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The back page – wine prices

Larry Walker

I have always been a believer in the Leon D. Adams rule: wine should be as cheap as milk. (Except, with the price of milk these days, maybe we should amend that to read: wine should be as cheap as gasoline.) That’s everyday wine on the table we’re talking about. But just because I believe in cheap wine, doesn’t mean that wine can’t also command top dollar, if its worth it, or if the buyer believes its worth it. Because a fine wine, like a painting, is worth whatever the buyer is willing to pay.

For years, wine buyers in this country have been willing to pay rather large sums of money for wines from Burgundy and from Bordeaux, yet when a California producer of world class wines dares to try to enter that market, there is a cry of rage from both the wine press and the consumer. Yet people practically line up to buy Romanee-Conti wines at prices ranging from about $120 to $850 bottle.

A case in point is the Diamond Creek Vineyards Lake Cabernet Sauvignon, 1990, which owner Al Brounstein has offered to retailers at a price that would put it on the shelf at about $150 a bottle. In fact, according to Brounstein, some retailers found such demand for the wine, that they priced it at $250 to $300 a bottle (still under the DRC burgundies) and it quickly sold out.

Nevertheless, in the Wine Spectator and some other consumer pubs, the reaction was almost hysterical. Brounstein was accused in the letters column of the Spectator of giving aid and comfort to the anti-alcohol forces. Another letter writer claimed he might pay $30 or $40 for the best a winery had to offer, but no more.

Brounstein has a point with his pricing policy, and I quote: “Foreign wines have found a ready market in the U.S. because American winemakers have chosen not to compete in that price range. Our industry has been saying that its wines will not command $100. They don’t recognize their own success in making a product that ranks with the best in the world.

“Thus, we are not gaining the image that should be accorded us by consumers from the Pacific Rim, Germany and Switzerland. There is a perception in foreign markets that our wines cannot compare with upscale wines of the world. Yet, one of Tokyo’s foremost department stores has our wine prominently displayed at 20,000 yen per bottle ($160) and sales are brisk. We have spearheaded the market at those levels and invite other quality producers to join us. This is the niche that we must develop to help make a dent in our balance of payments.

“We are proud of our wine and don’t intend it to be regarded as ‘second-best’ to any country in the world.”

Right on, Al!

Brounstein’s point is very important, and is as well made as his wines, by the way. How can U.S. wines present a world class image at bargain basement prices? Sure, its important to have good, sound, cheap wine on the market, but that good cheap wine will sell a lot more briskly if it’s pulled along by a few bottles of $200 or $300 wine at the top end. How do you think the French sell all that plonk from the Midi at $5 a bottle? Because the consumer sees “France” on the label and the image is top-of-the-line Bordeaux and Burgundy, not the wine lakes of the Languedoc.

I recently had lunch with the owners of one of Sonoma County’s most prestigious wineries. They had in barrel what they consider their very best Chardonnay. They had pulled out all the stops and added a nice selection of bells and whistles. They want to make a statement with the wine: they want to say, “we can make the best Chardonnay in the world in Sonoma County.”

But they were wringing their hands over how much to charge for it. When I suggested $100 a bottle they were taken aback and immediately started worrying about what their distributors would say.

Another example: Marimar Torres Estate 1990 Chardonnay from Sonoma County is, I believe, one of the worlds best. She gets a lot of flack because she sells it at a suggested retail price of $30. I would suggest, compared with a Burgundy of equivalent quality, that her wine is “worth” four or five times $30.

I believe there are probably 2025 wineries in California (at a quick mental count) that should be selling wine for over $100 a bottle, and maybe a half-dozen that should be pushing $200-$300 a bottle. You know who they are and they know who they are.

They should get in line behind Al Brounstein.

In the meantime, pour me another glass of that $5 Zinfandel. And here’s to you.

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