When critics can no longer know fine wines

Prices for fine wines have skyrocketed, while wine writing income has stagnated. Robert Joseph says that, increasingly, wine writers have little experience of fine wine to draw on.

Photo by James Harris on Unsplash
Photo by James Harris on Unsplash

“But I can’t afford that!”

The comment, by a well-respected wine writer at a London en primeur tasting of 2018 Burgundies, seemed reasonable; £2,380 ($3,100) for 12 bottles of Clos des Lambrays is a very hefty price. But so is £210 (£275) for a Hautes Cotes de Nuits at the same tasting.

That writer is far from alone in lamenting the high prices of top Burgundies, Bordeaux, Brunellos and blockbusters from Napa. Most of the other people tasting those 2018 wines didn’t seem as bothered. Most were sommeliers who evidently saw little problem in getting their customers to buy the wines at three times those prices. 

Some of those customers were probably among the bankers and hedge fund managers who turned up to taste after work, and perhaps included a few of the 700 or so UK-based Goldman Sachs senior managers who, in 2018, apparently earned over a million pounds in salaries and bonuses. Remuneration at other top financial institutions is not dissimilar. 

Given the limited supplies of Côte d’Or Burgundy and other super-premium wines, buyers like these probably represent a significant chunk of the market.

A lot has been written about income inequality, especially since the 2013 publication of the French economist Thomas Picketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. For the purposes of this post, the gap I’m interested in is the one between the buying power of the wealthiest wine drinkers and the people who make a living as wine communicators.

When I began to write a column in the Sunday Telegraph in 1985, classed growth Burgundies and grand cru Burgundies were expensive, but not unattainable for someone on my salary. Indeed, there were wine critics who bought cases of these wines every year.

Those critics’ income almost certainly hasn’t risen at anything like the same rate as the bankers, or the prices of those wines. Indeed, there are publications that are paying the same rates today as they did two decades ago.

At the end of 1986, in my early days at the Sunday Telegraph, the average US household income was around $30,000. At the end of last year, it was $59,039. So, in simple terms, if we were to take no account of inflation, for every dollar a wine drinker had to spend on a bottle 34 years ago, they’d have two today.

So, let’s look at how that translates to wine buying. Thanks to a 2011 piece by Gregory de la Paz in Fortune, we know that, in 1986, a customer of the Crossroads wine shop in New York would have been able to buy 1982 Lafite for $83.99, and 1983 for $49.50. 

If a US household collectively worked for 2,000 hours per year, it would have taken roughly three and a half hours to pay for the 1983 and five and a half for the 1982. Today, at $950 a bottle, the 2015 would require 32 hours, or about 80% of a working week.  

Lafite may be an outlier, but the difference between the eight hours it would take to fund a $228 Chave Hermitage 2013. And the same applies to a frighteningly long list of ‘fine wines’.

This matters. Assuming the critics have the same kind of day-to-day expenses as other human beings, these figures suggest that very few of them can afford to buy much top wine – and that their exposure to it has been increasingly restricted to tastings of young wines, where assessments are based on fairly brief encounters. For mature and maturing examples, they rely on lunches and dinners provided by producers and merchants. 

Not only does it seem to reduce their value as sources of information and advice to would-be buyers of investment-grade wines, but it also makes them less able to judge the potential of wines that seek to fall within that category. If you haven’t watched enough really fine wines evolve over time, how can you foresee the future of a wine you have only just met?

Of course, talented wine critics could at least partially solve these problems by finding a job within the fine wine trade. That, of course, would undermine any claim to impartiality, but just think of all those opportunities to taste great wine. 

Maybe the people seeking expert advice won’t mind the person who provides it having a dog or two in the race, but for anyone who believes in independent criticism, something will have been lost.

Robert Joseph

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