Featured Wine Article
Do people tend to like more expensive wines rather than average priced?
By Jonathan Sloan
Whenever guests come over to my house for dinner they know that they will be drinking well, eating good food and also getting a little education.
This time, prior to my invited guests’ arrival for dinner I decided to decant the wine so they had no idea what they were drinking except for the color. Knowing this group would accept the challenge, I labeled each carafe with an A, B, C and D. When the dare was accepted, the game was on. After explaining the rules I agreed to disclose one hint, the bottle prices. $25, $50, $100 and $150 per bottle. Knowing I was dealing with fellow cork popping veterans I decided not to make this a best in show contest; it was a battle in the bottle. Was the twenty five dollar bottle underpriced or was the hundred fifty dollar bottle over priced? Was the hundred dollar bottle really four times better than the twenty five dollar bottle? I devised a questionnaire that asked relevant questions. Answering with only an A, B, C or D the questions ranged from: richest and deepest, fullest body, most complex, age-ability and overall score.
When all the votes and scores were tabulated the scores were almost identical. The most expensive wine easily scored the highest and the twenty five dollar bottle the lowest score. When the wines were reveled to almost everyone’s surprise, the wines all came from the same appellation and the same vintage, but from different producers. Soon enough the conversation turned to why was the most expensive the best and why was it the most expensive? We discussed vineyard location as a key factor, but besides that, why was it the most expensive. What makes a $150 bottle a $150 bottle?
Like most items that are produced there are fixed costs, yet not all wines are created equal. Empty bottles, corks, labels, barrels and even capsules vary in cost but not too much. Cardboard boxes are less costly than wooden ones, but since mostly ultra premium producers use wooden boxes, it’s a non-factor. That pretty much leaves out one factor, the grapes. Grape prices can vary due to many factors; however three of the most important factors are location, location, location.
Hillside verses valley. Grapes grow very well in a valley or floor. There is constant sun, and lots of fertile soil for the vine to grow vigorously and healthy. In a valley like Napa there are thousands of acres of vines that are systematically trained and grow like weeds.
These vines often produce large lush plump juicy grapes from multiple clusters that can produce a very nice wine. Then you have the hillside vineyards. These vines are planted in rocky low soil areas that tend to get little water that stresses a vine to work harder and produce fewer clusters of grapes that are usually smaller grapes with thicker skins. We all know that a wine’s color and tannins come form the skins. The thicker the skins, the darker and more tannic the wine can be. A grape vine knows that it’s only reason for living to propagate the new generations of vines.
When vines are stressed and not living in optimal growing conditions it cuts back on the amount of clusters and focuses all its energy on producing a grape that protects the seeds as best it can. Hillsides or sloped vineyards present various ways of stressing a vine, in particular, a lack of water. It has been documented that a vine’s root system will grow over a hundred feet down looking for a source of water. Since hillsides are rarely ever just dirt, most are a foot or two of top soil followed by layers and layers of large and small rocks. Roots will often have to snake around these rocks, even going upwards and around before it can go down searching for water. Thus stressing the vines forces them to make a more desirable grape for premium wine making.
Old vines are also a source of high quality grapes. A grape vine can live indeterminately if given optimal growing conditions. There are vines in Germany that are estimated to be over five hundred years old. There are a few dozen vineyard sites in Napa and Sonoma that the vines are documented to be over one hundred twenty-five years old. These old vines look like gnarly old fat-based stumps with a few thick arms coming off. Generally these old vines produce fewer clusters of grapes. But these grapes are usually optimal for wine. The old winemaker’s adage ‘the older the vine the better the wine’ is almost always true. These thick skinned beauties are often the source of legendary wines. The problem here is finding a vineyard of hundred year old vines. There aren’t many and if you find one, they are not cheap.
Another factor that often contributes to the price of an expensive wine is the winemaker or “winemaking consultant”. There are several globetrotting wine makers that are paid exorbitant fees to consult and help construct a wine. These consultants are paid for their super expertise in the area of wine making. Their tricks of the trade are often secret and the top flight consultants often refuse high paying jobs if the vineyard conditions are not perfect. This too leads to a whole other layer of costs, the vineyard manager. Top flight vineyard managers are in high demand and are often paid very well. These “grape whisperers” are highly trained experts that can turn a rundown vineyard into an extraordinary site.
Still though, one of the biggest factors in the price of a bottle of wine is the review. When a wine scores close to perfection it becomes in demand. Wine prices are set by a winery often before release, however, when a critic is allowed to sample a barrel of unbottled wine and declares it extraordinary, the price of that wine is often significantly higher. If the winery should be fortunate enough to have a string of extraordinary vintages, the wine’s price will almost always be raised higher and higher due to supply and demand.
There is one factor that the best winemakers, winemaking consultants and vineyard managers have no control over and that is Mother Nature. She is the great equalizer that can not be controlled. Modern science has reduced several wine growing factors that contribute to producing quality grapes, but scientists can not reproduce sunlight, prevent an abundance of rain or control outdoor temperature, the three key factors of vineyard life. As the old margarine commercial use to exclaim, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”. She can throw hail at you and break the vines, she can flood you and drown the vines or she can freeze you or infest you with insects. And yes, those are all factors that can contribute to the price of a wine.
Since there is no formula for buying wine, one of the best ways is to find a trust worthy retail operation and let them be you're guide. A good store manager will get to know your pallet and budget and guide you through the maze of labels and producers. I have always said “The best way to learn about wine is pop a cork”. Or, you can ask me, I can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can offer advice on collecting, auction purchases wedding or party planning or suggestions on specials I see out in the market.