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Bordeaux's Limbo Act


James Laube
Posted: April 24, 2003

With Bordeaux-hunting season upon us, the question arises whether Bordeaux is passé or merely a victim of its own success. Astronomical prices aside, this is an important consideration for wine lovers as the 2000 Bordeaux arrive in wine shops. Costco, the nation's largest wine retailer, has bet at least part of the ranch on Bordeaux 2000 with a huge inventory.

Twenty years ago -- or even 10 -- there would have been a mad rush to buy wines like the 2000 Bordeaux, perhaps even at the elevated prices that these wines commanded on the futures market, which is the only practical way to buy the prestigious labels.

But no more. There have been plenty of whispers asking whether Bordeaux has lost its cachet along with its panache.

Critics suggest that Bordeaux wines aren't as hip as they used to be. They don't fit in with the cuisine offered at many of the newer, trendier restaurants, whose owners, or their sommeliers, are just as happy to fill their wine lists with the latest vintages from Australia, New Zealand or Tuscany. The wines from Tuscany, in particular, have enjoyed not only a remarkable renaissance but an unprecedented stretch of top-flight vintages. Tuscan wines are considered to be among the most versatile at the dining table. But their prices are reaching stratospheric levels as well, so caveat emptor.

There's more bad news for Bordeaux. Many retailers and restaurateurs, wisely reacting to their customers' desires for something new and exciting, have given Bordeaux, once the undisputed heavyweight champion of fine wine, a disturbingly cold shoulder. Instead of the sight of a prestigious second- or third-growth on a wine list giving diners an adrenaline high, it is just the opposite. Bordeaux is now for old, rich people? Ouch.

Interestingly, California vintners face a similarly stark market reality as the new year unfolds. Consumers were spooked last year by rapidly rising prices combined with the iffy 1998 vintage and the mixed quality of the soon-to-be-released 2000 Cabernets. There are simply too many $20 wines masquerading as $80 wines, and consumers would do well to look wherever they can for value. California vintners would be wise to consider lowering their prices before their situation worsens and more wine goes unsold.

Last year, at about this same time, it appeared that one of the best buying opportunities, given the state of the market, would be Bordeaux 2000 futures. In terms of the old standard, Bordeaux 2000 looked like a can't miss, sure bet.

But times change. For years, Bordeaux dominated the market, yet today it faces the same battle every wine and region faces -- that of relevancy.

One of the bottom lines for any wine is how to define itself. In the simplest of terms, a wine's importance is tied to either its quality or value. If a wine has one or the other, it is most likely relevant. If it has both, it is likely in greater demand (though not always; witness Riesling's identity crisis). But if it clearly lacks both, it is likely in jeopardy because consumers can live without it.

Of course, Bordeaux isn't the only wine in this proverbial leaky boat. Napa Valley Cabernet, for one, displays some of the same telltale distress signals because it too has become so expensive (though not yet on the thin-air scale of Bordeaux's elite).

What makes the Bordeaux dilemma so fascinating is that even if prices were slashed by half, would that enhance its image? After all, image is the ultimate sales tool for any wine, and price typically defines image. Why else would so many people be spending top-dollar on wines with no track records, as has been the current rage?

The irony is that of all wines, Bordeaux has the track record. It isn't great every year. The truth is, you can pick and choose with Bordeaux, because it usually has only two or three great years per decade -- and 2000 ranks among the all-time greats. Need proof? Check out the prices.

So when you're buying wine this year, and sifting through bins or surfing on-line, keep this thought in the back of your mind: In 10 or 20 years, which wines can you count on to answer the bell in the 15th round? One answer used to be Bordeaux.

Then again, maybe cellaring wines that long may be a thing of the past, in which case all bets are off, and we go back to the start. That is, Bordeaux, and a lot of other wines, are facing an identity crisis compounded by feverishly high prices.

James Laube, Wine Spectator's Napa Valley-based senior editor, has been with the magazine since 1983.

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