Price, wine and general relativity


Over the course of two years, you can achieve great things: establish a new vineyard, barrel-age a Chardonnay, or divorce yourself from a political union of member states. Now, granted, many people might dispute how great that is. Let's face it, Chardonnay is totally over-oaked after two years in barrel. But moving swiftly on, it has been nearly two years that I’ve been writing this column, which attempts to lampoon the many absurdities of wine, yet it’s taken me until now to properly scrutinise the matter of pricing. 

First, let’s set the scene. Whereas most wine drinkers would baulk at the thought of spending much more than the average bottle price (still below £6 in the UK), we wine fanatics have become accustomed to spending many times more than that on our favoured flavoured intoxicant. 

My own comfort zone is between £10 and £25 at retail, with the (very) occasional splurge of up to £150 on champagne. This is as much as I can spend before the cost incurred starts to impinge on my potential enjoyment, regardless of the wine’s intrinsic quality, in a classic bell-shaped curve. This is pretty much the definition of affordability.

The point at which price outweighs pleasure will vary from person to person, of course, and is inevitably governed mostly by income. This isn’t always the case, however. When I worked at Majestic Wine in Harrogate, our richest customer (the millionaire founder of a crane hire company) only ever bought the very cheapest wine he could, which cost £2.79 per bottle back then. And he used to ask for a discount. He didn’t do the stereotype of the traditional Yorkshireman any favours.

For most of the rest of us, though, you could probably work out a formula that determines an individual’s annual income based on what they’re prepared to pay for a bottle of wine. The vinous version of general relativity according to Professor Weinstein.

Rules are meant to be broken, however, so I recently disrupted the fabric of spacetime by buying a glass each of Vega Sicilia Unico 2004, Sassicaia 2004, Chave Hermitage 2005 and Dom de la Côte, La Côte Pinot Noir 2014. That’s half a litre of liquid at a cost of £262.13.

All four wines have impeccable credentials, and I have tasted and enjoyed them all in the past. But on those occasions, I wasn’t paying. This time, knowing the cost as I drank made it impossible for me to appreciate them sufficiently – there was no way I could justify the expense in relation to the enjoyment.

Then, later that week I tasted a 1958 Gruaud-Larose, which cost £270 per bottle at retail. It was excellent – but because I wasn’t paying, the pressure for me to enjoy it was reduced to zero. It’s entirely likely that my enjoyment of the exact same bottle would have been diminished if I knew the bill was coming to me.

There is an alternative reaction, however, in which enjoyment is positively correlated with spend. In this scenario, a relatively expensive wine is enjoyed precisely because the extra cost has given a heightened expectation of enjoyment. This psychology applies especially at Christmas, when the standard supermarket shopper might splash out £15 or £20 on a Chablis or Châteauneuf-du-Pape as a special treat.

To a certain extent this phenomenon relies on the drinker not knowing what constitutes quality, and therefore finding enjoyment purely because the extra spend demands it: vignorance is bliss.

At the other end of the scale, there are wines which defy any common concept of value. At a friend's birthday lunch at the Berners Tavern, I saw a bottle of Burgundy on the list for £17,000. Spending so much money on a bottle of wine seems unfathomable to most of us – especially when the one that I chose instead (Patricius dry Furmint for £35) was so delicious, and so cheap – relatively speaking.

Yet for the richest people in the world, for whom spending millions of pounds in a single transaction is not uncommon, a few thousand for a bottle of wine must seem negligible. And while that still might seem unjustifiably extravagant to the 99.9%, it’s worth remembering that for millions of other people in the world, spending £35 would look like an outrageous indulgence too.

When everything is relative, perhaps no formula can calculate what constitutes value in wine after all.