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.


18 Responses

  1. Tone Kelly - November 4, 2021

    But why stop at wine? Should the builders of home have access to California coastal view homes? And relative to wine, even if fine wine collectables were sold at “modest” prices so that everyone could buy them – what do you do when these same bottles go up for auction?
    For better or worse, the best mechanism to allocate consumables is the free and open marketplace. It’s not perfect, but it surely beats all other approaches.

  2. Tom wark - November 4, 2021

    Tone,

    It’s seems obvious I think.

  3. Edie Birken - November 4, 2021

    Tom,
    As you know, I am not knowledgeable about the wine industry, but yet I do appreciate your writings. Today, for example, I very much enjoyed reading your commentary and can, excitedly, say I understood it and agree with you. Thanks!

  4. Donn Rutkoff - November 4, 2021

    I wonder how long Oliver’s bile has been building, burbling, boiling, and finally bursting. Long enough for his brain to be oxygen deprived, methinks.

    Or to be more polite, a solution in search of a problem. Maybe writers and bloggers should not expect to be paid . . . . oh what’s the use trying to make any sense of kookism.

  5. Doug Wilder - November 5, 2021

    Let’s take the whole equity in wine issue to a new level. Rather than selling 200 cases of a $300 a bottle of Reserve wine, just let everyone in the industry taste it for appreciation. What then is the point of producing it then? I wish McLaren would do this with their cars, or Beretta with their over/under trap guns.

  6. Taylor - November 5, 2021

    Excellent response Tom. Wine will always be worth what people are willing to pay for it. It was also not stated that producers are not always the ones hiking up prices and making the wines inaccessible. Once allocations are given, the supply chain is where margins are drastically added. Maybe these Grand Crus should be urged to move to a DTC model. More money for the chateau and likely a lower retail cost for the consumer as all the middle-men are taken out. That however is almost as unlikely in my lifetime as me being able to afford a bottle DRC RC.

  7. Dan K - November 6, 2021

    I have been in the wine business as a winemaker for 40 years and have had the opportunity to taste these so-called great wines, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne. Most are of very good quality but not always. Many prices reflect an “emperors new clothes” syndrome. Great marketing to the critics and consumers. The rich now have so much wealth they don’t know what to do with it, thus the current exorbitant pricing and portrayal of rarity.
    Wine connoisseurs drink labels not necessarily wine. I have been to many tastings where the wine is corked or way over the hill and yet the tasters wowing over it. For about 10 years I worked for a famous grand cru Bordeaux wine company. As an employee I was allowed to buy 2 bottles a year at cost. They were $90.00/bottle. 1/8 of retail. Someone is making enormous amounts of profit, which is OK but I guarantee that these incredibly expensive wines rarely are the best wines of their type. When I got in the biz I joined a tasting group of about 12 winemakers,( which by the way is a fairly low paying job), and we pooled our money so we could afford wines that we personally couldn’t afford. Today if you want to experience that mansion on the coast we have VRBO, a similar concept. These great wines are safe purchases for the wealthy but often deprive these consumers from wanting to taste lower priced, often better and more certainly more exciting examples of the varietal. If we learned one thing from the infamous Paris tasting it’s that the critics and so called connoisseurs don’t do well if they can’t see the label. To sum it up, these expensive wines aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be. To really understand wine you need to taste lots of different wines. When you finally get to taste these really expensive wines you won’t be as impressed despite their obvious superior Marketing prowess.

  8. acv - November 7, 2021

    Part 1. To start Oliver’s meandering reductive reasoning was not easy to follow, and his Spotify analogy was a mess. Yes, it might be fair to say, “well, maybe you’re not smart enough to understand it,” but it’s the job of the writer to make his or her work accessible to those taking the time to read it.

    Mr. Styles nonetheless falls into what Carl Jung would call typical thinking. You find this in people who aren’t trained to think. Oliver has this thought, and he just accepts it as true. There’s no extra step of thinking through the thought.

