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Drinking Out Loud

Get Over It

Wine has its realities. Why is that so hard to accept?

Matt Kramer
Posted: June 18, 2013

Maybe it’s a matter of experience. Or maybe it’s contrariness. But what is it about some wine lovers that makes them so unwilling to accept certain realities? For example:

The Prices for Napa Valley Wines Are Insane. Every year, simply by calling attention to itself, Auction Napa Valley triggers a spasm of wildfire wine-populist outrage over the “insanely high” prices of Napa Valley wines, especially the Cabernets.

This reaction is not, mind you, because of the truly nutty, if philanthropic, prices commanded at the auction. Rather, it’s because the auction highlights Napa’s remarkable pricing privilege. This year is no different. Suffice it to say that if you, or someone you know, is squawking about this, well, give it a rest.

There’s nothing nuts about Napa Valley’s high Cabernet prices. Quite the opposite. They’re perfectly rational. Downright calculated, really. You want insane? Look at the prices of women’s cosmetics. Now, those are really loony—except that they aren’t because, hey, someone’s paying.

The same is true for Napa Valley wines. Every time I hear yet another red-blooded Everyman tell me how ridiculous Napa’s prices are, what I really what to say is, “Look pal, the only thing wrong here is that you and I can’t easily afford them. Plenty of others can.”

This is the “life is unfair” school of Get Over It. The fact is—and, brother and sister, it sure is a fact—that there are plenty of people who buy wine who have plenty of money. And they like spending that money.

Here’s the real secret to Napa’s pricing success: Buyers of Napa wine want to spend more money on a bottle, not less. Why? Because it makes them feel more secure about the quality of what they’re drinking. Hell, almost no one knows much about wine. But everybody’s an expert on money. So, if this here Cabernet costs $200, then surely it is good.

Ask any psychologist and you’ll fall asleep before he or she finishes reciting the number of studies that confirm the relationship between preconceived expectations, high prices and customer satisfaction.

The bottom line (in every sense) is this: After you’ve paid a lot, you convince yourself that you got something good. Feeling like a chump is much more expensive, so we don’t want to go there.

Now, in fairness to Napa’s Cabernet producers, their wines are good. So it’s not just consumer delusion.

You don’t like the prices? Let me tell you what it is that you really don’t like: You don’t like that you can’t afford them.

But others can. A lot of others, in fact. And if you’re in the Napa business, you’d be crazy not to seek a higher price if you can get it. It’s a business, remember?

When It Comes to Wine, Everyone’s Opinion Is Equally Valid. This is true, but only for you. It’s only true for your judgment about a wine for your palate. But beyond that, no, it’s not true.

This may be a heartbreaker for some, but let me give it to you straight: Some people know more than other people. This seems to be breaking news for those who believe that access to a soapbox—a blog, a Twitter account, a chat board—is tantamount to possessing authority.

Some people’s opinions about wine are—brace yourself—more valid than others’. As George Orwell famously put it in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Why is this so hard for some wine lovers to accept? “We don’t need no stinkin’ authorities,” they say. Oh, but baby, you do. Because too often, you don’t know anywhere near as much as you fancy you do.

Think about it for a second. You’ve got a regular job, right? So that’s 40, 50, even 60 hours a week tied up right there. You’ve got a spouse or significant other? Maybe some kids? So that’s yet more time consumed.

So tell me, how much time do you really have to learn the innumerable fine details of wine? Wine is not the proverbial rocket science. But there’s a lot to it, all the same.

Now, I grant you that there are a good number of obsessed (in the best sense) wine lovers who know an awful lot on the subject. I doff my hat and bow humbly. Really, I do. But your numbers are relatively small.

Now, the larger cohort of folks who do know a lot about wine are, not surprisingly, the folks who do it for a living. They are immersed in the subject. Each of them, by the way, has a different sort of wine knowledge, mostly based upon the nature of their immersion.

For example, wine retailers have a different expertise than those who work in wholesale distributing. Those folks, in turn, are quite different in their expertise and, especially, perspective, than sommeliers.

