The value of fine wine

Like the vast minority of the population, my comfort zone for wine is around £10-£25 per bottle. In that price range, I can find wines of very good quality in almost every style – and when I get a disappointing bottle, I don’t feel like I’ve been ripped off too much. 

But on two recent occasions, I ventured outside my comfort zone, spending three times and then five times my usual maximum on some
posh wine. 

Both were from Bordeaux, both from good vintages and both from reputable châteaux. And both were highly disappointing, lacking the complexity and intensity expected at this level – categorically not worth the money. I ended up licking my wounds instead of
my lips.

I know, I know. Poor me. But out of this tragic episode comes a lesson for the wine trade.

Since wine sales volumes have stopped growing, our message to consumers has been drink less but better” - but what we really mean is drink less but spend more”. The problem comes when drinkers leave their comfort zone of wine spending, because the risk of disappointment grows exponentially with the price paid.

People have had no choice but to spend more anyway, as prices have steadily crept up. When I started working at Majestic Wine in 2001, one of the bestselling whites was Louis Latour’s Mâcon-Lugny at £5.99. Today that wine costs £10.99.

Ensuring that wine drinkers continue to spend more is vital to make sure that sales value stays healthy when volumes fall. Everyone in wine retailing has a vested interest to upsell – not simply because our jobs ultimately depend on it, but because we all claim that wine quality improves when you spend more money on it.

But that is only true to a certain extent – especially under £10, where the impact of duty and other fixed costs makes a big difference to value. But, as wines get increasingly expensive, that logic no longer applies.

Every shop, from convenience store to fine wine merchant, has a shelf of most-expensive bottles. Successfully selling them relies on fulfilling the expectations of the customer, and that involves two important questions.

First: do they deserve to be there? (The wines, that is, not the customer.) Can you honestly say that your elite bottles are the best available examples of their type? Do you regularly taste them and compare them to their peers? Are your bottles in good condition or have they been seeping through the cork for years?

Second: can you tell their story? This is especially important for fine wine, where the reasons behind its reputation and price are an important part of its appeal. 

By genuinely enthusing about your top bottles, you can reassure your customers and trigger their emotional investment in the wine.

Nobody’s claiming that every £100 bottle is four times better than a £25 bottle – as I know to my cost. But if we are serious about encouraging wine drinkers to trade up, then we should ensure that the priciest wines really deserve their place.

Related articles: