Tue 27 Nov 2007
In the Nov. 15 issue of Wine Enthusiast — “We’re No. 2!” — editor and publisher Adam Strum writes in his editorial that “prices of wine have actually decreased over the past years while quality has definitely improved.”
Is this statement true?
Strum repeats that “prices for wine are going down while quality is increasing across the board.” He continues: “Think about the flavor, mouthfeel and balance of a $10 wine 10 years ago and today. I’ll be glad to answer for you: No comparison. It’s just as true at the $15 and $20 level. You can buy truly excellent, world-class wine now for $20 where 10 years ago that same amount would not have delivered the same quality.”
“The reason for this,” he says, “is competition.”
So, the issue doesn’t seem to be that prices for wine are going down, but that better wine is available in the $10 niche (or $15 or $20). It’s true that if one bottle of wine costs $10 and another costs $50, the average price is $30, while if four bottles of wine cost $10 and one bottle costs $50, the average price is $18. Those figures add up to more cheap wine on the market on average but not decreasing prices for wine in general. Of course Strum is writing in Wine Enthusiast’s “Special Value Issue,” so he has a bit of an ax to grind, and there’s not a thing wrong with that; it’s his magazine, and many terrific inexpensive wines are reviewed in this issue. I mean, I like to discover a great little cheap wine as much as the next person does.
Anyway, I disagree that inexpensive wines are necessarily getting better; some $10 and $11 wines from Australia actually aren’t as good now as they were 10 years ago; the specter of sameness and anonymity has fallen upon them. I do agree that we need to look to Spain, southern Italy and Argentina for the best values in cheap wines.
The truth, however, is that wine prices are going up, despite lots of cheap wine being available. If you’ve been buying wine or writing about wine for 20 years or longer, you know that this is the case. Just over the past decade, vineyard land has gotten more expensive, grapes have gotten more expensive and so have French oak barrels.
Perhaps one winery will serve as an example of the trend.
Morgan Winery was founded in Monterey County in 1982 by Dan Lee, who had made wine for Durney Vineyards and Jekel Vineyards. At first he concentrated on chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and several pinot noirs from Carneros and Monterey. Gradually, Lee turned Morgan into primarily an estate winery with the best wines derived from designated vineyards in what is now the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. While I have quibbled from time to time about the amount of oak that might influence a particular wine — Lee is generally quite judicious with new oak — or feeling that a wine wasn’t up to the quality of its predecessors, I am usually grateful to try Morgan’s wines for their varietal purity, intensity and integrity.
Let’s look at the prices of a few wines from the Morgan stable for the past 10 years. I don’t mean this as a criticism of the winery but as an illustration of price trends in California.
The suggested retail price of the Morgan Sauvignon Blanc 1998 was $12; for vintage 2006, it’s $16, not a huge increase (33%) but still there.
When Morgan’s Cote du Crow’s Rhone-style blend of syrah and grenache debuted with the 2001 vintage, the wine cost $13; the price of the recently released Cote du Crow’s 2006 is $20, an increase of about 53% over five years. Morgan’s Metallico Chardonnay, which also debuted with the 2001 vintage, was originally priced at $20 and has only gone up to $22 with the 2006 version.
Morgan’s best pinot noirs come from Gary’s Vineyards, Rosella’s Vineyard and the Double L Vineyard. For 2000, their suggested retail prices were $38, $38 and $42 respectively; for 2005, the latest year, they’re all $55. (I’ll admit that I was startled when I saw those price sheets.) Now these wines are produced in very limited quantities, usually no more than 300 or 400 cases. Still over six vintages, they show an increase of 44% for Gary’s and Rosella’s and about 30% for Double L.
I realize that this comparison is not only simple but verges on simplistic. Still in a decade that has seen health-care costs and housing costs soar, it shouldn’t be surprising that it costs more money to make wine, considering the factors of land prices, maintenance, barrels (that damned euro!), marketing, wages and storage.
So, I think that Strum is optimistic when he says that prices are falling and quality is rising. If those conditions do come about, I’ll be first in line to toast to better days.