Too good to drink

Consumers reacted badly to the release prices of 2010 Bordeaux.

For any given wine on the market you can do one of four things, which are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive:

  • Buy it and drink it;
  • Buy it and not drink it;
  • Not buy it, but drink it (a category reserved for wine critics and thieves);
  • Neither buy it nor drink it.

Let us assume that you decide to buy the wine.  Why would you decide not to drink it, having bought it?  Well, because it might go up in value, at which point you can sell it at a profit. Fair enough.  And how would you decide whether to set a particular bottle aside for that purpose?  Well, you might read the opinions of wine critics, whose assessments of wine are known to influence demand and, therefore, price.  And how would these critics arrive at their assessments?  Well, they typically go along and taste the wine and then give it a score out of 20 or 100, or a star rating, or similar.

So basically under this arrangement we make the decision not to drink wine based on expert opinion about its superior taste.

Now doesn’t that seem a little bit ridiculous?  Here’s a good wine: don’t drink it.  Or, as we are currently witnessing in respect of the 2011 Bordeaux en primeur campaign, here are some pretty average wines: drink up.

I can understand that there will always be bean counters out there who are more in love with their bank balance than with wine, and who will treat it as a commodity like gold bars rather than as a beverage produced with the intention of being consumed.  These people are responsible for the world’s greatest wines not being drunk and are therefore the scum of the earth.

But why is this absurd dichotomy between “drinking” wines and “investing” wines endorsed by the wine press?  I’ve read quite a bit about Bordeaux 2011 including many descriptions of it as a “drinking” year alongside the likes of 2004 and so forth.  It’s useful to have an assessment of the quality and character of a vintage – both in its own right and by comparison to other vintages – but I do think it’s a bit defeatist to characterise the more modest vintages as the “drinking” ones.  It rather suggests that it is a foregone conclusion that the first class wines will automatically be hived off for perennial trade on the secondary market, and the second class wines are the ones for drinking.  We might never be able to defeat the scourge of wine investment but the least the wine press can do is encourage people lucky enough to lay their hands on an expensive “investment” bottle that drinking it is a permissible, even laudable, thing to do with it.

At my neighbourhood Chinese restaurant in suburban Sydney a waitress told me that she was trying to get her hands on an empty bottle of Remy Martin XO Cognac so she could fill it with tea and put it on the top shelf at home.  Being apparently possessed of such a valuable bottle of cognac would raise her in the estimation of her friends and family.  She would save it for a “special occasion” – but of course no occasion would ever be special enough to open the “cognac” and the deceit would continue.

The Union des Grand Crus should take a leaf out of her book.  They should fill the bottles of Lafite and Latour with plonk and let the greedy traders buy and sell them to their hearts’ content, putting the real stuff in unlabelled bottles for the appreciation of true connoisseurs.  Wine isn’t like art.  Not only can the investor in art look at and enjoy the art before he sells it, but so can others.  Not so with wine.  Investing in wine denies anyone the ability to enjoy it, either because the bottle is destined not to be drunk, or because by the time it’s done the rounds on the secondary market it’s too expensive for almost anyone who might be interested in drinking it.

Obviously the above plan could never succeed, but the least we might expect is for the wine press to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  And that starts with calling the good vintages the “drinking” ones.

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