Winemakers are in a league of their own, for obvious reasons, although their wine knowledge can be deep and yet sometimes overly narrow. Professional wine writers (the smallest cohort by far) are different yet again.

Who knows wine best? That’s impossible to say. It’s a blind-men-feeling-the-elephant sort of thing. What I don’t know about importing and distributing wine—never mind making the stuff—could easily fill the books that my friends in that line of work could (and should) write. On the other hand, my perspective as a writer and critic allows me the kind of remove that their wine business nose-to-the-grindstone simply doesn’t encourage.

So is everyone’s opinion equally valid? Of course not. Some folks know more than others. Why is that so difficult to accept? Get over it.

You think you know about wine? Great. Probably you do. But if you want others to recognize that, ah, then you’ve got to show up with the goods.

And what are those goods? Some people think that a bunch of tasting notes suffices. I’m not one of them. When I look at someone’s chat board posting or blog or print piece, I ask myself, “What sort of insight does this person offer?”

Insight is the key. Insight is the essence. The formula is this: Experience + Thought + Synthesis = Insight.

Now, you can’t be insightful all the time. Sometimes, to borrow from Sigmund Freud, a tasting note is just a tasting note. But if you want your opinion to be something more than just that, show us the insight. It’s as simple—and as hard—as that.

Greg Dunbar
Seattle, WA —  June 18, 2013 1:02pm ET
Thanks for another great article, Matt. There will no doubt be those who will scoff at it, especially the part about pricing, but in reality it's true. I think the prices for Napa Cabs are insane, just as I think prices for some Bordeaux are off the charts crazy. But if someone is willing to pay the prices asked, then it's worth it to them, and that's all that matters.
Steve Kubota
Bellingham, WA, USA —  June 18, 2013 1:38pm ET
Matt, You knocked the glass ball out of the park. I loved your "Get Over It" blog. You covered a lot of "wine" space in one little blog. The blog wasn't tightly wound like a young Bordeaux but brooding, in your face... similar to the big, voluptuous and powerful Napa Valley Cabernets everyone and their dogs covet. I don't mind enjoying less of a good/great thing. Everything in moderation, right? :)



Adam Wallstein
Spokane, WA —  June 18, 2013 2:53pm ET
Is Bill O'Reilly the guest columnist this week?
David Rapoport
CA —  June 18, 2013 6:30pm ET
The point which the above implies is: Even if you're an expert in your knowledge of wine, you may not have the ability to discern flavors better than someone with less studied knowledge.

I frequently find "experts" who leave me wondering just how variable the neurology of flavor construction is.
David Crowther
Tuscaloosa, AL USA —  June 18, 2013 6:55pm ET
Great article Matt. I agree totally.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  June 18, 2013 8:00pm ET
Matt,

I agree with you entirely on your first point and, to an extent, on the second point.

I'm a capitalist/entrepreneur and know that the market bears what the market bears. Prices shall be set accordingly, regardless of how insane they may seem to "outsiders."

On the second point, I understand that most employed folks simply can't spend the same amount of time tasting wines as professional wine critics (Richard Jennings and Jeb Dunnuck [until recently] excluded). In itself that is valid reason for taking any given non-professional tasting note with a grain of salt.

Something you did not touch on was that few "amateur" note writers spit while tasting, so our perception of a wine (or wines) may be affected while we're attempting to draft a comprehensive tasting note. For full disclosure, I put all my tasting notes on CellarTracker under my moniker "tp096255" and I never spit.

Nevertheless, I do highly value the tasting notes of trusted posters to the extent that if what they (as a majority) say about a wine deviates widely from the professional reviewers' then I will NOT purchase the wine. It's that simple. They do, in fact, carry a tremendous amount of weight in my purchasing decisions. Many of these so-called "amateurs" are either avid consumers or professionals within the wine/hospitality industry. While they may not devote the same number of hours to tasting wines in a side-by-side comparison setting, they are actually out there in the trenches trying these wines out under multiple conditions and with cuisine (which is where wine becomes MOST relevant, IMO). To discount their input on a wine in favor of the vacuum of a "professional double-blind" tasting note is foolishness.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Word.

