Monday, March 14, 2016

What does "value" in wine mean to you?

Eric Asimov wrote last week about a New York merchant who sells wines aged in his company's cellar, something you see on the East Coast but not so much in California.

Asimov said the cafe and wine bar "offers many great values" and then listed six wines. Two were $60, but the rest were $190 to $295.

Naturally the comments on the story are negative. Of course they are. But they're not as reflexively negative as you might expect, as many show knowledge of wine.

Anne wrote, "Most helpful ... where to buy wines for the 1 percent." (Sarcastic, but statistically I'll bet it's true: I'll bet less than 1% of Americans buy $200 wines.) Ed wrote, "$250 for a Chianti?! Please tell me it's a misprint. No Italian would ever believe it."

I wondered about that wine also. I like Chianti Classico a lot but Ed is right, I can't imagine spending that much for one, in Italy or in San Francisco, even for a 21-year-old wine. The Chianti Classico in question is a 1995 riserva from a winery I don't know, so I went to Wine Searcher to look it up and discovered I can buy that same bottle for prices ranging from $153 to $200 from retail stores (not including shipping).

So is that wine good value?

You pay for the privilege of drinking something at a restaurant: they provide glassware and service. At a wine bar, though, that kind of markup seems excessive to me. But if the wine has been perfectly stored and vouched for by the owner ... well, I don't know how I feel.

Value in wine is complicated. And people are sensitive to it, much more so than other purchases. I like to travel and I think Americans pay ridiculous prices for hotels, but you never see articles about that. However, people obsess over the cost of airfare, and even more so about baggage fees. Why is value in airfare important, but not in hotels? What is it about airfare? And about wine?

A couple years ago I spent $225 for a bottle of wine to have with a Cuban sandwich when I discovered the restaurant had Vega Sicilia from the '80s. My friend who had lunch with me was delighted to help me drink the most expensive bottle she had ever had. She thought I was crazy, and had recently won the lottery, but nonetheless was still crazy. But I saw that wine as a value, or I wouldn't have ordered it. Turns out it was good but not mindblowing, so was it a value in the end? It doesn't feel that way today.

Whereas the $36 bottle of Banyan Gewurztraminer we had at a restaurant on Saturday night, that felt like terrific value: we loved it and drank the whole bottle. However, we can buy that for $10 at Wine-Searcher (and you should: very balanced, pretty aroma, just 11.8% alcohol, not sweet. Excellent with Korean fusion.) So the markup was 3.6 times retail. Was that value?

Asimov told me on Twitter that "there are metrics for determining (value), not just whether random people are willing to pay." I didn't mean to pick on him -- and I don't mean to do so with this post either -- but I completely disagree with that. What metrics? Retail price? Review score?

What about Napa Cabernets that are released at $200, and then wind up on Wines Til Sold Out for $69.99? That happens all the time. Is that wine a value? It's still $70 when there are so many great wines available cheaper.

I'd like to answer the question in my headline: What does "value" in wine mean to me? But I'm not sure what my own answer is. What about you, dear reader? What does "value" in wine mean to you? And is there an upper limit to how expensive a wine can be and still be a "value?"

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Jack Everitt said...

So if a Chianti (or whatever) retails for $153 to $200, and is $250 in a restaurant, that's a good value. Well, if the wine is excellent.

Since when must "good values" be just for inexpensive items?

Jeff Siegel said...

The issue is not whether a $200 wine offers value, but that we aren't taught to look for value when we buy wine. We're taught to buy by scores and prices, and to be happy with those guidelines. So cheap wine is lousy, expensive wine is good, the critics know best, and value doesn't matter.

The other thing to note here is Asimov's crusade (maybe too strong a word, maybe not) to get American wine drinkers to look at something besides price when they buy wine. He regularly writes that $15 to $25 wines offer the best value, which may be true if you can buy wine at Sherry Lehmann in Manhattan. For the rest of us, though, that price range -- and especially $15 to $20 -- is a vast wasteland of high margin, focus group driven wine. Meomi, anyone?

Paul Wagner said...

To paraphrase the CEO of Cartier: "Nobody buys a $10,000 watch to find out what time it is." And that is the element that always affects our perception of value.

Unknown said...

Interesting question. My view has evolved regarding restaurants, primarily b/c it's harder to mark up more expensive bottles x3 and still move them for most places (not talking about Asimov land). So, if you're willing to spend $70-80 you're probably getting a "better" wine than a $40 bottle that retails for $10, per your example.

That's my subjective, "got a mortgage to pay" idea of value.

Joel Miller said...

Great topic. Two commments: Relativity & Expectations

Relativity: Compare wine spending to the emotions of gambling. Often I see "high rollers" betting $3000 on a hand...when I talk to them, it's clear that level of risk makes the game fun. For me, I love a $5 table, and am thrilled when I walk away with $75. If you're a "one percent-er", of course you'll stock your cellar with Harlan and LaTour, and relish the nuances of the '75 vs. the '78. But for most of us, the same joy can be found in that obscure $14 bottle of Central Coast Pinot.

Expectations: Whenever I pay more than $50 for a bottle, I expect greatness...and I often get "good, but not great". For experienced palates, "great" is a pretty high threshold. That $50 was hard work for me...hence I shy away from spending so much, as there are so many fantastic wines at <$50. We all have our price points. But far too many wineries are outta touch with the sweet spot in the market - it isn't $40 or $35...if Meiomi taught us anything, it's the $20 mark...price below that for "superpremium" and deliver some value, and you'll clean up. And that's for the 10% of the market in the "above $8" pricepoint.

Last night I opened a $45 bottle of '99 Napa Merlot - bought via on-line auction for $9. It was superb. And it was huge value. If served in a fine restaurant for $85, it would have been appreciated (for the quality) just as much, but not the value edge.

DeborahParkerWong said...

Because we look at quality without making a value judgement, I came up with The Quality Threshold as a way to help WSET students navigate quality in relation to the price of wine. Your threshold is like your fingerprint, its unique to you, and the range where quality and price are aligned is your threshold or the sweet spot if you will. Wines that don't meet expectations for quality at their price under perform while wines that exceed expectations over deliver. I know where I want to be at all times. See you there. Infographic can be found here

Mescaletc said...

A wine has value when it exceeds the drinkers expectations.

Andrew Walter said...

A non-wine geek friend once asked me how it was possible for a $30 dollar bottle of wine to be 15x better than a bottle of 2 Buck Chuck. My 2 part answer (both then and now) is:(1) because it is better (objectively better crafted in the vineyard and cellar which certainly costs more, better scores by critics and I like it better-- the latter factor being the most important) and (2) I can afford to pay $30 for a bottle of wine. If you have worked hard enough and are smart enough (or lucky enough if your family made the money) to be in the 1%, then the affordability threshold goes up....such that a $100 or $500 or whatever wine could be considered a value if you liked it enough or the statement made by the purchase was sufficient.

Bob Henry said...

Here's one way to consider the question.

Calculate how many minutes/hours of work (compensated at your pro rated vocational wage/salary/fee) it would take you to procure a single bottle of wine under consideration.

Then, upon drinking it, ask yourself: would you willingly expend that same number of minutes/hours to procure a second bottle for drinking?

If yes, then intrinsically that is a "good value" wine.

Otherwise, not.

(Call this "the sweat of one's brow" metric.)