    His first thought is this implicit idea that all the good is on the side of the worker class and all the evil is on the side of the fat cat financiers. Classic group identity thinking divides people into groups and pits them against one another. So, sad how easy it is for SJW today to assume that all the evil in the world is attributable to one group and all the good to the other. The naïveté that you can identify someone’s moral worth by their economic standing is profoundly ignorant.

    His next thought “doling out wine” is so little thought through that it’s remarkable someone in the wine business could be so blind to how the wine market works. First, he does practically any time to understand the secondary market that drives price other than to lament it. One of the drivers of the secondary market is the result of a limited wine produced under the constraints of the harvest and site. That’s where much of the demand and the equilibrium arrives regarding the price people are willing to pay for a wine and not due to excessive greed in the pipeline.

    Limited supply can happen when a brand will only make the item in a small studio in France to maintain quality or when Automaker will only make a set number of a certain car.
    However, his delusional statement that Lafite would gladly fill in to become the retailer to arrive at a more rational price point lands Oliver firmly in the intellectually challenged territory. Yes, it was a throw-away thought to some degree but access to this limited wine is the theme of the piece. So, let’s talk about this access

    Lafite is not really selling just Lafite. Lafite is selling a collection of luxury wines. His comment needs to be highlighted here “enough great and just-as-well-made wines to go around.” He says upfront I’m not interested in the Silver Medal or Bronze Medal wines. Nope, for me, it’s all about the gold baby. That’s exactly what a pleb would say, I guess.
    The truth is that Lafite has a portfolio of wines to sell and if you sell a lot of wine from our portfolio, I will sell you some stock of this ultra-limited high-end wine called Lafite. This system may sound worse having to buy a portfolio of qualifying wines to get access to Petrus but that’s how the market works.

    A Ferrari dealership that keeps Ferrari happy will get an allocation of SF90s. A Rolex boutique that sells lots of models that are less in demand while maintaining the product image of Rolex, will be given Submariners and GMTs, and Daytona’s. The portfolio of secondary wines you need to buy a single bottle purchase of Petrus is significant trust me. I’ve personally had to tell buyers I need you to buy these other qualifying wines to get Petrus from me.

    It could be worse. When Ford made 400 limited Ford GT you had to be invited to be one of the exclusionary models and you had to sign a contract with the stipulation that you couldn’t sell it for the first 24 months. Just ask John Sena he was sued by Ford and had to settle out of court as a result.

    You might say just b/c the process is widespread doesn’t make it right. I understand. But he simplified the argument down to – I don’t just want to TELL Lafite the price they need to sell their wine at. I want Lafite to alter its business model and instead of concentrating on making great wines become a multinational Tesco of sorts AND by the way I’m advocating that Lafite scrap their whole approach to selling their portfolio of wines in the marketplace.

    I respect Tim Akin’s thoughts concerning wine. I stopped following him on Twitter b/c he’s one of the more egregious SJW MW though not the worse in the MW SJW circle. Andrew Jeffords is rather vocal, but Andrew is much more nuanced, principled, and well-intentioned liberal. Tim Akins often comes across in the whiney SJW activism tone so it’s not a surprise that such a poorly reasoned essay like this made it onto his otherwise wonderful wine info site.

    “I want it now daddy,” Veruca (Oliver Styles) Salt.

  9. acv - November 7, 2021

    Part 2. I said Oliver was a horrible writer and I think this needs underscoring b/c Tim put this up. I’d start a paragraph and generally have an idea where Oliver was going and then he’d contradict himself, or say something obscure, or worse perhaps something he thought sounded smart like “Pro-Universal Pricing” and I would be left thinking, what is he trying to say?

    Pro-Universal Pricing Argument. So, I hadn’t heard of this “argument,” so I thought it was something an economist had coined. So, I googled it. If the concept exists Google can’t find the definition. Yes, I kind of know what he meant but you would think it was a thing the way he casually dropped it into the conversation You might say did you google “pro-Rudy Kurniawan?” No. But that is more self-evident how it’s being utilized the other phrase sounds like someone trying too hard to sound smart. Another one was “kill off wine speculation” was that a thing I missed?