--- Troy Peterson
Marc A Carrano
Connecticut  —  June 18, 2013 11:18pm ET
Utterly well put, I pride myself on being a student of wine and therefore await any and all knowledge I can retain and share. I find myself surrounded by lazy retailers who complain about yellowtail increasing in price let alone a Napa wine. These clowns couldn't sell a $5 bottle without a ten dollar bill attached to it. In regards to California Wines, I try to convey to people that these price increases are in fact not increases at all, these are the prices people were paying five years ago! So to put it straight, whip out the money if you have it, treat yourself to a straight Napa cab or an up and coming blend with some real integrity in the bottle. Otherwise, shut up and stay out of the way of the people that want to know why wine grasps people on an either emotional or intellectual level! We have been put here to enjoy ourselves and all that are around us! Join the party, open a good bottle of "something" and toast to that sacred fact, we are in it for the long haul and life is too short not to enjoy it!
Riccardo Campinoti
italy —  June 18, 2013 11:25pm ET
Some of the best tasters I know are non professional, lawyers , engineers, dentists. You name them. Many times they are better tasters than journalists and winemakers, what does that mean?
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  June 19, 2013 2:15pm ET
Matt, so we are dealing with 2 propositions; first, that Napa wine prices are insane and second, that everyone's opinion is equally valid. On the second proposition there can be no argument with your position; it is clearly not so. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but objectivity is necessary in any discussion on the virtues of wine. It's not a matter of "my favorite wine is the best wine in the world",which is pure subjectivity.
As for Napa wines, there is no question that many are vastly overpriced and few offer anything unique. As a mostly European wine drinker/wine merchant I do look forward to the occasional Napa/California 'fruit bomb' and I can say that many of them are quite enjoyable. But unique is not a word I would use to describe them and I usually ask the wine retailer to suggest something that represents good value for money, because it is very easy to spend $100 and get something that tastes no different to something for $20 or $30. Of course the same can be said for Burgundy and in the latter case one can spend $300 and get a dud. There are oriental wine newbies who have so much money that if they fell off their wallets they would break their necks who think nothing of forking out $500-$1000 a bottle and more and some will plop in an ice cube to boot. There's an old saying "a fool and his money are soon parted". So yes, get over it.
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  June 19, 2013 2:16pm ET
I'm not sure that being a journalist is intended to mean someone is superior in their ability to taste, but I do think it means they are superior in their capacity to taste (and catalogue and describe). Consider the ameteur who leads the US Open Golf tourney after 2 rounds. No one doubts their ability to golf . . . but come Sunday, they are rarely atop the leaderboard. There's a reason, the pros are pros and the amateur is not. Afterwards, these pros are off to the next stop while the amateur goes back home to rest up for the next time he tries.

The amateur wine conniseur may have an incredible palate - better than the pro's, but the amateur will likely not have had the depth or breadth of experience to blind taste through 100 bottles of Napa Cab one day, Cali Syrahs the next and Chardonnay's the third and write at least somewhat a meaningful analysis on each - and, on top of that - probably get it right! Let's face it - half-way through the first day, I'd be confusing yellotail with grange, and when done I probably wouldn't care as, like Troy from Burbank, I probably wouldn't spit either.

We all like to think we have the breadth of knowledge and experience to do what the pros do, but we either don't or can't, no matter what our level of talent in a particular pursuit may be.

My approach is to take recommendations, see if my likes match up with certain reviewers or if I can connect to a certain profile of wines I like and their descriptions and use those as buying guides; then I grab stuff off the shelf I have not tried before and try new stuff; but I usually start with the pros. That's just my approach.

This is supposed to be fun.

(PS - I do not buy expensive Napa cabs, but their pricing seems sane compared to Bordeaux or Burgundy!)
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  June 19, 2013 4:07pm ET
Agree Matt, you put it very well indeed. I am not a Cali Cab fan, but again I am surprised by the constant harping on both theirs and Bordeaux's prices. Show me a Napa cab under $100 and for every one you do, I will show you ten bottles of Bordeaux rated 88 points or higher and priced at $30 or less...its amazing the bad reputation Bordeaux has and I just don't get it. I guess everyone wants to drink Lafite but have Cantemerle budgets! My honest opinion is, if they (both Napa and Bordeaux) can sell them, they should charge whatever the market bears...good for them, and if that is $100, $200 or even $500 per bottle, more power to them, it just won't be to me! Well, maybe for one bottle of Lafite...
Anthony Miles
Seattle, WA —  June 19, 2013 9:19pm ET
Matt-

Deadline sneak up on you this month?

