?

My guess is that they simply don’t have nearly the access to those kinds of wines that folks like I and my age-group peers once had. I watched a group of young wine professionals on a panel tasting California Cabernets from Paso Robles. “Very good” was the consensus, and who is to argue? Except for this. Those folks had tasted very few ripeness-dominated wines. They were wowed by the depth and richness, and if one were not paying close attention, you might have thought that they had brought deep experience to the table. But clearly they did not. Yes, the wines were good, even excellent. No, for the most part, they were not magical.

As we sat and watched, it occurred to several of us that these folks were in the midst of “discovery”, not knowledgeable evaluation. An older somm sitting near us just shook his head. When we caught up with him later on, it was clear that he understood. The folks on the panel, for the most part, had not had a wide enough tasting experience. They could taste, but they lacked the wisdom of deep experience.

We asked him where he thought the new wine pros were going to get that wisdom if they no longer had the easy access to the great wines that we had enjoyed. No answer. Not that he had no opinion, but he agreed with the concern that young wine professionals, no matter how eager, start out in the trade at a disadvantage.

Now, if this story seems like it is directed only at the newly minted wine professionals, it is not. The eager wine drinker in his mid- to late-twenties and early thirties faces the same constraints. And it makes me wonder whether great wine, which is already the province of the well-off, will not become the plaything only of the very rich.

Wine prices reflect what the market will bear. Of that I have no doubt. But will the eager enthusiasts not blessed with megabucks now be shut out from ever tasting the great wines. If we are not already at that sad pass, we may well be very soon.


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Comments on your article
by Richard Arrowood
Posted on:6/7/2017 9:06:24 AM

Charles , you are spot on in your commentary... What a damn shame it has gone this way.....seems to me that when a case of wine costs as much as a new car , something is amiss ! I will cherish the fact that in the past I had an occasional chance to taste many of these now "out of reach" wines. Many thanks for bringing out the sad fact of today's wine pricing. Cheers always , Richard

No Subject
by Dennis Lapuyade
Posted on:6/7/2017 9:17:02 AM

I agree completely, of course, but what I find more interesting is that these people do not have the opportunity to taste bad (great) wine. In other words, lean off-vintage Bordeaux from the 50's or 60's, bad Grand Cru Burgundy, lean 12% alc California Cabs, etc. Just remember "great wines" were few and far between in those days and we had to taste through a lot of crap to find the jewels. How did we survive?

No Subject
by gabe
Posted on:6/7/2017 9:52:06 AM

this is why most young wine professionals prefer unusual wines from less heralded regions.  why spend in the triple digits for second-rate Bordeaux when the best wines from Chinon and Puglia are still affordable?

No Subject
by Deborah Parker Wong
Posted on:6/7/2017 10:29:57 AM

I see younger wine professionals spending more time looking forward than looking back. It's simply not fashionable to taste wines that aren't fashionable. As a rookie who now has about 12 years of full-time professional tasting under my belt, my exposure to the world's great wines - from Bordeaux to Port - has been courtesy of the producer groups and some very generous individual producers who have provided opportunities to taste many of these wines. Being committed to the research is essential, you've got to jump on any opportunity to taste verticals and flights of older vintages, take careful notes and archive them for future reference lest your taste memory abandon you. Then, after a decade or more of making this pursuit a priority, you can occassionally weigh in with a salient observation.

Comments on Comments
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/7/2017 11:23:50 AM

Thanks to all who have weighed in so far. All professionals and all serious commentators on the wine scene.

Mr. Arrowood--You and I came into wine by different channels but both at a time when we could taste great wines. I still have a few bottles from that era in my cellar, but sadly, none from the current period. 

Mr. Lapuyade--Not sure if we ever met, but I know we have crossed paths and you too know the difference in the ways that today's great enthusiasts and young professionals can get educated. I very much liked your reference to wines that were not up to snuff. I'm not sure I long for the days of the off-vintage and the underripe Cabernets and overripe Pinots, etc, but they were important parts of the education process. 

