The Wine Critic’s Responsibility & the $1600 Wine

At what point does a wine reviewer have an obligation to comment on the price of a wine, in addition to its quality and characteristics?

Pierre Rovani, a man who has proven himself to have a magnificent palate, rated the 2002 Domaine de la Romanee Conti Romanee Conti 90 points. The written review was ordinary.

The wine costs $1680.00

You have to ask yourself if there is any point at which the circumstances of a wine demands the reviewer comment on the quality/price relationship.

Let me be clear about one thing. This wine is worth the money……if you assess the value based on market demand alone. And this is a legitimate way to assess the value of any product. DRC will sell out of this wine at retail with no problem. DRC Romanee-Conti is perhaps the most famous wine in the world made from perhaps the most famous vineyard in the world. People will buy it all up on these grounds alone.

But there is a more common way that the majority of wine lovers use to assess the value of a wine: the degree to which it pleases them. This also is, in my opinion, the way by which a wine reviewer should be assessing the value of a wine. Now clearly this is what Rovani guaging in giving 90 points to the 2002 DRC Romanee Conti. In addition, Rovani is being consistent. By my account he rarely comments on pricing in the context of a review. The same can be said for Robert Parker’s reviews. However, occasionally mention will be made that the wine is priced fairly.

But here is the essence of what I am claiming: a truly all encompassing review of a wine, one that delivers real useful information to a reader, is one that not only evaluates the wine on its qualitative merits but also on its price/pleasure value. And the DRC in question clearly has what must be one of the worst price/pleasure correlations in the world right now.

I’m inclined to think that simply writing the review next to the notation that the wine costs $1680 is "enough said". That we all can figure out that we aren’t getting much for our pleasure dollars by purchasing this wine. But by not mentioning this gaping expanse between quality and cost, even in the context of "market value", the critic seems to be saying, "it isn’t an issue."

And if the gap between pleasure and cost is not issue than answer me this:

Is it appropriate for a winery in California that receives a score of 94 for their $50 Pinot Noir to say in their marketing materials that their wine, according to the Wine Advocate, is not only much better than the 2002 DRC, but costs 33X less?

Is this appropriate? Are we talking apples and oranges?

I don’t think so. But when a critic is confronted with this kind of massive gulf between their assessment of a wine and the cost of a wine, yet makes no mention of this gulf, this is the kind of conclusion that seems to me to be absolutely OK. And I wish some winery would do this.

Posted In: Rating Wine


8 Responses

  1. Mithrandir - January 4, 2006

    I don’t know what process most critics use when evaluating wine. But if it were me (and I had the resources of a professional critic), I’d make sure I wrote my reviews price-blind. Probably name-blind as well, but that’s a separate issue. At any rate, such a practice precludes the possibility of commenting on value, but it also means that a $1680 bottle doesn’t earn undue brownie points for being expensive.
    It wouldn’t be hard to have an editor or assistant add the market price of the wine at the end though; combined with a useful numeric score, that would be enough to let the consumer draw his own price/performance conclusions.

  2. tom - January 4, 2006

    It seems altogether reasonable that a reviewer could, first, review the wine without knowing the price, then upon discovering the price and the producer, conclude their review by discussing the “price/pleasure” relationship. Particularly in this case. I mean is there any way anyone can justfy the purchase of this wine based on the pleasure giving analysis alone? Isn’t that relevent? Seems to me it is.

  3. Murray - January 4, 2006

    I find a wine review that does not take into account the perceived value is rather pointless.
    If allocating a point rating, a separate “value” rating should also be present, or the value should be somehow indicated in the text of the review.
    Perhaps as Mithrandir suggested, the point score should be calculated before the price of the wine is known, however this would not be possible in most cases as each vintage of popular wines tend to be somewhat similar anyhow. The reviewer would already have a solid idea of the price of many wines.