In general, I enjoy your posts and, in this instance, agree with you that it is callow to complain about the price of a wine merely because it is expensive or beyond one's means, but that's where I get off your train. Even taking into account that the Wine Spectator's primary constituency is its advertisers and not its readership; this post is remarkably self-aggrandizing and lacking in perspective: Essentially, you're arguing that not everyone's opinion about wine is valid but every wine seller's pricing is valid. That argument seems to me as demonstrably untrue as it is unhelpful to consumers. You can do much better and have in the past.

Sometimes a complaint about price reflects a considered judgment informed by experience. Many of us choose not to buy wines we can afford because we find they represent poor value. For me, many Napa wines fall into this category, but others do not. Factors that might contribute to my negative assessment of a wine's price include track record of the house/wine maker, ageworthiness, food friendliness, quality of drinking experience, complexity, balance, acidity, and source of ingredients among others. If a lower priced wine is consistantly an equal or better fit for my intended use than Brand X, eventually I will come to perceive Brand X as overpriced. While one should not expect a wine with an established pedigree to be cheap or even affordable, consumers can make reasonable and informed judgments about pricing based on their experience and taking into account a variety of factors. Those who choose not to exercise judgment in this way may get what they pay for or not, but in either case they may well end up less satisfied with their experience than those who do so.

Viewed from that perspective, you might call exercising judgment about pricing in wine purchasing "insight" put into practice. Commenting about that judgment, however acerbically, might also constitute help.
Kevin
Denver, CO —  June 20, 2013 12:16pm ET
Great article, it is a business. But WS perpertuates the issues with glowing ratings and publicity for uber high priced wines that often have such limited allocation only a few dozen are likely to experience. Why bother rating wines with 20 available cases???
Reggie Mcconnell
Terre Haute, IN —  June 20, 2013 1:08pm ET
"Let me tell you what it is that you really don’t like: You don’t like that you can’t afford them."

Quite right. It's called the politics of envy.

"When It Comes to Wine, Everyone’s Opinion Is Equally Valid. This is true, but only for you. It’s only true for your judgment about a wine for your palate. But beyond that, no, it’s not true.

"This may be a heartbreaker for some, but let me give it to you straight: Some people know more than other people. This seems to be breaking news for those who believe that access to a soapbox—a blog, a Twitter account, a chat board—is tantamount to possessing authority.

"Some people’s opinions about wine are—brace yourself—more valid than others’. As George Orwell famously put it in Animal Farm, 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.'

"Why is this so hard for some wine lovers to accept? “We don’t need no stinkin’ authorities,” they say. Oh, but baby, you do. Because too often, you don’t know anywhere near as much as you fancy you do."

Oh dear. I'm afraid this is a bit self-serving of you, Mr. Kramer. (What would we do without these wine experts to tell us what we should like?!)

While we would agree that some people are better versed than others on myriad subjects (no one is in a better position to evaluate my palate than ME).

If Matt Kramer raves about wine xyz and I find it unappealing is your enthusiastic endorsement supposed to make me feel better? I think not. And if it does make me feel better then vanity and status have replaced honesty and that's why "point whores" are Wine Spectator's lawful prey.

Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  June 20, 2013 3:49pm ET
Matt, I really like your article. I completely agree with the 2nd point about Everyone's Opinion. My comments below are about the 2nd point and what I have observed about pricing and markets.

Someone much wiser than I said that in the short term the market is a voting machine. In the long term it is a weighing machine. Witness the stock market in the late 1990's. Everyone thought it would continue - of course it didn't. The same was true in early 2009 when the stock market was priced as though the US was going to go into liquidation. So how does this apply to wine?

