The competition worldwide for premier wines appears to be intensifying in the face of volatile investment markets, disruptive wars, climate change, supply chain gaps, and increases in labor and materials (especially glass bottles, up 20%, and fuel prices). These external pressures on wine prices would explain small increases overall, but not the big jumps in prices of Champagne, Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Burgundy, Italian Super Tuscans, Rhone Syrah, and Southeastern Australia Shiraz. Why are these prestigious wines becoming so much more expensive? We suspect because we are buying a label.
A famous case of collectors paying top prices to buy labels actually occurred earlier in the twenty-first century. Steve Reid, publisher of the Long Boat Key News, cued us into Sour Grapes by the documentary filmmakers Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas, who told the fascinating story of Rudy Kurniawan, the first person convicted of wine fraud in the United States. We found a summary of the case in the October 14, 2016 New Yorker article, “A True-Crime Documentary About the Con That Shook the World of Wine” by Bianca Bosker. Kurniawan esentially put new wine in old bottles and sold the wine under new labels. He did not get caught by wine experts and collectors who tasted the $135 million in wine that he sold. Bosker describes the Kurniawan’s careless error too well for us to spoil your reading of her article.
This precautionary tale brings up the question of what are we buying when we purchase a premier bottle of wine: label or content. Labels obviously play a big role. Winemakers pay well for research on wine label appeal and for design and graphics to put on wine labels. On another level of perception, the label represents a brand name that carries forward in time and develops its own following. Buyers of the brand generally have learned to appreciate the wine it represents. Yet they may appreciate even more the favorable reactions that others have to the brand and, by extension, to a person who owns a bottle of that brand. It all goes back to the label. We buy labels for the best of reasons and the worst.
We see many similarities between paintings and wine. The style and skill of the artist or winemaker has a lot to do with the market value of the painting or wine. Both the 2020 Matt Gondek Broken Family lithographs and the 2017 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon have their origins in the past and cannot be reproduced as before. Each has become a celebrity within its own niche. Each sells for a price a hundred times greater than what one would pay for a poster by an unknown artist or a red wine from an obscure vineyard. The signature on the lithograph and the Harlan Estates label on the bottle make a big difference whether or not a buyer has a strong preference for the product. Some buyers speculate on the prospect of selling the product at a higher price. Others may wish to impress friends or business associates.
Differences between paintings and wine intrigue us to no end. Paintings may enhance walls in homes occupied by multiple generations of a family. As we know from watching Antiques Roadshow, values of paintings at auction may cycle from one decade to another. All the rage in one decade may lose appeal in the next, and odd works of art may climb in value across years. Most buyers of most premier wines plan to consume them or sell them to consumers within their lifetime. Seldom does a third generation inherit a collection of wine. A specific vintage of a wine does not usually stay in the bottle long enough to become more or less fashionable. More likely, buyers discover a wine and increase its popularity (Ridge Zinfandel), or wines from a region improve in quality and gain market share (Cava from Catalonia).
Labels that assure us of high quality wine that will improve with age do serve a worthy purpose. Far too often, though, event planners, caterers and banquest chefs perpetuate the myth that serving cheap Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay will impress the guests. Perhaps they are counting on the tastes of these wines to dull the senses and make plates of spongy salmon and rubbery beef palatable. Such a waste. Why not Malbec from Argentina and Chenin Blanc from South Africa? Too bad we can’t simply change the labels. Guess that would still be wine fraud, though in our minds with good intent.
S. W. Hermansen has used his expertise in econometrics, data science and epidemiology to help develop research databases for the Pentagon, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Agriculture, and Health Resources and Services. He has visited premier vineyards and taste wines from major appellations in California, Oregon, New York State, and internationally from Tuscany and the Piedmont in Italy, the Ribera del Duero in Spain, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in Australia, and the Otego Valley in New Zealand. Currently he splits time between residences in Chevy Chase, Maryland and St. Armand’s Circle in Florida.
Rich Hermansen selected has first wine list for a restaurant shortly after graduating from college with a degree in Mathematics. He has extensive service and management experience in the food and wine industry. Family and friends rate him as their favorite chef, bartender, and wine steward. He lives in Severna Park, Maryland.