Fine wine is increasingly the preserve of the wealthy. Who cares?

The world’s best wines have become increasingly unaffordable for any but the one-percenters. Robert Joseph asks whether this matters. And if it does, is there a solution?

Image: Marcus Paulo Prado on Unsplash
Image: Marcus Paulo Prado on Unsplash

“So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

In 1995, when the late British comedian, Caroline Ahearne, in the guise of her TV persona Mrs Merton, put this question to her interviewee guest, Debbie McGee, she could have had no idea that it would end up in so many books of quotations. Or that 22 years later it would come top in a poll for the best comedy put-down on UK television.

The appeal of that line is that it reflects a thought most of us have had but fewer have shared widely. When McGee married the UK’s most famous magician, Daniels was 50 and she was just 29.

Most of us have looked at a range of apparently mismatched pairings and jumped to the conclusion that the explanation has to be financial. How did that fat old man on the beach end up with such a beautiful young wife? Why can’t I afford to buy the paintings/wine/classic cars that I used to?  

Obviously, it’s because they’re all being snapped up by people with more money than me. Few if any of whom deserve those things as much as I do. Because I know about wine/art/old Aston Martins; I appreciate them and love them. Whereas they just flash their credit cards and buy whatever takes their fancy.

It’s an attractive narrative, of course, and the stuff of countless romantic novels and movies that all end with the heroine realising the error of her ways, dumping the wealthy, good-looking bastard and returning to the poor, plainly honest hero she should have been with all along.

Of course, like all popular stories, there’s a kernel of truth in there, but it’s wrapped in many layers of self-serving prejudice. Inconveniently for the fans of Caroline Ahearne’s question, McGee and Daniels were, by all accounts, a happily devoted couple almost from the time they met in 1979 to the magician’s death in 2016. Many other ‘mismatched’ marriages seem to survive longer than ones that appeared to be made in heaven.


Wine and art

Likewise, for all those nouveau-riche art collectors who buy expensive art by the metre, there are the wealthy individuals from whose painstakingly assembled and curated collections national museums have gloriously benefited. Many of these have supported significant artists early in their careers, buying works others walked past. The prices paid for those paintings and sculptures may look laughably cheap when compared to their value today, but they were more than most people would have wanted or been able to pay at the time.

Burgundy lovers balk at Grands Crus that now cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per bottle, but to anyone standing in line at a food bank, the notion of handing over $50 for any kind of wine may be just as hard to imagine. Fortunately I’ve never been that hard up, but in the late 1970s, when I was scratching a living in Burgundy, translating and teaching English, I certainly could rarely if ever afford to drink good local wines that cost a fraction of the prices they command today. And nor could any of my neighbours.


Everything is relative

Goldman Sachs employs around 35,000 people. If you divide its total annual wage bill by that number, you get an average of $367,564 per person, but junior analysts may only be on $100,000. Which means that plenty of those higher up the banking food chain are taking home seven-figure salaries.

Some of these people will, I’m sure, be showing off by buying the priciest bottles on a restaurant list. Some will be stashing away cases of top Bordeaux and Burgundy as investments without ever taking note of the wines they’ve acquired.

Others, however, will lovingly put the bottles in their purpose-built cellars, sharing them with their equally wealthy and similarly enthusiastic friends, and quite possibly using Coravins to access the occasional glassful when no one else is around. Some well-heeled yacht owners pay skippers to do all the work while they lounge around on the deck sipping Champagne; others seriously captain their own craft in competitive races.

If it weren’t for the discussions between wealthy wine collectors on the Wine Berserkers forum about the bottles they had bought with their own money, Rudy Kurniawan and Premox would have taken a lot longer to have become part of the vinous vocabulary.

Those people love great wine and can afford to drink it, and the same is true of some of the Japanese Burgundy fans I’ve met – and increasingly, their Chinese counterparts.

Whatever the level of knowledge, interest and passion of today’s buyers, given the proven reliability of Adam Smith’s laws of supply and demand and the finite production of collectible wine, there seems little chance of those of us with more ‘normal’ incomes ever getting to sit around drinking very much of it.


Looking for solutions

But this brings us to a topic raised by the New-Zealand-based winemaker, journalist and blogger Oliver Styles in a recent piece for Tim Atkin’s excellent website.

After lamenting that “the world’s greatest wines are inexorably getting claimed by your boss. Or your boss’s boss. Or the owner of your company”, he focused on “the inability of most people in the wine industry to afford benchmark wines.”

Styles’ various solutions to this problem were, to put in bluntly, quixotically unrealistic. To say that, “as a cultural object (like art or music), [wine] should be priced like CDs – all broadly the same.” ignores the difference in the production costs of a mass-manufactured plastic disk and a limited-production beverage subject to the vagaries of nature.

His rationale that “You don’t pay more for [a CD recording of] Shostakovich than you do for Vaughan Williams” also neatly overlooks the fact that the price of a live performance of either of these composers’ works depends hugely on who is playing and where.

Styles’ proposal that all wines should be subject to a maximum price is just plain silly, and perhaps unsurprisingly was treated by some - including myself – with derision. But I now think I owe him an apology. He may not have come up with any sensible answers, but the question he raised has merit: how do we make it possible for wine professionals to get the equivalent experience of art students visiting a gallery or trainee actors watching a live performance of Shakespeare?

Those working at the higher end of the on-trade tend to be luckier. Diners don’t always empty bottles, and sales representatives often arrive bearing samples. But most people in the other sectors of the industry have to pay their own way, which is why the MW course can prove so horrendously expensive.


Sharing the experience

Some retailers offer generous discounts to their employees, and host tastings for them, as I know, do some wineries. I recall, in the 1980s, sitting in on an educational weekly event the Mondavi winery hosted on a first-come-first-served basis for winery staff, ranging from winemakers to truck drivers. The wines - served blind – included standard and reserve Mondavi Cabernets, a Chilean example and Mouton Rothschild. A driver I talked to after the event said the experience had prompted him to apply for a junior production job. How many wineries – and indeed distributors – are doing this kind of thing today? In an era of inclusiveness, who knows how many budding stars might emerge?

But, in a broader sense, maybe, in the wake of the fine wine Zoom tastings pioneered by 67 Pall Mall tastings, it is time for some of the world’s super-premium wine producers to consider working with WSET education providers and Coravin to give Diploma students the opportunity to sample small quantities of their wines. This would not have to involve extravagant largesse – merely the allocation of limited amounts of wine, at cost.

A lot of people can get a small taste from a single bottle and, thinking back to the thimblefuls of particularly rare old reds or whites I’ve shared with friends and colleagues, these are moments I feel privileged to have experienced.

Obviously any such programme could only go so far, but it would help to provide invaluable context and perspective to many young professionals who, as Styles says, are now often “focused on the undercurrents and alternatives… Hybrid grapes, light reds, indigenous varieties”.

It’s rather as though the next generation of film makers never got to experience Scorsese or the Coen Brothers, and grew up with the idea that Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 principles were the ones to follow.

(For those unfamiliar with the Danish director, his natural wine-like concept was of movies that could only be made on location, with hand-held cameras, without special lighting or filters, sound effects or music. There could be no ‘genres’, so no thrillers or murders or historical drama or stories set in other countries. So no Lord of the Rings, James Bond or Jane Austen.)

Great wine has never been the preserve of any but a small proportion of the community. That’s life.

But, out of its own self-interest, maybe the wine industry should give some thought into how to get at least a little of its finest wine into the mouths and memories of those on the lower rungs of the profession.

Unless we really do want them to have to marry millionaires to get that opportunity.

Robert Joseph


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