Easy. Bordeaux got to outer space pricing-wise with 2009 and 2010. Now they cannot give away 2011 and 2012 and my guess is that it will take a few years to get back to true reality. In regards to Napa, in 2009 there was discussion about high end Napa wines stalling in the market. Some producers cut their prices to sell their products and the market adjusted. I suspect that over the long term a true equilibrium will be established price-wise.

Markets of all types never really stay at equilibrium. They overshoot on the high side and then with they crash they overshoot on the bottom side. In the long term the quality of the wine will be weighed by the market and a "fair" price will get established.

You just have to live with this and hopefully when the market is down and a good vintage comes along you can snap some up at a good price.
Daniel Braun
Princeville, HI, USA —  June 21, 2013 10:22pm ET
I agree with Matt on both counts. For those interested in a price/value ratio, it is fine to look outside of Napa. However, no need to complain about the prices. Get over it. A Volvo has a better price/value ratio than a Porsche. If you can't afford the Porsche anymore or don't see the point that is your right. I am also tired of hearing the complaint.

Furthermore, if you have never tasted Kobe, Wagyu, or Black Angus I will not consider you a steak expert. In fact without those key experiences your steak opinion means almost nothing to me. So in that regards, if you haven't tasted all the Grand Cru's of burgundy over multiple vintages don't be pretending that your opinion on good Chardonnay or Pinot Noir is equal to Matt Kramers.
Pamela Heiligenthal
Willamette Valley, OR —  June 22, 2013 6:31pm ET
Bravo Matt. I am glad you are calling out the Experience + Thought + Synthesis = Insight card. Regarding experience, I often say hands on experience, training and education for wine writers makes them better at their craft but I am usually laughed out of the room when I say this. One day I hope more writers participate in harvest, even if just once in their lifetime. Those that do will have a different perspective on wine and will increase their knowledge exponentially.

~Pamela @Enobytes
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  June 23, 2013 2:00pm ET
"Get over it" applies to market prices anywhere. Agreed. Wait for deals. If a consumer wants to abate the problem, stop being a score whore.

"We know more than you so get over it (shut up)" to paraphrase. OK, the premise may be true in most cases, but what meaning does that have for us? Whom does this gem of advice benefit? We pay you for your reviews, precisely because we put THAT (subscription) VALUE on them. What more do you want from us? Unending praise and adulation? Get over it, it's your chosen job, and you still have personal preferences, so therefore you're still fallible. We know, 'cuz we are too; don't pretend you're different.

Besides, you might, after all your experience, love and revere Bottle A, which I might find common or even distasteful. So I read your reviews, I keep them in mind, as advice. But when I make my way to the store, or my cellar, and choose a bottle, there's only one opinion that matters to me: mine.
Ron Brooks
Alexandria VA —  June 25, 2013 9:02am ET
I love you, man.
Marco Antonio Grisi
Leme - SP - Brazil —  June 26, 2013 12:36pm ET
I've been for the first time in Napa last year. There and everywhere else (in US), if I wanted to drink something good it was not cab, so pricey. I had Pinot. With pleasure. And I fully agree with Matt considerations that most people buy things BECAUSE they are expansive.
Chas Paddock
West Boylston, MA. USA —  June 30, 2013 10:24am ET
Here's some insight from a novice. My wife and I enjoy good red wine. However, acquiring the taste for it has been a life long process. Some of the first red wine we drank was Carlo Rossi Paisano - my wife's grandparents wine of choice - and they were Italian immigrants. We've progressed to fine wines first by being introduced to them by friends, then going to tastings. We buy wine that we enjoy at tastings and our future purchases are based off wines we like or other wines from wineries that we like.

Regarding critics opinions and ratings, tasting notes mean very little to us and frankly, I think it's a lot of recycled 'vinobabble'. However, what is important is to view the critics ratings of wines we like and see how our tastes compare to the wine tasting experts - where our tastes are similar' or 'in agreement' and where they are not. For example, we 'line up' pretty well with many of Robert Parker's ratings.

I subscribed to WS on line to further this methodology, and we've determined where we line up with WS and where we don't. This allows us to occasionally try wines we haven't tasted with a much lower risk being disappointed - and wasting money.

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