There’s only two kinds of winemakers: 1) those who care more about making money, and 2) those who care more about making grapes. The first kind is trying to sell you a bottle of wine for $6.99, and the second kind is trying to sell you a bottle for $35. That’s a gross generalization, and it seems counter intuitive, but there’s truth in it—the $6.99 winemakers are attempting to make more money off of you than the $35 winemakers. The $6.99 winemaker invests in machines and real estate deals to mass produce wines in order to hit mass volumes of sales—whereas the $35 winemaker invests in people, believing that a lower yielding, handcrafted, and artisanal touch makes every difference.
People (vs. machines), as you know, are expensive. But, as a wine consumer, if you’re interested in making great wines a part of your life, you’ll eventually hit a crossroads and ask yourself—are you okay with a work of art painted by a computer? Or are you interested in art painted by a Picasso?
While you’re deciding, let’s explore some of the major factors contributing to why wine is so damn expensive.
Actual cost of human labor and talent
Producing a barrel of wine isn’t all that different than producing a Hollywood feature film. The required stages of production have been well defined over the ages.
The winery boss (studio head—think Harvey Weinstein or Jerry Bruckheimer) buys the property, which in this case is a plot of soil. If you’re talking Napa soil, you’re paying a premium—easily spending $350,000 per acre. If you’re buying Burgundy soil, you’re paying the highest premium in France. How about Temecula, California?—a bargain, but can you make a commercial hit with those vines? It’s like buying a script on spec from an unknown writer. So, highly-educated consultants are brought in to provide coverage, all to answer the vital question: How good is this land? And what kind of grapes can we grow? The boss has to know the script is quality or already has a pre-sold audience with franchise potential. The better the script, the higher the bidding price.
Enter the most important person on the team who’s above-the-line: the Director. Or in this case, the wine director or, simply, the winemaker. In the wine world, the winemaker is the star. The only difference is, in this world when you’re a star hardly anybody knows your name. Does Heidi Barrett or Christian Moueix ring a bell? Didn’t think so. But make no mistake, the wine world is filled with its Michael Bays and James Camerons—those who have a long track record of delivering blockbusters—and your mavericks and visionaries, the Scorseses and Coppolas—as well as your indie breakouts, the Alexander Paynes and Kathryn Bigelows. The winemaker has a hand in deciding everything in the winemaking process, and the winemaker’s reputation is built on either their box office success or artistic achievement (think critical acclaim or Oscar nominations). The higher the reputation, the higher the winemaker’s asking price.
This is the Fall harvest. There may be no more important decision in the winemaking process than determining the ripeness of the grape and the timing of when to pick the grape off the vine. This takes a heroic combination of intellect, sheer gut sense and confidence. The final decision is ultimately the winemaker’s, but it is a team effort. Once the decision is made, it sets off a string of processes for the winemaking team: sorting, destemming, pressing/crushing (yes, I Love Lucy fans, you know this part!), stirring etc. of the grapes. Depending on how artisanal the quality of the wine is, the higher the cost of human labor. Like the movie business, the production process is under a tight schedule, takes long hours in a condensed period of time, and is easily over-budget, rarely under-budget.
After production is a wrap and the film is in the can—in this case, the wine juice has sat in a wood barrel or steel or cement tank (and these things are not cheap by any means)—then begins the editing and mixing process, or as the French call it, elevage. This involves tests in the laboratory to determine the chemistry of the wine, filtering, experimenting with blending in other wine types, and controversially, sometimes adding or otherwise playing with chemicals (the equivalent of sound, color or digital correction). Any filmmaker will tell you a great film is made in the editing room. The same goes for wine. The artistic decisions made in Post-Production can make or break a wine. This stage in the winemaking process in particular is where the artistry and talent flows.
Okay, so the movie is done. Everybody goes home. Yes, but not quite. New players arrive to take care of the business aspects of getting an artistic product out to the public. We’re talking a whole lot of middle men—for bottling & corking, label design and other marketing, truckers and pilots, wholesale brokers and sales teams. By the time the bottle arrives on a shelf at a retail store, it costs 2x as much as when it left the winery.
There’s endless factors that affect the price of a wine bottle—and we’ll address other things, such as the type of grape, low yields, history and breed, the Robert Parker effect, and cult status, in Part 2 of this article—but those factors above should give you plenty to think about the next time you see a two-dollar wine on the shelf at Trader Joe’s—and, hopefully, make you feel good about spending extra bucks for a wine made by people who are really passionate about what they do.
Note: there are important exceptions. One of life’s great pleasures is discovering great wines out there which somehow manage to achieve an artisanal quality in the $12-20 price range, especially from countries outside the United States (such as Argentina, Chile and Portugal) where land costs are not so inflated and/or labor costs are significantly lower—or because the wines are underpriced in relation to quality because they are made from a region or grape varietal that most consumers find unfamiliar (like Morgon, Malbec, Moschofilero, Muscadet, Montepulciano, Vinsobres or Vacqueyras)—or because, in some places such as France, Italy, Spain, Australia or certain regions of the U.S., there is such an abundance of good grape crops that winemakers can deliberately price exceptional wines at a relative discount in order to reach the mass market via restaurant menus or big retailers.
On the flip side, there are plenty of wineries in the world who are guilty of gouging the consumer with their inflated prices simply because their grapes come from a neighborhood that has a brand name. Napa and Bordeaux, in particular, deserve special egregious mention. Buyer beware, just because a winery from these, and other, prestigious areas charges you $150 for a bottle doesn’t automatically mean it’s worth it. They do, because they think they can. Let’s call it guilt-by-association, if you will.
The Corkscrewer Report is committed to finding you the stuff that’s got great art behind it, while keeping our eyeballs firmly on the pricetag. We’re out to discover Picassos before they became Picasso—the Mean Streets before Martin Scorsese made The Wolf of Wall Street, the Flirting With Disaster before David O. Russell made American Hustle. We’re also going to bring to your attention the acknowledged classics—the Casablancas, the North By Northwests, The Godfathers, the great art created by the masters. Also your La Regle du Jeu, Ladri di biciclette and Almodovar foreign gems that make you feel glad you went outside your safety zone.
Great art is never cheap. Great art also comes in many guises. Wherever there’s great art behind a $12 or a $120 bottle of wine, or behind a bland or a beautiful looking wine label—we’ll find it and we’re going to tell you about it.
Great Wine: Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon