The wine world is changing. Wine is changing. Amidst recurring discussions of trends and the globalization of wine (as a result of the influence of a purported small cabal of people), and murmurs that not every wine-producing region has the stuff to make world-class, complex wines, there is one essential point that goes unmentioned:
Democratizing luxury goods – making them appealing and accessible to the average consumer – devalues them and causes a decline in quality standards.
A luxury commodity is devalued by democratization because increased supply makes the good more common and, thus, less desirable. This seems to be the basic tenet of this book. Additionally, quality inherently declines with increasing volume of production.
Democratizing a good also results in declining quality of the product because esoteric and acquired tastes do not appeal to a wide base. Often, a luxury good is wrapped in legend and is equated with status. In its true and faithful form, it may not appeal to the mainstream. Caviar and cigars are examples of such luxury “acquired tastes” as much as wine is.
Whenever a commodity is democratized, it is altered in character, nature and production methodology to give it the widest appeal possible. Because the broader consumer base is not necessarily versed in wine’s history, intricacies and nuances, the character and nature of the commodity must be adjusted to conform to what pleases the consumer.
If we think of the quality of wine in terms of subtlety, complexity, fidelity to varietal and regional typicity and other characteristics that could be grouped as “acquired tastes” as well the need for bottle ageing by the consumer, then quality must inherently decline if the product is to satisfy broad market demands. Not everyone appreciates varietal typicity, regional variation, finesse or having to wait a decade for optimal drinkability. And, let’s face it, nuances are lost on some consumers. We live in a “me, Me, ME” culture where the wine has to please the consumer on his or her terms and not by virtue of its own merits.
Yes, the majority of modern wines are clean, free of flaws and, for the most part, enjoyable. But that does not make them the pinnacle of winemaking. “Clean and enjoyable” is not synonymous with high quality. Neither is power or immediate accessibility.
The fact is though, that much of wine making today is geared towards clean and simple wine ready for consumption because it is less risky to make these wines. This is true both from a winemaking and a business standpoint. It allows the producer to deliver a consistent product to satisfy the consumers’ expectations and desire for immediate gratification.
And so, we arrive at the concept of entry-level luxury, which is luxury in name only.
Example: Jaguar: an elite car with a reputation for style, refinement and class. Now in the hands of Ford, the line offers an entry-level vehicle in the mid-thirty thousand Dollar range (X-Type). Almost anyone can buy one, but are they buying the same standard as the $95,000 model? The X-Type is more likely to be a Jaguar in name only. The same sentiment is directed at the BMW 318ti or the Mercedes-Benz C class coupe.
I am reluctant to indulge some conspiratorial thinking of a cabal of a handful of people dictating a global style of wine. Quite the opposite, I have said that those blamed for altering the style of modern wine are only validating the preferences of the mainstream consumer.
It is the masses, which seek luxury goods and find that need fulfilled by entry-level luxury goods, that drive this trend. In turn, producers, seeking more of those consumers’ business, offer ultra-premium wines made to appeal to those mainstream consumers who may be able to scrape up the extra hundred bucks to pay for the perceived increment in quality “signaled” by the higher price point.
The good still has to meet the consumer’s expectations – even if those are ill-informed and misguided. If the product doesn’t deliver, they will not buy it again. If it does, they will continue to buy it.
Consumers who make their way to wine by way of entry-level offerings which meet their expectations or preconceptions of wine advance to higher tiers of wine. Their personal expectations of wine are the engine which, powered by their wallet, directly drives the style of wine in the next higher tier.
So often, we hear that Robert Mondavi advocated for wine being a daily part of “the good life” for everyone. However, he also said that California wine has yet to attain the subtlety that marks French wines. If: 1) the majority of wine consumers are attracted to big, clean and simple wines, and 2) subtlety along with complexity, finesse and varietal and regional typicity are both hallmarks of quality and esoteric “acquired tastes”, then the achievement of high quality wines is precluded by democratization of wine.
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