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  • Writer's pictureLushmuddled

Whose Wine Is It, Anyway?

Updated: May 5, 2022

How do you enjoy an $800 bottle of wine?

You don't.

Admittedly, this is a knee-jerk reaction. I'm from a certain background where spending that much money on a wine is, simply, not an option. It would be financially irresponsible of me and my inevitable and immense sense of guilt would overwhelm any enjoyment I might find in the glass.

But let's be real – expensive is a relative term.

The average wine price in Australia is about $20 per bottle which, for some, is going to be a special occasion. For others, that's small change. We all draw the line at different places. But clearly there are people who have the cash and are keen to spend it on luxury wines.

SPACE WINE - a case for Mulder and Scully.

There is an ever growing number of them, too. Last year, a bottle of Petrus was offered to the public at £720,000 (AUD$1.3M). Granted, this wine spent time in low orbit around Earth and came with extra goodies, but let's not pretend that this wine is even on the same planet as most consumers.

Levantine Hill, a Yarra Valley producer, is the latest to join this list. Last month, they released two wines which retail at $800 each. Huon Hooke wrote an interesting article about them which raised some good points, but it got me thinking – who are these wines aimed at?

Not me, and - chances are - not you either.

The answer is the 1%.

Luxury wines account for such a small percentage of global wine production that they could be dismissed as anomalies and statistically irrelevant. But these are the wines which critics and the public tend to talk about. Despite ourselves, we become obsessed.

Levantine Hill - the latest Aussie winery to release an ultra-luxury wine

I spoke to Felix Riley of Felixir Wines about this very issue. After 15 years experience in fine wine retail before launching his own wholesale business in 2013, he knows about Serious Wine. “Yeah, for the bulk of drinkers, a wine like Domaine Romanee Conti is totally irrelevant. But from a professional viewpoint, someone has to stand at the top of the mountain.”

Felix goes on to explain that having an $800 wine in your line up makes that $100 or $80 bottle more attractive. “It's now all painted with the same brush. You might not get the exact same thing as that super-premium bottle of wine, but you might get something close to that experience.”

It is very clever marketing. How much Bin 389 has Penfolds sold because it's simply, and unofficially, called Baby Grange? It creates the idea that you're cheating the system by getting a sneak peek behind the curtain without paying the entrance fee. It will be interesting to see if Levantine Hill's cheaper wines start selling at a faster rate now that two $800 bottles lead the pack.

But what makes them so damned expensive in the first place?

“Ideally,” says Felix, “the cost of goods.” You simply cannot make good wine from bad grapes, and good grapes will cost you. “If you're going to spend $3000 per tonne on fruit, you simply have to charge more for that wine.”

It's as simple as that.

Think of other luxury products, like cars. A Ferrari will get you to the shops just as well as anything else, but it's made using the best technology and materials. It's objectively a better car than my beaten up 1980s BMW, even though it functions in the exact same way.

Felix Riley - courtesy of @felixirwine

Of course, part of the appeal is that these wines become relatively unobtainable and gain a mythological status. People will reminisce about tasting a tiny sip, let alone drinking an entire bottle. In this sense, the higher price makes it more of an occasion and more memorable. “It forces people to pay attention to what they're doing, to what they're drinking. You can always crack open a $15 wine. You can't always drink the good stuff.”

Felix is also quick to point out that, being in the industry, we both have a very skewed sense of where value lies. Which is fair. When you run a shop or a restaurant list, you tend to look for the best value wines, rather than the 'best of the best.' I simply hold a $40 wine to a different standard than I do a $400.

Comparing wine with such vast price differences is, in my mind, a bit like entering a professional athlete into a high-school tournament and then acting shocked at the results. Of course that $400 bottle is objectively better than a $40 one, but a 97 point score is par for the course for one and amazing value for the other.

So shouldn't price be a factor in determining quality here? Does spending ten times more on a bottle necessarily mean it's going to taste ten times better?

Felix brings me back down to earth with a laugh. “There is always that oligarch class. And while enjoyment is subjective, quality is not. They're not selling an $800 or $1000 bottle of wine. They're selling a unique experience. Nothing tastes like Petrus. If you can't afford it, don't buy it. But nothing else tastes like it.”

So, that bottle of Space Wine might not be worth that $1M price tag in and of itself - but how many wines have been to space? That price includes the wine, the story, the cost of it being in low orbit and, of course, bragging rights. Maybe it is worth the money, after all. Provided you have the money.

“Besides,” Felix adds, “there comes a point where critics simply aren't important.”

It is this last point which hits me. How do critics talk about a wine's value and worth when, to the people who buy them, value plays second fiddle to status?

Clearly, there's a place in the world for these luxury wines. Just not in my wine racks.

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