All of us have been haunted in our youth by some seemingly perfect fellow student who our parents held up as a paragon to be emulated.
“Why can't you be more like Ira?” went the refrain. “He’s such a good student. And he plays the French horn. His teachers love him. He’ll get into Harvard.”
Of course, we all privately knew Ira to be a jerk, a little grade-grubbing robot with the personality of a lima bean. But there was no escaping his aura of model-student perfection.
Wine has this same annoying overachievement syndrome. We read about some guy or woman who is impossibly open-minded, unquenchably curious and insanely studious. He or she is always tasting this and studying for that and is forever going on about some obscure discovery. They have no apparent risk aversion.
This, I believe, is a lie. I have yet to meet a wine lover—and I don’t care how wine-curious they claim to be—who is not risk averse. It’s the dirty little secret of wine loving. Most of us, for one or another reason, don’t want to take a chance.
Now, just why this is so varies considerably, not only from person to person, but also with the situation we find ourselves in.
For example, all wine lovers have found themselves called upon to choose the wine at a restaurant. You’ve got a table populated by friends or relations who are either wine-ignorant, wine-prejudiced or who just don’t care. Now, are you risk averse in such a situation? You sure are. You’d be crazy to be anything else. You’ll choose the safest, this-will-please-everybody wine you can find on the list.
But our private risk aversions are something else again. I would posit that they are attributable to just a handful of likely sources:
Price. This is the biggie. Surely, no factor is more likely to contribute to wine risk aversion than price. I don’t mind saying that it’s price that stays my hand. If a wine costs more than 20 bucks, I’m going to think long and hard before reaching for it. High prices, like cold weather, reduce one’s ardor.
Oddly, sometimes it’s a low price that creates the aversion. This is the “how good can it be if it’s so cheap?” syndrome. I know plenty of people (who have fat wallets, you may be sure) who would rather spend more on a wine than take the presumed risk of spending less. They see a high price as an insurance policy premium.
Never Heard of It. I’m guessing that after the hurdle of high price, unfamiliarity is the second-biggest factor in wine risk aversion. The very fact that you’ve never heard of a wine is enough to make you say, “I don’t want it. I’m not taking any chances.” Combine that with a perceived high price—which may not be all that high, by the way—and you’ve got an irresistible whirlpool of wine aversion.
At first glance, this business of “never heard of it” is both obvious and understandable. To reach for the unknown and unfamiliar is so fundamentally fear-inducing as to be atavistic. Probably we’re wired for it, a wine version of the fight-or-flight syndrome.
What’s odd, though, is how even a low price isn’t enough to budge many buyers. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve practically had to plead with friends to try this or that wine, even though the price was just 10 bucks or so. “I’ve never heard of that grape,” they say. “That’s a new producer for me,” was another response.
The lure of the known and the familiar (as well as the much-loved) is powerful. A deep-pocketed, Burgundy-loving friend e-mailed me recently with this: “What I really want is a California Chardonnay that says ‘Leroy’ on the label.”
Lousy Labels. This may surprise you, but my experience suggests that wine labels are significant factors in triggering wine risk aversion. One look at a label is either a powerful turn-on or an equally potent turn-off.
Buyers can be moved by a label’s design. Some will buy a wine because its label is reassuringly old-fashioned (think Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia) while others seek a confident statement of bold modernism (the stark black and white geometry of Gaja).
I remember when Napa Valley’s Far Niente Winery first appeared on the market in the early 1980s. Their elaborate, swirling Art Nouveau-ish label was rumored to be the most expensive in California and maybe in the world. It also provoked a certain amount of sniggering among some self-imagined wine aesthetes for its perceived excess. Boy, were they ever wrong. The wine-buying public loved (and surely still does) Far Niente’s label: “This is what an expensive wine looks like.” They clamored for Far Niente, happily paying a high price.
Myself, I don’t care about the front label so much as I do what I can read on the back label. I want to be sold. I want to be persuaded that this wine, which I’ve never heard of and which is asking more money than I’d care to spend, is worth buying. Old vines. Low yields. Whatever. Something. Most back labels, alas, are piffle. And I usually put the wine back on the shelf.
Are you wine risk averse? Is it money? Unfamiliarity? The look of the label? Or is it something else yet? The wine risk aversion hotline is open.