Andrew Jefford and the Contamination of Wine

Andrew Jefford certainly ranks as one of the most thoughtful people to ever write about wine. If you need proof of this, simply read the transcript of the speech he gave to the conference of Wine Communicators of Australia in 2012: “Wine and Astonishment”. It’s a profound piece I’ve gone back to read over and over simply for its beauty, insight and humility.

It’s because of the soundness and creativity I have long enjoyed in Jefford’s thinking that I was a bit taken aback by his most recent essay in Decanter entitled, “Wine & Money”, and in which he argues that money is the greatest contaminant to fine wine.

In it, Jefford bemoans the fact that some wines are used for nothing more than investment purposes and for conspicuous consumption—as a means to boost the social status of the owner of the wine:

“More prominently than that, though, fine wines are stuffed with fifty-pound notes, fifty-euro notes and fifty-dollar bills.  It’s the money that makes ‘top wine’ an object of popular fascination.  A swelling percentage of those buying them do so principally in order to grow money, without any intention of drinking them, as an investment prospect.  And a substantial minority of those who do finally pull the corks chiefly enjoy the taste of money inside them.  Thanks to the social-media revolution, their peers can now instantly watch them sip money in this deliciously coded manner: a uniquely stylish opportunity to enhance status.”

He’s correct in this, of course. But he must also know that the percentage of wine buyers who use wine in this way is so minuscule and so irrelevant as to be nearly meaningless to the project that is wine appreciation. Moreover, the percentage of wines that are purchased with the intent to never be drunk but rather sold or to burnish the social standing of the buyer is even smaller than the buyers that pursue these wines.

Jefford seems willing to engage in what he calls “Corbynist” wine writing despite the fact that he acknowledges that there is a bounty of other wines not contaminated by money. And toward the end of his Decanter article he plows forward in his Corbynist pitch:

“Those who care for wine’s broader culture, though – a dappled landscape of intricacy, depth and subtlety – have to concede that great tracts of it are now being burned off by money, and rendered forever inaccessible save for those for whom money is a wine’s primary marker.

But this simply isn’t true. I don’t need to concede that there are “large tracts” of wine that have been contaminated by money and inaccessible. I need only concede that there are a mere tiny fraction of the world’s wines that are inaccessible to most people. What I instead would insist is that these wines don’t matter, particularly when I can find thousands and thousands of wines that are fairly and accessibly priced that provide me with insight into their makers and their source. I don’t’ need for a moment to consider the nature of a wine that is priced at $400 a bottle. I have far too many priced at $30 a bottle that are of great interest that I’ll never have the time in my life to taste.

Over the past 24 months, more than 230,000 wines have been approved for sale in the United States by the federal government. If more than one-half of one percent of these wines cost more than $30 a bottle I’d be shocked.

Andrew Jefford cares for the wine drinker. He clearly cares for the health and well-being of the winemaker and the industry in which he works. He need not be concerned with the price of Petrus, La Tache, Tignanello, Grange, Screaming Eagle or any other collectible or investment grade wine. It just doesn’t matter.

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  1. Bob Henry - August 14, 2018

    Not a “new” observation.

    Nor one only on the other side of the Atlantic.

    Consider this essay from Matt Kramer

    “The Museum-ification of Wine;
    Have ultrahigh prices distorted our understanding and enjoyment of wine?”
    Wine Spectator magazine online (posted: December 16, 2014)

    URL: https://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/51012

  2. Bob Henry - August 14, 2018

    A second view from the other side of the Atlantic.

    Excerpt from Jancis Robinson MW Website
    (posted April 15, 2001):

    “Is California Dreaming?;
    An extraordinary assessment of the cult wines
    that cost more than Bordeaux’s First Growths.”

    URL: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/jr715.html

    “For 200 years Bordeaux was the red wine capital of the world and its wine styles and prices set the standards for the international wine market. But in the last 10 years, quite independently of any European wine consideration, California created its own wine kingdom with a quite different aristocracy and legislature.

    “The wines themselves may be made from the same Cabernet and Merlot grapes as red bordeaux but they taste quite different — exuberantly fruity and ready to enjoy at what a European might regard as an almost obscenely young age. Are they child prodigies? Or wine Minipops, those heavily made-up prepubescent girl dancers whose gyrations were so disturbingly distasteful that they were eventually censored from British TV screens?

    “Most of these California cult Cabernets carry names which were unknown ten, sometimes five, years ago. But they are made in such small quantities — sometimes just a few hundred cases as opposed to the tens of thousands of cases of some Bordeaux first growths — that prices have overtaken those of Europe’s established classics. These can easily be four- rather than three- or two-digit dollar bottles, and even more in America’s beloved charity auctions.

    “Demand is so much greater than supply that the lucky wine collectors whose names are on the all-important mailing lists for these California cult wines can immediately sell their allocation at a profit.

