Sunday, 4 July 2010

You paid *how* much for that bottle? You twit.

The concept of "value" is rather an amusing one.
It should mean what something's worth but it doesn't, or we wouldn't have old sayings like "he knows the worth of everything, but the value of nothing."
What it means is what something's worth, and right there we have the main reason why sticklers for language can't get along with normal people and why the phrase "that's not what I meant" has any legs at all.
Value, then, steps outside of purely commercial, monetary, supply-and-demand, free-market considerations. It's a bit more personal. Or at least, it's a bit more than point-of-sale.
Value, for example, is when that $26,000 BMW motorbike lasts you ten years, three times around Australia and weekly usage.
Value is, to nick an example from Terry Pratchett (bonus points for identifying the character), when a pair of boots that costs you $300 lasts you ten years, and a pair that costs $100, lasts you two years.
But what I really want to talk about, and why I started this otherwise fairly pointless post, is wine.
Immediately there will be people (assuming anybody's reading this), who will be rolling their eyes and calling me a philistine and going off in a flounce, which is like a huff but for people who drink wine without caring about the cost.
You see, wine is one area that, more than most, defies rational discussion. And I don't just mean because it has a history of causing otherwise sane men and women to say things like "creamy mouth-feel" in public and get away with it.
No, it's because of this: One 5L cask of plonk can cost $10, and a bottle of Penfold's Grange Hermitage (or whatever it's called now, since grape names became copywrit) costs upwards of $400 $500 600.
And before you say that it's worth it: No, it isn't. It is worth it only for two very clear reasons: So you can drink the world's highest-regarded red wine, and so that other people can know you're doing it. Sharing with them may also give you a feeling of smugness or even, let's be charitable, genuine sharing pleasure.
But how much better is it, exactly?
Take the catalogue that fell out of today's paper, from a large-scale franchised distributor of retail alcohol.
It helpfully includes ratings for each wine, out of the standard agreed 100.
There is a 1986 Grange, given 99/100. For $699 (breath! It's only numbers!)
Right next to it on the page, something French from 2006 is 96/100 and $899.
Wait, what?
How does that work? On the same "Something rare" page, a 98 is $499, but a 94 is $59.90 (when prices hit three figures, they stop bothering to put cents on).
At the start of the catalogue, on the very first two-page spread, the cheapest bottle is $9.40 and 94. There are 7 bottles more expensive and lower-rated, and one bottle for $119 is 96. Frankly, I know which one I would be buying.
Turn the page and there's an 88 for 11.90 and a 91 for 44.90.
The catalogue continues in much the same vein until we get to my favourite section, the Fortifieds (yes, I'm a Port man from way back).
At this point, we meet the first perfect score, attached to a 100 year-old Tawny for, wait for it and possibly sit down as if you weren't already, $1,000 for a 375ml bottle.
On the same page, a Tokay receives 93 and is $14.90 for 750ml.
Again, I know which one I'd be buying.
There is, in case you were wondering, one more perfect score - a Muscat which goes for $106.90/375ml bottle.
That's little more than 1/10th the price for the same volume of liquid which is, according to the critics, perfect.
At this point may I suggest that some people are, perhaps, getting ripped off?
Normally I would be quite happy to see anybody who can afford to pay $1,000 for a Port or $699 for a Shiraz, do so. I like wine-makers and want them to do well, preferably at the expense of people who can afford it (i.e.: not me).
But this just baffles me.
Beyond a certain point, your taste (and I will admit that everybody reaches this point at a different, um, point) can't tell the difference between one wine and another, higher-rated, wine. People have even done experiments showing that when subjects think they are drinking expensive wines, they rate it higher even if it's exactly the same as the wine they were told was cheap.
That point may mean that someone genuinely can't tolerate a wine of 94 or below, and I feel genuinely (well, sort of) sad for them.
This isn't even a case of "Oh, you obviously can't appreciate the better wines. No. Honestly, there's something wrong with the rating system when $10 bottles score higher than 90 and there is no nicely usable, real-world correlation between rating and price. Caveat emptor and all that, but shouldn't there be some connection between quality and price? Actually, there's something wrong with the rating system when the lowest score on sale in 88.
Plus: If a 95 bottle can be easily had for $20, that means it takes anywhere up to $200 to add each extra rating point. Except, oh look: here's a Sherry which scores 97 and costs $36.90. 
People, you are being conned.
I'm not sure who by, exactly, but you are definitely being conned.


From My Little Red Pen said...

I have tried cleanskins for $9 and can honestly say they are not as high in quality as, say, a $30 bottle of great wine. The cheaper wines tend to give me hangovers after only two glasses whereas more expensive wine doesn't.

However, there are many beautiful wines you can buy for under $40 a bottle and you can get a passable pinot for under $20.

For me, this has nothing to do with wine snobbery, but everything to do with taste, effect, complexity and an interesting and enjoyable drinking experience.

I have never tried a bottle of wine costing more than $50 (and can honestly say the $30 Australian wines I've tried taste better than the $50 from France). However, for my birthday my partner bought me a bottle of this for $121 - - which I can honestly say is the most divine taste sensation I've experienced in my life; I could sit for hours ruminating over half a glass.

This is the best expensive red wine I've ever tasted - - which you can buy for around $40 and this is the best mid-range - - for around $20.

I think many reviewers of wine may be slanted toward expensive wines because they're excited to have the opportunity to try them and like to brag. Nothing more. But at the same time, I don't believe in cheap wine for anybody over the age of 25 when the intention is to experience taste sensations vs getting hammered!

Dubito said...

That's it, really. There must be a point to putting more effort in, and logic says the more money, the better, despite the exceptions. But at some point...

I find the best as well as cheapest way to both enjoy drinking and to get hammered is homebrew, but that's a whole other issue.

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