Saturday, July 11, 2009

Another one bites the dust

Way back maybe 6 months ago, I added a bunch of wine blogs to Google Reader. Much like with wine, what I liked or found interesting some time ago often loses its luster. There are, of course, blogs like The Wine Whore that are so blatantly crass in their conception that they never make it into my regular rotation. Then there are those like Appellation Feiring that are worth the time to read because they're provocative and outside the box, though the personality of the author routinely inspires a love/hate reaction for me. Others like Steve Heimoff's blog have grown on me over time and changed my perceptions. Finally there's Vinography, which I voted off the virtual island this week.

Vinography's author, Alder Yarrow, by any measure is a thoughtful and skilled writer. I love the style of his tasting notes, and especially the context that he provides with respect to each wine. To a large extent I model my wine notes after his. I can quibble with his near singular focus on ultra-premium wines as well as a tendency to apply ratings to dozens of wines during mega tastings--really, how accurate can your impressions be with 100+ wines in a crowded room, tasting over several hours. But that's his niche, and he does what he does very well. Although I'm not all that attracted to coverage of the luxury wine scene and its image-driven posturing, the following statement really pushed my buttons in all the wrong ways:
It took me a long time in my evolution as a wine lover to truly understand the amount of money and sweat and energy that goes into building a world class winery over decades, even centuries.

Many wine lovers early in their education (and in their earning power) are often flummoxed by prices for wines that start to head north of $80 or $90 per bottle. Should they pursue their love of wine long enough to really learn (and see for themselves) what kind of work goes into some of the world's best vineyards, and to taste the wine that they produce, such prices no longer seem outrageous.

This is nothing more than saying "if you don't buy $100+ bottles of wine, you won't ever get wine, but I get it because I have both money and the inclination to use it." While I can't argue that the greatest wines are invariably expensive, the suggestion that price is a particularly good proxy for quality or indicative of the actual cost to produce a wine is off target. This is wine snobbery at its best as it suggests not only the consumer must spend exorbitantly, but the producer also must invest from every angle. Only a wealthy vintner can make wines worthy of the distinguished palate of his well-off customers, it seems.

Let's be honest here. It does take investment and effort to make wine that rises above generic plonk. A $50 wine is indeed more likely to blow your mind than a $15 wine, though gains in quality do become marginal above a certain price level. I think there's a particularly noticeable improvement in quality going from the $5-$10 range to the $15-$30 range. But a price tag alone does not mean that mother nature or a heavy-handed or untalented vintner did not turn out over-priced junk in a given year. Taking into consideration the wide spectrum of subjective tastes, there's even a possibility one may not enjoy a wine that's objectively very good because of its stylistic approach.

What's particularly interesting is that while Rochioli is cited as an example where costs incurred by the producer justify the bottle price, I suspect a producer like Rochioli that owns its own vineyards and is well established likely has much lower overhead than younger labels that must purchase fruit, rent space in a winery, or pay off debt for that fancy new tasting room. The justification of the cost is not the raw materials; it is the finished product, which must both be very good and very rare to fetch such a high price. Arguing that the producer pampered his Pinot at every corner is not a logical justification for $100+ prices. If he or she can't make a healthy profit at that price, it's time to look at the business model. I've seen well-respected estate wineries cite a cost per bottle of about $10, which suggests it would take quite a bit of spending to make 750 mL of juice cost $30+ (pre-profit, of course).

Yet it's not so much this content that upsets me as the context. A recent post titled The Travesty of Wine and Social Class in America on Vinography argued against wine snobbery. If you're a fan of serious hypocrisy, then this is the wine blog for you. Be a snob. Or be an anti-snob. If you are good at your chosen angle, I'll appreciate it. But you can't take both sides. If your blog is devoted to praising cult wines and luxury cuvées, you should be aware of where you stand.

I'm a snob. You're a snob. We're all snobs. I can stomach it, even if you feel you must berate someone with less than diverse tastes to elevate your own sense of self-importance. I'll be right there next you saying there's a genuine correlation between price and quality (that nonetheless weakens significantly for bottles priced well-above cost). But don't be a hypocrite. You can't go around playing the elitist card left and right, then act like your legal name is Joe Pleb of the Proletariat. Vinography is thus off the RSS reader by a 1-0 vote.

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