  4. Gerald Weisl - January 4, 2006

    Keep in mind that few critics ever reach into their wallet to actually PAY for a bottle of wine, whether it’s a modestly-priced bottle or something extravagant. Asking them to comment on high priced wines is a bit like asking them to kill their golden goose.
    There are many wine producers who bank on consumers equating a high price with high quality. (Like I need to tell a marketing whiz, such as The Warkster, this!)
    I tasted the range of 2002 DRC wines and was more enchanted by La Tache and Richebourg than the Romanee-Conti wine. I also recall reading Aubert de Villaine saying he felt the 2001 vintage was superior to the 2002s. With respect to his domaine, he may well be correct.
    One problem for various wine writers is they are often quoted out of context by wine sellers…One importer, for example, quoted a journal as calling a particular wine a “good value.” The journal cited a price for this wine at about $30 retail. The importer’s wholesale price was about $30, making the wine a $40-$45 retail, generally. And no vendor is going to quote a critic in blasting a wine for its high price.
    Various critics, especially Robert Parker, have a major impact on the price of particular wines (as Parker does with Bordeaux, especially). Years ago Parker criticized some wineries for having high prices, but much of the pricing was simply the market reacting to his high numerical rating for certain wines. Unfortunately some wines are more “commodities” than they are “beverages.”
    The US importer for the DRC wines cites demand in Las Vegas, for example, with causing the price spiral (upward) for the wines. I can tell you, as a long time DRC customer, we see far fewer bottles these days than we did a decade ago. The prices are ridiculous, though many of the wines are certainly exceptional. Happily, other domaines in Burgundy have become of interest over the years and we can still drink good wines from the region.
    We recall, though, The Wine Spectator asserting the DRC should not have even bottled its wine one particular vintage. In a blind-tasting at the shop, the DRC Echezeaux (their least costly bottle most years) from that “awful” vintage finished in first place. It was a wonderful bottle of wine and we wondered why a critical publication would have this opinion.
    Back in the early 1970s, Robert Mondavi used to invite merchants, restaurateurs and writers to blind-tastings of their Cabernet pitted against far more costly (and famous) Bordeaux. Even if his wines ‘lost,’ they always could point out their relative ‘value’ given the price differential. Hugh Davies at Schramsberg, today, travels far and wide conducting tastings of his bubbly against prestigious (and more costly) Champagnes.
    Tom, if we were “filthy rich,” we might find certain triple-digit priced bottles to be “good values.” Our problem is we are not in an especially high income tax bracket and so we have more earthly perspectives of wine pricing.

  5. Dan Fredman - January 4, 2006

    Gerald’s comment, that “if we were “filthy rich,” we might find certain triple-digit priced bottles to be “good values.”” is spot on. I’ve got friends for whom $1700 for a bottle isn’t out of line, if it offers the cachet one finds in a bottle of Romanée-Conti. More power to them! (particularly if they invite me along when they open such wines).
    The reality is that there are some wines you buy to drink and others you buy to collect. At times the two categories intersect. My sense is that the 2002 DRCs are probably showing at a 90 point level now, but will be much better with age. I’m sad that I can’t afford to put my money where my mouth is (or would be with sufficient resources) on this particular bottle, but I’m reluctant to belittle or castigate those who do have the disposable income to do so.

  6. tom - January 4, 2006

    I don’t want to give the impression that I’m criticizing one who would buy this wine at this price. As I said, there are various ways one can value a wine.
    What I’m wondering is whether or not a critic should include a discussion of value in their review of a wine, particularly a discussion of the price versus quality question.
    Perhaps there just isn’t room in most reviews to do this question justice. But then again, we can easily review the character of a wine with 20 words and a number.
    No, I have no issue with one who buys the wine.

  7. Fredric Koeppel - January 5, 2006

    as (1) every marketer and (2) every rich person know, you pays yer money and you takes yer choice. but wine reviewers and critics have an obligation to point out to their readers when wines are good value, not just the cheap ones (“a great wine for the price”) but the expensive ones (“at the price it should be better” or “even at the price it’s good value”). $1680 for a bottle of new-release wine is pretty outrageous, and 90 isn’t a great score for this vineyard. but as long as there are people with more money than good sense, they’ll covet it. the principle applies to all sorts of “desirable” consumer products (which is what DRC makes, not mere wine), whether cars or airplanes or stereo speakers or watches.

  8. Alder Yarrow - January 8, 2006

    Great post, fascinating question. I disagree with your assertion, though that a complete and thorough review takes into account the value of the wine. While such comments are helpful (I’ve certainly noted at times in my reviews when I think wines are great values) they are by no means necessary. Value, as some of the other comments regarding the buying habits of the rich start to get at, is impossibly subjective (as opposed to wine quality, which is only partially subjective). Value is an asessment that an individual makes about the ratio of cost to pleasure. The lower the ratio, the higher the value. The problem we’re dealing with here is that the “pleasure” that someone receives from a wine isn’t always the way it tastes. Sometimes its the status. Sometimes its the scarcity. Sometimes its just the experience itself (I’ve drunk 1960s Bordeaux that tasted lousy to me, yet watched other wax rhapsodic about it).
    While critics can lay some claim to authority when it comes to quality and sensory evaluation, they cannot reasonably lay claim to authority on readers’ sense of value. Give the price of the wine and let people decide themselves. End of story.

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