Gabe--I am a litte confused by the reference to second-rate Bordeaux costing triple digits. Lots of classified growths succeed and cost less than that. It is the first growths and the super-seconds that no one but the megarich can afford today. And, Chinon and Puglia are no substitute for the top Burgundies, Bordeaux, super-Tuscans. Yes, they are wholly drinkable and affordable. We all make choices. Among mine these days are Etna Reds and my overblown knowledge of CA wines that allows me to cherry pick local wine lists when they are not filled with wines no one has ever heard of.

Hi Deborah--Yes, you have hit upon the key, but the process takes time and is not nearly as easy to accomplish as it was in the "good old days". I may be a dinosaur, but my memory is still good. :-}


No Subject
by Bob Miller
Posted on:6/7/2017 1:28:31 PM

Charlie, as a former member of your tasting panels back in the 70's/early 80's and as one who conducted tastings for some 25 yrs I totally agree. It was easy to afford great wines then, even to put together a tasting of several  of them for a group without bankrupting everyone. I was able to buy top notch wines to lay away for future vertical (like Petrus) or horizontal tastings (70 Bordeaux or Calif Cabs.).  Unfortunately I think that the megarich drink the high priced wines just because they are high priced and not because they truely appreciate them.  I saw this many times in my previous years in wine retailing.

Educating the next generation of wine enthusiasts/professionals
by Bob Henry
Posted on:6/12/2017 4:01:55 PM

I was lucky to have started tasting wines avocationally when I did -- enrolling in Robert Balzer's wine appreciation course; going into the "wine country" on guided tours with him and fellow classmates; getting together on weekends with older classmates with wine cellars to organize horizontal and vertical tastings; and visiting wine stores on weekends that offered winetasting events.

Today, there is no heir apparent to Balzer and his wine course and tours.  No heir apparent to Kevin Zraly who retired his wine course last year.

Most wine stores lack wine bars and organized tastings events (prefering instead to sell wines off of reviews -- not personal experience).

The absence of wine appreciation courses and wine store tastings means that younger enthusiasts will never cross paths socially with older (parental age) collectors who have great wines still undrunk in their cellars . . . waiting for the "right" opportunity and company to be savored.

(Drawing upon the cache of older bottles of wine I "inherit" from wine cellar organization clients I serve, I make it a point to share them with young staffers at wine stores I am affiliated with.  There is nothing more satisfying than to see the look of surprise and delight on the face of a Millennial when you open a birth year wine for her or him.)


Educating the next generation of wine enthusiasts/professionals (continued)
by Bob Henry
Posted on:6/13/2017 10:20:29 PM

Excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle's June 2, 2017 profile on Bill Harlan's latest venture named Promontory:


So unlike Harlan Estate, famously shuttered to the public, the Promontory winery will be open for tastings. Promontory will actually have wine for sale at the winery, unlike Harlan Estate and Bond, which sell wine only through their allocated mailing lists. And whereas Harlan Estate’s current release sells for $850 a bottle, Promontory’s is $450.

Allowing customers to visit your winery hardly sounds like a radical innovation. But Harlan Estate, considered one of Napa’s “cult Cabernets,” first gained fame in the nineties not only for its wine quality — its ripe, generous, concentrated wines helped define a new era of wine style — but also for its astronomical prices, for the wines’ scarcity and for the estate’s all-around secrecy. It wasn’t just that you couldn’t visit the winery. Even if you had the money, you couldn’t buy the wines.

Promontory’s tasting appointments, in limited supply, cost $200 a person. But they’re also instituting a modified, discounted group session, likely $50, on Saturdays at 8 a.m. That discount is a nod, they say, to Bill Harlan’s own frugal college student days in the 1960s, when he enjoyed tastings at Napa wineries, then all free. It also seems designed to discourage the rowdier, louder tourist crowds that tend to arrive at wineries much later in the day.

“While in today’s era the free program isn’t quite feasible, we wanted to be able to engage YOUNGER FOLKS AT AN EARLIER STAGE OF THEIR WINE DEVELOPMENT,” Will Harlan, Bill’s son, says. “If they’re genuinely curious ... and willing to wake up a bit early, we feel it would be really important to be able to offer an experience at a price that’s attainable.”

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