The new normal: just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better
To have asked the question, “Do expensive wines taste better than inexpensive wines” just twenty years ago would have been absurd. Nobody doubted that they did. Throughout history—from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages to the American Founding Fathers to the post-Prohibition boutique winery era to the rise of the modern critic—the conventional wisdom was that the best wines were the most costly, and vice versa. First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy were expensive because of their quality. The implicit assumption, borne out by centuries of experience, was that the greatest terroirs had long been singled out, and therefore, the wines made from them deserved to fetch the highest prices.
Today, to ask the question “Do expensive wines taste better?” has become routine to the point of cliché. Here’s the latest example, from the Providence [Rhode Island] Journal. The author, Fred Tasker, whose column is widely syndicated, doesn’t reach any conclusions. But even to ask the question is to acknowledge that something fundamental has changed in the way Americans perceive wine.
What this “something” is that has changed has everything to do with the times we live in. Authority is breaking down. People mistrust conventional leaders, be they politicians or the pundits who tell us which wines are great and which are not. Social media obviously has accelerated this trend; I don’t think it caused it, because authority was eroding before social media was invented. Now, for the first time in the history of fine wine, people are widely wondering why they should pay so much money for a First Growth or Grand Cru (or cult Napa Valley Cabernet) when study after study proves that not even “experts” can tell the difference between expensive wine and inexpensive wine.
This is a serious issue the wine industry is going to have to address. Speaking as a critic, I can assure you that there are vast quality differences between wines. One bottle of Napa Cab or Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is almost always going to be better (sometimes much better) than another from a different winery, even when the grapes come from the same vineyard. And price does play a role: the higher the price, the more likely the wine is to be better. But I say these things from the point of view of a critic. If I were an ordinary consumer, I’d view people like me as simply defending the old order. “What a dinosaur,” I’d probably think. “He’s so wedded to his notion of things that he can’t see clearly anymore.”
Well, that’s all right. Like I said, authority is breaking down. As part of an “authority regime,” I understand that, and welcome it. Even if I didn’t welcome it, it would come anyway, so I might as well embrace the inevitable instead of fighting it. From a winery’s point of view, this breakdown of authority can be a good thing. The deck is being reshuffled, the playing field is being wiped clean, the chessboard is getting reset. (Stop me before I metaphor again.) What was, is not necessarily what will be. What was not, might be tomorrow. A winery can come from nowhere and suddenly be everybody’s darling. A winery that’s been on top forever could find itself overlooked and ignored, as its fan base ages and dies. Those upholders and defenders of the ancien regime, the Baby Boomer critics, are retiring. Even in the writings of such current writers as Benjamin Lewin, M.W. (whose “Wines of France” I am thoroughly enjoying), I sense a certain reluctance to make sweeping declarations—declarations that Michael Broadbent or Hugh Johnson, or the generations before them, happily would have made.
This movement away from declarations is symptomatic of the breakdown of authority. No longer is it entirely safe to say “Grand Cru is better than Premier Cru” or “First Growth is superior to Second Growth” or “$150 Cabernet is better than $40 Cabernet.” It once perhaps was; no more. Experience, and blind tasting, warn us against such cozy stereotypes.
Still, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I do think there’s something in the nature of human beings that desires hierarchies. We want to know who’s the best basketball team in the NBA (go, Warriors), which restaurant has the best reviews—and what the best wines are. And we are willing to pay a premium for “the best.” So I think that even in the far-off future, the world of wine will be marked by common perceptions of “the best.” I, personally, believe that Bordeaux is on the way down, which is why the chateaux are marketing so heavily in naïve countries, like China. I think Burgundy may be heading south, too, if for no other reason than that it’s so expensive, no critic can afford to taste it anymore—which means the top wines will show up only in the most elite reviews—and out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. I think Napa Valley faces the same dilemma, which presents a great opportunity for Cabernets from Sonoma County and Paso Robles.
Anyhow, it’s clear that, with Millennials, we’ve entered a new era. They don’t care what wine was famous for 500 years. They don’t care what region was exalted by their grandfathers. All bets are off. So to ask if an expensive wine is better than an inexpensive wine is the new norm that wineries are going to have to deal with.