Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Good Old Days of Drinking Wine

Recently I came across an article on food & wine concerning past predictions and their contemporary results as put forth by Bobby Parker some time ago. An interesting enough read, but one portion of the interview I thought was rather telling as to the direction of American wine culture compared to that established 30 years ago, was the amount Mr. Parker paid for 1st and 2nd growth Bordeaux in 1983.

“In 1983, I paid $110 for a case of the extraordinary 1982 Pichon Lalande and $550 for the 1982 Mouton.”

    Chateau Mouton Rothschild at the time was going for about $45.83 per bottle. Admittedly not cheap, but also not completely prohibitive. According to the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator, in the sense of today’s economy that would be worth about $105.65 a bottle for the Mouton while the Pichon would be just over $20. Care to hazard a guess as to what that wine actually costs today? A quick inquiry on lists the average price of the 2010 vintage of the Mouton at $1184.00 per bottle with the Pichon averaging $242 per bottle.

    World class wine that was once within reach of the everyman (after cracking open the piggy-bank or perhaps searching for change through a few dozen couches) is now so prohibitively expensive that even working within the wine industry I can’t say that I will ever taste any of the 1st growths. What caused this price inflation? In the ‘90’s it was a booming Japanese economy of a new wine drinking culture searching for trophy bottles, and now China is home to some of the biggest auctions in wine history. More wine drinkers means more enthusiasts vying for the classics.
Even presented with the opportunity to taste heralded vintages of first growths, the experience would be marred with suspicions of fraud due to recent cases of wine counterfeiting (I’m thinking of you Rudy Kurwinian.) After all the seed of an idea once planted is very difficult to uproot.

But what bearing does this really have? One implication came to mind when I was watching the trailer for the movie Somm. There was a point where an enthusiastic taster could buy the different crus of Barolo or a handful of left bank Bordeaux to learn the characteristics of each cru or commune. Saint-Estephe over Pauillac? To do that now could drive someone into bankruptcy. While taking* the level 2 test through the Court of Master Sommeliers there were questions about whether certain chateau were classified as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th growth. That is to memorize a list of more than 50 chateau and their classifications.

In three years I have had one to two people looking for classed growth Bordeaux.

Aspects of the wine industry linger in a world no longer relevant to the average consumer, which is unfortunate. But don’t worry, I am building up to the advantage in being a wine enthusiast in this day and age. While most of us may not be able to thoroughly learn all the cru’s of Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux, and Burgundy the use of modern technology and winemaking techniques have made more wine created from a greater array of varietals from farther corners of the world more available to everyone. And thanks to climate change (or, the conspiracy of climate change purported by liberals) weather conditions have made for much more consistent vintages from year to year and will continue to do so until we exist in some sort of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome sort of world. In 1983 I doubt that Robert Parker could have bought consistently good Assyrtiko from Santorini in Greece, dry Furmint from Hungary, or wines from the Canary Islands.    

My personal favorite advantage to the times? Technology, especially the internet, has made information about wine easily available to anybody seeking it, and this has helped raise the average level of knowledge of even casual wine consumers. More informed consumers and wine drinkers give further incentive for producers to create more unique wines of better quality; it’s also the driving force behind regional revivals in regions throughout the world that are shifting focus from quantity of grapes to quality. Even though it is easy to lament bygone days of drinking top class wines, I’ll be perfectly content with the abundant options for good wine sub-20$ a bottle. 

*Full disclosure: I took the sommelier certification test, and though I passed the written and blind tasting portions of the exam, I failed due to insufficient preparation and performance for the service portion of the exam.

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