The Stench of Envy is Rising in the Wine Industry
Oliver Styles’ recent call for drinking equity for wine industry workers is a variation on a common theme. It’s not a theme you see so enthusiastically endorsed these days primarily because long experience has demonstrated that the Marxist/communist principle “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” has proven to be such a disaster for humanity.
But to Styles’ argument, laid out at Tim Atkin site, put simply he advocates that the most coveted wines in the world, the most expensive, the benchmark wines ought to be made available for drinking (not just tasting) to the cellar workers, vineyard workers, marketing folks and others at the mid to lower pay ranks in the industry who wouldn’t normally be able to afford them. This is necessary, according to Styles, in order to secure “the future of our industry”.
Why this is necessary for the “future of our industry” is never made entirely clear. Somehow the current moment (once having been the future) has arrived without access to benchmark wines having been made easily available to mid and lower-income wine workers in the past. And yet, here we are. A wine industry in motion.
To his credit Styles does not attempt to make a convincing case that the price of wine ought to be controlled so that more than the wealthiest among us can have access to Lafite, Screaming Eagle, Dujac and other wines so highly coveted that their prices are well beyond what 99% of the world’s population can afford. However, the principle of price controls on wine is appealing to him:
“I’ve argued that wine, as a cultural object (like art or music), should be priced like CDs – all broadly the same. You don’t pay more for Shostakovich than you do for Vaughan Williams…Supply and demand would potentially be an issue (although perhaps less than many might argue)….But, short of crow-barring a clause into WTO’s remit, I see no feasible way of demanding maximum pricing for wines across the globe.”
While it is comforting that Styles ultimately concludes that price controls and maximum prices for benchmark wines are infeasible, it was upon reading his soft acceptance of this fact that forced me to consider whether or not Styles was writing satire. The notion that a consumable, one-of-a-kind object like wine is akin to a music CD (which is neither consumable nor one-of-a-kind and which can’t be endlessly manufactured like a CD) gives one a logic headache that is only avoided by assuming satire. It’s not satire.
Nevertheless, Styles has a solution to the problem that the modestly incomed within the wine industry can’t afford the cost of First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy:
The rich and modestly rich within the industry must give them access to these wines.
“At the very least, the wider industry needs to recognise that its workers are fundamental to the viability of “proper wine” production. Not necessarily expensive wine, not cheap wine, not (even) natural wine. Cellarhands, waitstaff, front of house, marketing teams, anyone below middle or upper management needs to be able to afford Premier Cru Burgundy or decent (but not crazy priced) Bordeaux Grand Crus Classés.
“And that should not be a controversial or laughable statement. Because if those people – the future of our industry – cannot afford those things, what does the future hold for us?
“Maybe it’s just economics, maybe it’s just the way of the world, maybe it’s inevitable; but CEOs and château owners, business owners and importers, restaurant owners and so on, really should consider this. At the very least, give your staff vouchers or an allocation for wine shops. If you’re concerned a staff allocation in a wine shop is only going to get spent on buying as much of the cheapest wine as possible, I’d suggest the wine industry is already in dire straits.”
I would again point out to Oliver that in the past 40 years it has not been possible for cellar workers and waiters (or many PR Dudes) to afford the most coveted wines. And I point out again, here we are with a wine industry that remains a vital part of international and domestic economies along with a far wider range of viable wine regions and wineries than at any time in human history. How has the wine industry thrived without providing the lower-paid access to benchmark wines?
It’s important now to point the reader to Styles’ primary justification for giving wine workers access to these wines: They are best suited and positioned to appreciate them.
“people in the wine industry are likely to be the most interested (and, dare I say, deserving) in trying these out-of-reach wines. People in the wine industry (sommeliers, cellarhands, retail staff, pruners, pickers, even wine writers) are also some of most able to evaluate and form meaningful judgments from drinking them. I don’t say they are alone in being able to truly appreciate wine – that is definitely not the case. But “appreciating” wine today only appears to be knowing how much a wine cost, not whether said wine is objectively worth that much.”
I won’t argue with the idea that people in the wine industry are most deserving of trying Benchmark wines. This is a moral question with no warrant for the conclusion. But I want to draw your attention to something that Styles implies and that is a common refrain among too many in and around the wine world—that the cost of a wine is not an objective indicator of its value. Styles says as much in the above quotation when he laments that “appreciation” of wine today appears to be linked to knowing what it costs, rather than somehow using another set of metrics to determine a wine’s value.
This is a straight-up crazy idea. There is currently a bottle of 2016 DRC Romanee Conti available at WineBid. Its value is $4,700. This is a fact. The way I know this fact is not because I’ve tasted it and deemed it to be worth $4,700. The way I know this is because there is a bid on the wine of $4,700. If, as Oliver and others before him, have implied that there is a better way of assessing the objective value of a wine, I’d love to hear it.
In the end Styles simply believes it’s important for the monetarily endowed to provide workers with the means to drink good wine — for the good of the industry. Whether that comes in the form of a retail “voucher” provided to the workers or simply more pay, he isn’t committing.
Once you understand that the future of the wine industry is in fact not at stake if cellerhands and vineyard workers can’t afford benchmark wines — something Styles, as an educated and demonstrably smart fellow, surely understand—you start to receive the stench of envy emanating from this most recent rant. It’s not a good smell.
But it is popular and au courant aroma. The call for equity over equality and group superiority over the individual supremacy across society and in many quarters of the wine industry isn’t hard to find. Here Styles introduces a way, using tired Marxist reasoning, to introduce the concept of equity into the realm of wine consumption. And it’s a sloppy effort.
I’ve tasted many of the wines that Oliver laments are out of financial reach for most in the industry. I’ve tasted Petrus, Grand Cru Burgundy, First Growth Bordeaux, old Y’quem, and thousand-dollar bottle California cults. I’ve never purchased a bottle of any of these either because I could not afford them or I determined that for me they did not provide value for the money. My exposure has come from friends, colleagues, and industry tastings. I never once determined it was unfair or bad for the industry that I could not afford these wines or that I was unable to drink them regularly. For that matter, I’d hazard that the vast majority of folks in the wine industry are in the same boat as me. They have cozied up to these kinds of wines once or twice, but never regularly possessed or purchased them. And yet here we are. Working in a thriving industry and unburdened by the kind of envy that would motivate us to wrap a Marxist framework around our envy and call it equity.