    “The super-cultish Screaming Eagle, for example, is released at about $500 per three-bottle lot, which could immediately be sold for something closer to $4000. ‘It’s as though Jean Phillips [the bemused owner of Screaming Eagle] wrote you a cheque for $3500’, beamed one of her customers at an extraordinary tasting I witnessed recently in England.”

  3. Alan Goldfarb - August 14, 2018

    A few stories down on my Google feed this morning, from Tom’s Jefford’s piece, was a story about LaBron James spending $4,000 on wines. The LaBron article goes to the underlying heart of what I believe Jefford was attempting to convey:

    That trophy wines — by extension (if I may digress), are no different from Trophy Wives (not a sexist comment that, just a sociological reference), Trophy Big Game, Trophy Fish — that serve only to perpetuate the mythology of The Good Life. You know, better for me, not you.

    Which is precisely why most folks are put off by and mystified by wine in the first place. And which is why, when someone who has a little knowledge of wine, is often characterized a snob. Trophy wine is out of the grasp — monetarily and availability-wise — of most of us; and by so doing, leaves most of the rest of us feeling lesser than.

    But by good fortune as it happens, many “lesser” wines are more interesting, more avaialble and affordable and substantive, and better than the Trophies. (The monied-class by the way doesn’t even know this.) The challenge than for those of us who for years have been trying to communicate this to the people, is the need to do a better job.

    Small croissants are better than big ‘Merican crescent rolls.. Smaller, denser, chewier bagels are better than the enormous piles of dough with holes in the middle. And smaller wines can often be more satisfying and lifegiving than LaBron’s wines of choice.

    Unlike many, I admire James. He has opened a life-affirming public school; he gets killed every night playing a game better than almost anyone else in the world has ever done. And unfortunately, he drinks the trophy wines because he can. But I bet his soul would be more fulfilled by drinking a $30 bottle of Cru Beaujolais or a Corison or Smith-Madrone Cab, or a Boheme Pinot, or a dry Hungarian Furmint.

    Less is More.!

  4. Tom Wark - August 14, 2018

    Alan,
    If I had James’ money I’d definitely buy some very, very expensive wines. And I’d easily spend more than $4,000. I’d buy them because I’m curious. I’d love to form a better relationship with these trophy wines to get a sense of what all the talk is about.

    But I don’t have that kind of money. Yet I don’t despair at all. I don’t feel lesser because James or my next door neighbor or that guy over there in the big house buy expensive wines, expensive cars, expensive clothes, etc., etc.

    I wonder why some folks feel lesser because they can’t afford this or that luxury. If I can afford a roof, food, and education for my boy and the occasional indulgence…Well, I’m good. Do we really need to worry so much about people who feel aggrieved over not having what James has?

  5. Alan Goldfarb - August 14, 2018

    Not feeling lesser than Tom, is a luxury that many in the money-privileged class carry. Those of us who possess knowledge of wine, and who also have a little bit of money, perhaps have the confidence not to feel lesser-than.

    I was writing about why wine is such a damned difficult comestible to understand. There is no denying that the wine world wants it both ways: That is, to portray an image of diversity (in wine) for all, while at the same time, extolling the virtues of how damned privileged it is.

    There is no jealousy here re: James’ ability to pay or even of people who possess money. Much of it has been earned, especially on the part of LeBron James; and that’s the way it should be.

    But why can’t we convey and perpetuate the idea that there’s tremendously great, interesting, exciting wine out there beyond what the powers that be in the world of wine over the years, would have us believe? People in their 30s and 40s have gotten this message and won’t put their lips on a Cab or a Chard, no matter how much you pay them’.

  6. Tom Elliot - August 14, 2018

    On a waiter’s earnings in the late 1970s – early 80s, I could buy and drink top Napa Cabs, Premier Cru Burgundy, Hermitage and “off” vintage 1st Growth Bordeaux once a week. Today, only the very wealthy can afford to drink these wines. True, there’s more outstanding affordable wines available today them ever before and from all over the world, so there’s lots to discover and enjoy, but regardless of the small quantities produced, it’s troublesome to me that the hallowed benchmark estates will never be experienced by the average earners from the younger generations and generations to come. Today, if you’re part of the 99 to 99.9% you can read about it or forget about it.

  7. Tom Wark - August 14, 2018

    Tom,

    Yes. It’s a shame. But that’s what happens when Americans and Chinese and Indians develop a taste for wine.

  8. Charlie Olken - August 15, 2018

    I’m with Tom Elliot on this. My cellar, which was started in the early seventies contains wines that I no longer buy because they are not accessible to anyone but people with “silly money” to spend.

    Sure, there are plenty of affordable very good wines. But they aren’t the brilliant Burgundies and the top growth Bordeaux and Napa Cabs.

    99.9% of wine drinkers may not care one whit about loud birds and roman domains but I do and I am saddened that they no longer thrill my existence. I suspect that Jeffords feels the same way.

