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Professing The Future

Posted: February 3, 2000

Professing The Future

By Matt Kramer, columnist

It's nice to see so many of you in attendance so late in the school year. I know many of you have holiday and -- dare I mention it? -- millennium plans. But, as promised, I will take questions from the class before we adjourn for the term.

Yes, you in the back row. Do I agree with Professor Laube's prediction that a crash is coming?

Well, yes, much to my surprise, I do agree with Jim. I'm always surprised to find myself agreeing with him, which is too damned often. Anyway, Professor Laube is right on the (bloated) money in his prediction that life as we know it is coming to an end.

Actually, I think Jim said something to the effect that the wine price bubble will burst. He's right. Today's prices are absurd, and everyone -- including the producers -- knows it.

Yes, the lady in the third row. Aren't we wine writers to blame for this run-up in prices?

How can I put this politely? Hell, no. You're to blame. Who do you think is buying all this stuff? (Well, all right, it was me, too. I went wild on the '96 Burgundies, both red and white.) All kinds of wines get good scores, even 90 points or more, and don't achieve the nosebleed prices that a handful of Napa Valley Cabernets, a battalion of red Bordeaux and a bunch of Burgundies achieve. We want these wines, seemingly at any price.

Yes, the gentleman in the suede sports jacket. What will be the bargains of the new millennium?

Excellent question! I'll tell you what won't be the bargains -- namely, all the ones that aren't right now: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Barbaresco, Napa and Sonoma. Kiss 'em good-bye. They're not recession-proof (nothing is), but they're the most sought-after wines and consequently the most resilient.

I'll tell you where I'll be looking. Hungary, for starters. There've been huge investments in the Tokay district by some real pros, including big-buck operators like the mega-insurance company AXA, among others. And it's not just going to be the sweet stuff, either. Look for really good, inexpensive dry white wine from the Furmint grape variety. Elsewhere in Hungary, we'll see increasingly good Szürkebarat, better known to most of us as Pinot Gris.

Italy is a perennial winner in the good-deal category. Traditional Chiantis -- i.e., ones that haven't been sullied with Cabernet or gussied up with small French oak barrels -- will still be deals. Regrettably, they'll also be harder to find. You know why.

In France, the Loire Valley will remain a treasure trove. It's still the world's greatest undiscovered wine region. Why? Largely because it lacks what might be called "locomotive" producers.

Wine districts that command high prices do so because of producers who, by dint of quality and unrelenting promotion, realize prices twice or more than their neighbors'. There's Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco; Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leroy in Burgundy; Bordeaux has its price-setting first-growths and Château d'Yquem in Sauternes; and Napa Valley has a rotating stable of overachievers.

If these folks get, say, $200 a bottle, then everyone else in their regions can declare their wines a "bargain" at $100.

The Loire Valley lacks this. (So does Chianti, for that matter.) There's no Loire winegrower who has really raised the pricing tide for his or her fellow sailors the way Angelo Gaja single-handedly did for all of Piedmont. So Loire wines remain real deals, even as quality keeps improving.

Yes, madam, you in the yellow outfit. You ask whether wine will ever become normal in America?

You know, strange as it may sound, wine already is normal in America. When I first started writing about wine, more than 20 years ago, there were still plenty of newspapers -- big ones, too -- that had a rule forbidding food photographs that showed a glass of wine. Obviously, that's all gone.

Forget per capita consumption. It tells us nothing significant. What counts is cultural identification. Today, many Americans now see wine as well within the range of normal American behavior.

When it comes to wine, we're in. We've crossed the cultural threshold.

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. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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