The Price of Fame
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
Two recently released wines go a long way toward explaining some of the high prices that you've been seeing lately on your retail shelf.
Granted, they've been given all the love and caressing attention that modern winemaking can offer. They've seen the selective cultivation and harvesting of the grapes in the vineyards, the lavish use of oak barrels and the time and energy of some of the most gifted winemaking minds in the world. Yet their prices are daunting, even for veteran observers of the arms race in wine pricing that has been a hallmark of the latter half of the 1990s.
Read the transcript of Kim's live chat on great values in wine.
Each wine carries an identical price: $70 a bottle. Yet we're not talking here about Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, red Bordeaux or Burgundy, or the "super Tuscan" reds of Italy. Instead, the wines hail from Chile and Washington state. You heard right, $70 a bottle for wines from Chile and Washington, two regions that not so long ago were more associated with value-priced bottlings--and can still rightly be considered on the frontiers of winemaking.
The first wine to be released in this upside-down price war was Almaviva, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend made from grapes grown in the Maipo Valley, just outside Santiago, Chile. It's a joint venture between the large Chilean winery Concha y Toro and the famed Chateau Mouton-Rothschild of Bordeaux.
Then in March came Col Solare, another joint venture, this time between Chateau Ste. Michelle of Washington and the venerable Tuscan wine company Antinori. It too is a Cabernet blend, though where Almaviva uses Merlot and Cabernet Franc in a Bordeaux-style mix, Col Solare is more eclectic, featuring mostly Merlot as its secondary grape, with big plans for Syrah in coming vintages.
Both wines are of impressively high quality for premier releases. The 1996 Almaviva rated 91 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. That score places it among the best wines ever made in Chile, and our Chile expert, senior editor Thomas Matthews, called it a "massive Cabernet blend" with "more concentration than most Chilean reds."
Our man on the Washington scene, editor at large Harvey Steiman, was similarly impressed by Col Solare. The first two vintages, 1995 and 1996, were released at the same time. Of the two, he liked the '96 the best, giving it 92 points and observing that the wine has a "remarkable density of flavor on a sleek frame."
Despite the high quality of both wines, it's still hard to swallow their prices. Unfortunately, the high prices are there for a purpose, which is, ironically, to make sure the wines are noticed. The logic presumes that if they're priced too low, the wines won't gain the respect of the world wine-drinking cognoscenti.
Here's what Piero Antinori told Steiman in justifying Col Solare's price. "If you go lower, you send the message that it's not as good as the wines we know." You could also translate that to mean: "If we price it high enough, they will--and must--buy."
Chimed in Chateau Ste. Michelle president Allen Shoup: "We like to say we're less than Dominus or Opus." He was referring to two Napa Valley Cabernet blends that now cost around $100 a bottle.
In Chile, it's obvious there are similar price comparisons being made, though Almaviva is leading the pack for now. Its closest competitor in the high-price sweepstakes is Sena, another joint-venture Cabernet blend, which carries a price tag of $50 a bottle. It's made by the Robert Mondavi winery of Napa Valley and Vina Errazuriz of Chile.
At Almaviva, the high price is related to the ambitions its owners have for the wine. Essentially, winemaker Patrick Leon of Mouton is hoping to set a new standard of quality in Chile by instilling the winemaking and cultivation methods practiced at the Bordeaux first-growth. He's decreased the quantity of the crop harvested from each grapevine while increasing the density of vines per acre, installed a state-of-the-art gravity-flow winemaking system, and ages almost all the wine in new French oak barrels. All very impressive, and undoubtedly quite an expensive way to make wine.
The $70 price shouldn't come as a complete surprise either, given the track record of Mouton's Opus One joint venture with Robert Mondavi. Its first vintage, the 1979, carried the then-lofty price of $50 a bottle. That price was meant to grab attention as well, and while it proved to be a tough sell at times in the 1980s, production today can barely keep up with demand at $100 bottle.
Only time will tell if Col Solare and Almaviva will have a similar future. I hope not, but don't be mistaken: The prices of these wines have as much to do with marketing as with the quality they offer. There are plenty of other wines from Washington or Chile of similar quality at a fraction of the price. As wine drinkers, you have to ask yourself if you're willing to pay for the snob appeal that's inherent in the prices of Almaviva and Col Solare. If the answer it yes, don't be surprised if the next new blockbuster releases from Chile and Washington are priced at $100 a bottle.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
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