  9. Dennis Lapuyade - August 15, 2018

    I agree with Tom E and Charles. I came up when I could afford the classic wines and drank them often. Now I can honestly say I don’t care about any of them. I enjoy discovery and humble, honestly made wines from places that interest me. Perhaps, I shouldn’t care about the pups and young somms coming up either, but I do. I think this was AJ’s lament which I think was beautifully expressed. Yes a small part of the wine landscape is burned off but a vast swath of history and precedent are burned off as well.

  10. Elizabeth Schneider - August 16, 2018

    Tom Elliot’s comment really resonated with me. It’s not about jealousy or keeping up with the neighbors — for me, the issue Jefford brings up is something that consistently makes me really sad.

    Like you, Tom W, I don’t have the money to buy the great wines of the world. I am a working person, just trying to pay the bills and live a good middle class life, while doing what I love in wine. So, likely I will never try these wines that are apparently so majestic.

    There are probably thousands of people like me and you and we would appreciate these wines and treat them with the reverence and respect that they and their makers deserve. But unlike in the 70s and 80s, when you could save up and afford one of these bottles, First Growths and Grand Cru are out of reach for people like us. Instead, people who have gobs of money and who treat these as showpieces and “bragging rights” will pop open these bottles. I’m not suggesting they won’t enjoy these wines but there are so many of us who would treat a taste of them as a near-religious experience and appreciate them in a way that the producer would be so very proud of. But it won’t ever happen. The most interested people — the wine writers, the sommeliers, the passionate wine consumers — won’t ever have the access to these wines that would provide lifelong memories for them. If I had the power to procure these wines and invite “normal people” and industry people to taste them, I would do it in a heartbeat. It would be a room of the most passionate wine people in the world. Sadly, again, not gonna happen.

    It’s sad, it sucks, and for that reason I totally am with Jefford on his points.

  11. Tom Wark - August 16, 2018

    Elizabeth…Thank you for commenting.

    I get Tom E’s point. And I agree with you. It’s a shame that some wines that have a long history of being lauded are financially out of reach for so many wine lovers. But does this really amount to “wine being contaminated by money”? That’s a pretty harsh assessment of the law of supply and demand.

    While I agree I’d like to taste more of these wines than I have…even drink them down with friends, I think the fact that I can’t afford to do is of such limited importance to my own wine life and wine education that the direness of the situation falls somewhere behind the unfortunate fact that I can’t produce world class wine with the table grapes I buy at the store: It just doesn’t rank.

    The reason this is true is that there are so many thousands and thousands of wines that are available to me and at a price I can afford.

    So, while I sympathize with Jefford’s lament, suggesting that money is the great contaminant of wine is akin to suggesting that home ownership is the cause of homelessness.

  12. Bob Henry - August 16, 2018

    Tom, et. al.:

    There is always this timeless solution: form a winetasting group with your family and friends and work cohorts, and pool your funds to purchase and sample some of these pricey and rare wines.

    ~~ Bob

  13. Troy - August 21, 2018

    Jefford comes across as a whiney, “we should all have equal things because we’re all equal people” kinda person. Talk about entitled. He probably would support a cap on what a producer can charge.

    I agree with Tom W. in that Jeffords is taking a miniscule percentage of a negative aspect of this world and condemning an entire industry. Happens in politics all the time, on all sides of the aisle.

    Don’t get me wrong here: I love wine and the whole aura/mystique/coolness that IS wine….but, it’s just wine. Elizabeth and others who are in the business in some fashion or other have a right to have a bit of a different perspective here, but the rest of us are, dare I say it, just consumers.

    Sure, I’d love to taste all these extraordinary wines. But I can’t / won’t, and I’m fine with that. I’ll survive because, as others have stated, there are SO many other options that I CAN enjoy. Frankly, at the end of the sip, my enjoyment quotient isn’t THAT much lower of a $100 bottle than a $1,000 bottle. Many may not be willing to admit that but I’d bet it’s true of most wine consumers.

    What if, in this debate, we replace “wine” with, say, a Ferrari/Lamborghini or a multi-million $$ estate? Would I love those things as well? Heck yeah! But, wine is a consumable good like just about everything else, with a wide-ranging price continuum. I’ve accepted that I can’t have all the goodies in life I’d like to have.

    Sure, I get that Ferraris, etc. were always expensive and out of Mr./Mrs. Everyman’s reach. This compares to the angle expressed here a few times that today’s high-priced wines were more affordable in the past. But, markets change. Any product is “worth” what a consumer (“a” consumer, not necessarily “consumers”) is willing to pay for it. Wine, even as special as it is to us, is no different.

  14. Bob Henry - August 27, 2018

    Also not a “new” observation.

    Consider this essay from Jon Bonné, the former wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (now writing for PUNCH).

    “Wine Collecting Beyond the Bloodsport”

    URL: https://punchdrink.com/articles/starting-a-wine-collection-and-wine-collecting-tips-california-beaujolais/


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