Why Are Some Wines So Expensive? And...Are They Worth It?
by Craig Donofrio
The title of this post presents two of the most frequent questions I am asked as a sommelier. I can identify most of the factors that contribute to the “why” of expensive wines. Confusingly, my response to the second part is usually something like…”yes, no, maybe, sometimes, and it depends.”
The reason why some wines are so expensive parallels how many luxury goods and collectible items in the world also fetch inflated sums. In theory, there are several main factors that should contribute to how a wine will be priced to the consumer. In reality, they’re all interconnected and form a complex web of market and emotional responses.
• Growing grapes, producing the wine, bottling, packaging, making a profit, etc.
• These costs can change (either way) each year depending on whims of nature and other factors
Supply and Demand
• Most “fine wine” is produced from specific vineyards that have legal or theoretical maximum yields
• This relative or apparent smaller production sets a higher starting price
• Pedigree relates to the fact that certain vineyards or producers have a long track record for producing great wines and/or wines that age well
• Ratings have become inseparable from price discussions-Anyone not heard of Robert Parker?
• Cult Status refers to wines that have a combination of “small” production, superior ratings, and most importantly, brilliant marketing that can drive prices exponentially higher than deserved
The Supply Chain
• In the supply chain there are producers, “courtiers”, negociants, importers, brokers, wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants who may have each put a markup on the wine before you bought it
Speculation (or how much the market is willing to bear)
• Speculation can occur at any link of the supply chain but is usually most inflammatory when wines eventually reach consumers through auctions or private sales
• As wines get older and more scarce, speculation can grow (it can also shrink as wines become over-mature and their value as a “drinkable asset” decreases)
The issue of whether a wine costing hundreds or thousands is actually “worth it” is a more complex philosophical issue that has implications for all things we buy, sell or trade. In its defense, “fine” wine is a year-long effort of nature, a farmer, and a winemaker put into a glass bottle, and it uniquely has the capacity to translate nuances of all three to us. When you add good company and a hospitable meal, there’s reason enough for me to splurge when I can...
*Here are some of the “Expensive” wines I’ve enjoyed tasting during the last two weeks:
(Tasting notes for these and many other wines will follow shortly in a new, dedicated section)
Corton-Charlemagne, Domaine Vincent Girardin, 2002
Montrachet, Bouchard, 1999
Barolo, G.D. Vajra, 2004
Margaux, Chateau Margaux, 1953
Clos de Tart, Mommesin, 1990
Pauillac, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, 1986
Pauillac, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, 1986
Cote Rotie, Guigal “La Mouline”, 1983
*Editors Note: CD tasted these wines (without incurring debt) to “ensure quality control” for the actual purchaser.