    Styles doesn’t seem to understand pricing as deeply as one would hope when he decided to champion this cause. True the products are being used to display wealth and he laments conspicuous consumption from the unworthy but then he stops his deep dive into what is rooted in this “Maximum pricing”. #Awkward

    Some of the “demand” in Supply and Demand is what an economist would define as “price drives price”. This concept states that value for the end consumer is not the result of craftmanship or heritage but simply a connection to the ultra-high premium.

    There’s a word for these products. Veblen Goods – “a good for which demand increases as the price increases.” The more expensive these products are the more they drive demand. Hermes, Rolex, Birken, Patek Philippe, and yes DRC. One might say these items all have a loose relationship between price and their utility (hold that thought).

    When you pay more for something is it objectively superior or are you buying it to show off. If the Bling-bling factor is an aspect of the identity of the product I’m not sure how he figures you can separate the “price out” without changing what the good is for many? If terroir is not the driving factor but the price, how does he think he can mitigate this fact? So, in his theory of the deserving winery worker given a bottle of DRC who would not flip it for a profit? Even I would be tempted. So, this is more a wealth transfer and a more deeply Freudian move by someone trying his best to channel Marx.

    Price has another connection. These products are bought as investments. So, the price reflects a perceived future price growth. What is described as a “Utility Value.” A subjective assessment of the expected return on investment at a given risk. Again, wealth transfer.
    Next. A cultural object like art and wine. First, I’m a music guy so who are those two folks are he mentions? I didn’t even bother to google them…. but let’s just say…. this guy tries so hard to look elitist it’s painful to watch.

    Has he ever tried to get vinyl from a new release these days “The world is suffering from a shortage of vinyl records and massive price shocks?” Though he mentions art as a cultural object he then ignores it. Good luck trying to find cultural equity in ownership of a Manet, Degas, Renoir, or a Monet.

    His “dare I say most deserving” remark is the most insidious and evil statement of them all as it pushes the exploiter vs exploitive narrative for political gain. This is the intersectionality concept that the left pushes currently and it’s a dangerous theory of victimization politics and low-grade analysis that drips in Envy. Frankly, it promotes solipsism at the personal level and division at the social level. This is the self-centered and selfish ethos and is the sleight of hand to hide a very anti-capitalist view of life that is Marxist at its core.

    Re: pruners, pickers, even wine writers: The fact that you’ve developed the skills to pick grapes (they/them) or prune a vine in January having survived some sort of intergenerational cycle of family destructive behaviors doesn’t mean you deserve a bottle of Cheval-Blanc. #DoBetter

    Envy and resentment are driving the psychological contagion for equity and a lack of gratitude even in the face of having a “friend” like Tim Akins that would be willing to risk his reputation by publishing this dribble.

  10. Dale West - November 8, 2021

    Much ado about nothing. Cheap Ferraris sounds good though. All this philosophical rhetoric about wine…? Somebody needs to get over themselves and find a hobby…Ask any French, Italian or German what wine means too them. It is interesting to note that the cost of making fine wines would shock most people. Not so much actually. It is supply and demand as noted above that drives the price in the marketplace Ferraris, Porsche, Aston Martin are VERY expensive to build…

  11. acv - November 9, 2021

    Dale people who make that statement about expensive wine have never taken the time to think about whether or not that statement holds to be true. Thus, they too have fallen into the Carl Jung trap. To explain all the complexities and economic theory behind a business like a winery, and the process involved in selling wine would take lots and lots of “hobby time” to get through.

    Certainly, it seems to me you could engage in some form of mass-production to get the price of Ashton Martins and Ferraris costs down with greater ease than getting Andy Beckstoffer to agree to come down in his price on a ton of To Kalon fruit. And, the price of a ton of fruit is just one step on a very long road that ends somewhere around the loss of value of money over time. Decaying margin I think it’s called.

