Where Does the Buck Stop?
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
Some folks must have whatever's hot. They'll pay anything for "the best" or "the newest." The latest instance of this "gotta have it" mentality was just on display when Picasso's "Dream" sold for $48.4 million at Christie's in New York. Another of the artist's works, "Version 0" of the "Women of Algiers" series sold for $31.9 million.
Are these paintings worth it? Apparently they are to those who bought them. The same goes for wine prices. If you can afford to pay $250 to $300 a bottle for first-growth Bordeaux -- and you've just got to have it -- then by all means, pull out your checkbook. Like Picasso's paintings, these wines make a great artistic statement at any price.
But it's a bit depressing for those of us who, not so long ago, could afford to buy Lafite and company, but now must rely on whatever remains in our cellars from the good old days. World demand has created wine prices undreamed of even a decade ago.
The good news is that drinking great wine no longer requires an investment in Bordeaux first growths. Here in California, for example, there is a lot of terrific wine selling for a fraction of what the best Bordeauxs and Burgundies currently list for.
The question is not whether French wines are better than American wines. It's simply whether you're interested in finding quality at a reasonable price. Let's say you make $100,000 a year. Does $3,000 (or 3 percent of your gross income) for a case of 1995 Bordeaux sound reasonable? I, for one, would need a better return on my daily drinking investment. Generally speaking, I want a really good wine that doesn't cost me a fortune -- let's say, one that's priced under $20.
California's top-notch wineries often charge more than twice that amount. It's still cheap compared to Bordeaux and Burgundy, but it's too much for my taste. A $50 price tag remains mostly market-driven; it has little to do with production costs.
These high-priced wines are earning a fortune for vintners. Yet winemakers such as Helen Turley, who makes terrific wines like Marcassin (her own label), Colgin and Pahlmeyer can't be faulted for charging what they can get for a bottle. After all, winemaking is also a business. Why shouldn't it be profitable? (I bet the markup on silicon chips is hefty too.)
Increasingly, consumers complain about not being able to get on the mailing lists for Turley's wines. They write desperate letters to other currently fashionable wineries too, begging for a case of this or that.
I think these thirsty wine lovers are wasting their time and selling themselves short. Sure, if you've got the bucks and the connections, you can buy what you like. But there are plenty of other fish in the sea.
Personally, I've always been attracted to the excitement of discovery. When I first began buying wine, two decades ago, my favorites were those that I stumbled upon based on a tip from a friend or a savvy wine merchant.
Today, I still revel in the discovery of a new wine. At Wine Spectator, we see more and more new labels released every year as the wine industry expands. Many new ones come from experienced winemakers breaking away from their old employers. These wines are often excellent, ageworthy and reasonably priced -- that is, until they're "discovered." Names like Patz and Hall, Talley and Leonetti Cellar (from Washington) come to mind.
Some wineries, like The Hess Collection in Napa Valley, continue to maintain prices under $20 for exceptional wines. In addition, a recent surge in popularity for varietals such as Sangiovese, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc has led to new, sometimes outstanding lower-priced wines in these categories.
Quite frankly, I don't want to set off a stampede for a particular newcomer right now. My advice is to just go out hunting. If you find a good wine at the right price, pick up a case. Have you purchased a $15 Cabernet that seems as though it might age well? Buy enough to wait and see. Remember that Bordeaux first growths were downright cheap two decades ago. They're really not much better now, just a lot more expensive.
A few years back, one presidential campaign's motto was, "It's the economy, stupid." That same economy has driven prices skyrocketing to exaggerated levels today. But quality still abounds behind many lower price tags. All it takes to reap the benefits is an open mind and an inquisitive spirit.
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 roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.