Is money ruining wine?

Thursday, 16. August 2018 - 9:45

At this time of the year, as tens of millions of Northern Hemisphere dwellers return from their holidays, dinner party conversations inevitably turn to the disappointment some have experienced on their travels.

“It’s so sad. Our lovely secret beach where we used to go skinny dipping has been discovered.  There were hordes of people, and a man selling ice creams!”

“And Signora Mussolini’s little pensione has been torn down and replaced with a swanky five-star hotel.”

“Stavros’s taverna where we used to eat like kings for a few drachma a head with all the wine we could drink. Gone!”

“And the broken-down shack we used to dream of buying for our retirement. Well, when we saw the price now, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Way out of our league!”

By the time the pudding is served, talk will have turned to another perennial subject: “Have you found a buyer for your house?”

“Yes, we’ve had an offer, but not at the price we’re asking. Thanks to Brexit, we’re going to get a couple of hundred thousand less than we were hoping for. And, how’s your daughter getting on with her flat-hunting?”

“It’s a nightmare. There’s nothing she can remotely afford, even with our help. She’ll be living with us till she’s fifty!”

The parallels with the wine world are clear: all those lovely Burgundies and  Rhônes and Bordeaux whose prices have risen beyond the means of normal mortals, just like property. Andrew Jefford has written about this soulfully and elegantly in a recent Decanter column in which he describes money as a ‘contaminent’ of wine that’s ‘far worse than sulphur’.

Let’s not beat about the bush. What Jefford and all those dinner party guests are complaining about is not really money, so much as who has it, how they got it, and how they prefer to spend it. 

The woman ranting about the new hotels and apartment blocks that have changed the nature of her favourite little French fishing village is much slower to complain about the unearned fortune she’s now worth thanks to rises in property values. Nor does she draw any kind of connection between the - welcome - doubling of the price of her home and the unwelcome but similar rise in the cost of a home for her daughter.

New Zealand has just reacted to its shortage of affordable housing by introducing an ‘Overseas Investment Act’ that will prevent ‘overseas persons who are not resident in New Zealand’ from buying existing houses or other pieces of residential land. This, it is hoped, will ‘build a more productive economy by helping redirect capital to more productive uses.’
Critics, of course, respond that, thanks to the Act, people whose only investment is their home won’t be able to reap as much profit from it as they had hoped when they come to sell.

There are always geese and ganders.

Did anyone ever stop to wonder what kind of holidays - or health care - Signora Mussolini  could afford on the low prices she charged?

Jefford is right, of course. When I lived in Burgundy in the late 1970s, even wines from the smarter villages were far more affordable for people of relatively moderate means than they are today. But ‘moderate means’ would be an exaggeration if used to describe the status of my neighbours in the Hautes Côtes de Beaune who were unlucky enough not to own any vines in Beaune, Volnay or Meursault. In years like 1975, 1977 and 1980, when their wines were almost unsaleable, these families had a really hard time. Even at 1982 prices, bottles of Volnay rarely graced their tables. 

And they weren’t alone. I remember a vigneron in Pommard complaining at the unwillingness of the negociants to buy his wine. “If I worked for the SNCF - railways - I could go on strike,” he grumbled.

Go back a little further and even the most illustrious Bordeaux chateaux often struggled to break even. As Clive Coates points out in his Grands Vins: The Finest Chateaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines, Chateau Palmer failed to make a profit between the World War I and 1962.

I’m delighted that winegrowers in the Hautes Côtes have fewer financial worries today – and wish the same for producers of good but less illustrious wines in other regions whose annual income partly depends on renting out rooms to holidaymakers.

Yes, it’s sad that middle class people like Jefford and me can’t afford the wines we and our parents used to buy. But not quite so sad for the producers, and for all those people of far humbler backgrounds whose hard-earned incomes as doctors and lawyers and computer coders, and maybe even Italian or Greek property developers, do allow them to buy the occasional bottle of those wines.

The suggestion that fine wine has become the preserve of the super-rich is ill-founded. A consultant doctor working for the British National Health Service earns £127,000 ($162,000), and their US counterpart would pocket far more. Both could afford an occasional $200 bottle of wine, as easily as a $200 ticket to see Phantom of the Opera or to watch Chelsea play Manchester United. But so could many people on lower salaries who care enough about wine, the theatre or football to splash out, although at the cost of other pleasures.

But drinking fine wine, like hearing top class opera, was never universally available. And this raises a question about Jefford’s comment that “the contamination of wine by money is… impoverishing the understanding and appreciation of the world’s finest wines.” Precisely whose understanding and appreciation is he talking about? In the past, it was people whose financial means must have seemed as out of the reach of a factory or agricultural worker as a banker’s salary might be to the average member of the modern wine industry.

We live in very different times. I have met passionate Burgundy-loving Japanese and Poles, for example, whose parents had neither the money nor the desire to drink any kind of wine. Maybe it’s just their turn, just as it is for Signora Mussolini and Stavros.
Robert Joseph