  12. Dale West - November 9, 2021

    I used to be the minority owner of Ken Wright Cellars for
    15 years and I own a Porsche C4S and a BMW 435i ZHP
    so I am not clueless. I fail to see what Carl Mr. Symbology
    Jung has to do with this or any trap production on his part.
    Porsche for sale…Interested.? As for turning Ferraris into
    Toyota Corollas…👾

  13. acv - November 9, 2021

    Once you cross a certain price range yes, the price is mostly due to the demand for the given wine and its supply in the marketplace rather than a true indication of production and marketing cost.

    Having said that if you just take $1400 ton grapes vs $9000 a ton of grapes you can see how things could add up quickly. Both give you the same amount of wine – 125 cases. You could find the juice inside the bottle to rise from a mere $1.00 (ballpark) to nearly $10. Or take the cost of a new barrel of French oak $1400 vs eastern European oak $800. It’s the same problem You get about 300 bottles per barrel so the price per bottle added in could rise from $2 to suddenly nearly $5 a bottle.

    Here is where most will say look the cost of material to make a $100 bottle is $15. There are fancy bottles, designer labels, sophisticated advertising, and even celebrity endorsements. But let’s be honest…that only goes so far.

    Let’s say you have a highly skilled winemaker you may be paying $100,000 for his or her services and that’s not even considering most of these highly sought-after wines also ADD a fancy consultant to the team. That’s a significant cost to figure in. Grapes and packaging are the least of our worries when you start to look at the labor costs of winemaking, growing, and harvesting teams.

    Perhaps here we can talk about capital expenditures like egg-shaped fermentation vessels, There are long-term investments you make may to your winery or vineyards all these come with interests payments. The cost of the land and the mortgage payments. Napa and the Cotes de Nuits land isn’t cheap. There’s more staffing, and software inventory management, and other administrative costs.

    And then economies of scale have a role in that if you aren’t making a lot of wine because this is a special vineyard …. THAT whole production needs to now cover your expenses past, present, and future.

    And it doesn’t stop there because inflation needs to be considered while you are aging these expensive wines. This capital that is tied up is a delayed return on investment until it is sold. The penalty of waiting (Time) for your return on your expenditures is compounded every day. The money needs to show a productive return for the time that it was tied up not just for the capital expenditures on the front end.

    Yes, price is AS good of an indication as you can manage for quality because it usually signifies something (albeit not perfectly) whether people want to believe it or not.

  14. Dale West - November 9, 2021

    I have been reminded by all this erudition above why I don’t participate in Farcebook, Instagrapple ad nauseam. Chill, put your Thesaurus, Dictionary and whatever else away and have a glass of wine…

  15. Sue - November 9, 2021

    Aside from the many reasonable comments above, I have to second the one regarding qualifications of the pallets of wine industry workers. Working at various levels of the wine industry is not a qualification for tasting a fine wine. I am not in the industry but I’ve tasted for decades, became certified through WSET and UC Davis and yet, my own pallet may not appreciate a $1,000+ wine. How is an unqualified pallet able to appreciate the same wine?

  16. Dale West - November 9, 2021

    Well very, very few people buy wine as a long term investment. They buy into drink it at an optimal time if possible. If you have investment capital there are many other more productive places to go as pretty much everyone who actually has investment portfolios knows.There are a few exceptions like Cayuse of Oregon as an example and of course a handful of California Cabernets along with First Growth Bordeaux, Burgundy Grand Cru etc. Most wine depreciates rather rapidly…

  17. Dale West - November 10, 2021

    On the light side (whew) some above confuse pallet with palate. The former is what we load cases of wine onto for transportation and the latter is in your mouth, nose and the textural experience you have when enjoying the grapes nectar.

  18. Mike D. - November 12, 2021

    This is the same mentality that is jealous of the classroom effort and study by so many of our immigrants not coming across the southern border. The jealous are those who rather run back and forth on a gymnasium floor.


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