Price and Pleasure

With the increasing prices of some fine wines, are they bringing the pleasure or the stress to the wine collectors, lovers and drinkers? Here is the view from Robert.
by Robert Millman

I have argued before that there is but a tenuous relationship between wine price and quality. This applies, by the way, to many things other than wine: A Picasso that sold at auction for 12 million ten years ago did not become a better painting when it sold for 50 million ten years later! The price quadrupled, the painting as painting remained the same. That some collectors value the same painting more highly is a reflection of market forces and liquidity. It is very doubtful that the seller got bored with the painting or decided that in his eyes Picasso was not as great an artist as he or she once believed. If price and quality existed in a one-to-one relationship then as prices went up the inherent quality of the object would increase. This of course is absurd. It is true that world opinion of works of art and sometimes wine changes. With the vagaries of opinion go changes in market prices. Today a Picasso is worth about 50 times a Corot painting. This ratio may increase or decrease with no changes whatever in the works themselves! I would go so far as to suggest that when price increases beyond a certain level, the value of the painting for the owner seems to decrease. The price, subjectively, comes to replace the work as a work of art. It becomes, for the owner, its price tag.

I am suggesting that this has happened to certain liquid works of art otherwise known as Grand Cru Burgundies, and Bordeaux, California Cult Cabernets and now increasingly Barolos. It is true that starting around 2010, the quality of the wines from these regions has improved significantly. So has world liquidity giving more and more potential collectors the means to try to get their hands on these wines. In the case of Grand Cru Burgundies and a number of famous Barolos, limited production—which is inherent to such wines—has only served to increase competition for ownership of these rare wines. It has now gotten to the point that many wine lovers who have been collecting and drinking these wines have come to a very disturbing conclusion: they get less pleasure and joy from opening these wines than when they sold for much less! How many times have I heard someone who objectively could afford to pay current prices say something like” “I can’t afford to drink my Coche Dury or Harlan Estate Cabernet or Roberto Conterno Monfortino any longer.” Why not? After all, the wines have already long been paid for. The wines are “free” so to speak.

What I believe is going on here, is that opening such bottles which are now so extravagantly priced feels either wrong or disagreeable—as if the pleasure in drinking such wines has gone away. If a 25-ounce bottle contains 50 half-ounce sips and the wine now sells for $5000 (that originally cost say $500) then each sip “costs” $100. When an owner reaches this point then the wine is no longer a wine but has become a price calculation: “I can sell my Coche Meursault Perrières for $5000 and buy eighty assorted bottles of Donnhoff Rieslings.” (This calculation is accurate, not theoretical.) No wonder that so many individuals with terrific wine cellars are now sellers, not buyers of these types of wine. They have literally and figuratively lost their taste for some wonderful, but now apparently over-valued wines. Thus, does price undermine pleasure.

Robert Millman

Robert Millman’s wine career began in the early 1980s, when he began working from Morrell & Company, one of the USA’s top wine retailers. During that time, he co-founded Executive Wine Seminars (EWS) with Howard Kaplan, which over the years became one of NYC’s most highly regarded wine events companies. EWS organized and conducted over 1000 wine events during its prestigious thirty-three year history. High points included Robert Parker being a regular guest presenter at the tastings, and through 2011, the results of the tastings were published on the Wine Advocate website. Having reached an age where taking a step back from the wear and tear of life in the wine fast lane made sense, Millman currently enjoys being a taster and wine writer for Grapes the Wine Company, an excellent, leading e-retailer based in Westchester (NY). 

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Robert Millman