Tim James: Wine as a luxury product

By , 24 April 2023



Image: Sothebys.com.

A friend of mine – seriously interested in wine, though not ridiculously so – was telling me of the pleasure he had in discovering the joys of cabernet franc. But the prices of the well-known, more enticing examples were so high as to inhibit comparison and exploration. As for syrah – he mentioned how the prices of many at the top end seemed to have virtually doubled in the last few years; he couldn’t bring himself to spend R1000 or so on a bottle of the likes of Luddite Shiraz.

This person could pretty easily afford an adequate supply of such wines, but there’s something in what’s happening to the prices of fine and perhaps-nearly-fine wine (not just here, but internationally) that sticks in many throats. Certainly in mine. There might be a generational component to this: my friend and I are of an age and we’ve observed this rise as a radical change. But don’t forget that this is the generation in the middle class that can most easily afford to drink well. How are keen young wine lovers faring (see Jamie Goode on the subject here)? For most of them, serious wine is going to be something that gets tasted (if that) rather than drunk, which is an arid way of learning to love and understand fine wine, and probably a doomed one.

I’m thinking now, though, of that sticking in the throat, a feeling of visceral displeasure, even revulsion, at the way wine is increasingly a luxury product (and no more). Internationally, burgundy is Exhibit A in this regard. I started buying red burgundy a dozen years ago – mostly village wines and a few premiers, but from fine producers. The early ones I acquired are starting to drink well now, but wines I bought for three or five hundred rands are now selling at five times that or more; current vintages cost many times what I paid, and I certainly wouldn’t enter that market now. A few years back I gave up my annual bugundy allocations – partly, I confess, because I wasn’t sure of the wisdom at my age of buying wines that I’d want to keep for ten years or more before drinking, but largely because I’m unwilling to think that the wines are worth what is being charged for them.

As for those I have in storage: easy to say – and I do tell myself – that I’m lucky to have them, forget the “value”, and just enjoy drinking them. And on occasions when I’m dining with people who’d enjoy and can respond well to such wines, that’s fine and I do. But I live alone and am not particularly sociable, and the majority of my wine pleasure comes from drinking alone at dinnertime. When most of my wine goes down fairly unconsciously (though relished) as I gawk at Succession or get anxious yet again with Mansfield Park, it simply seems wrong to do that with a bottle that would cost me R1500 or more to buy.

That’s not entirely rational, arguably. Where and how does one draw the line? But most of us know in some aspect of our lives that lines have to be drawn, even when there’s no glaringly obvious place to draw them. Sometimes the morally important thing is to have lines – and with wine I’m increasingly impelled to draw them, however arbitrarily.

I was saying something about this and related topics in a recent email conversation with Michael Fridjhon. Now, Michael’s household economy is much larger than mine, and his cellar a great deal closer to being splendid, but he understood. “And you’re right”, he said, “it is strange how irrational and personal the tipping point of current price tolerance ls. So I can live with a wine I bought for R300 now being worth R1500, even though R1500 per bottle now is not where I do my shopping. But the R1500 bottle from five years ago which might now be worth R10K is a wholly different proposition.”

Michael also mentioned that James Halliday (the great Australian wine writer, critic and collector – for want of a better word) “always said to me you can only buy wine once, so he never thought about the current market price when he opened bottles. Yet even he finally sold off his DRCs.”

Admittedly, a First World problem indeed!

And there’s probably little that can be done about it. Good wine will increasingly become the province of the rich, and the finest will largely function primarily as another “asset class” for investors and a prestigious tipple for the showy dinner tables of the ultra-rich (even if they might really prefer whisky or Coke). The best South African wine will increasingly serve those classes locally and be exported for the delectation of wine lovers who can’t afford the likes of fine bordeaux and burgundy but can afford Mullineux and Crystallum.

We can, and should, however, protest. The world’s remaining wine writers, for example, are largely passive or silent at best about this, the gaudier ones even complicit, with artful point-scoring. All genuine South African wine-lovers, though, can at the very least resist the mind-rot involved in accepting the cynical blandishments of producers, merchants et al who assure us, or imply, that it is a matter of national pride that our wine prices are lifted so high that most of us can’t – or won’t – buy the stuff.

It seems logical and likely that in years to come the number of genuine, well-informed and well-experienced wine lovers will decline, as the realistic prospect of learning to love and enjoy fine wine withers on the vine. But the problem is even greater than that. Michael Fridjhon put a simple point strongly to me, and I agree: “Wine has become too flash, too flamboyant and too expensive relative to the pleasure it’s supposed to provide.”

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


8 comment(s)

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    John | 25 April 2023

    A touch of schadenfreude here. I remember getting quite upset with you Tim, 5 or more years back, when you would rate a wine highly and then comment that it is under-priced.

    Per | 25 April 2023

    I certainly don’t agree with this. Good wine, even great wine, is increasingly affordable and increasingly available. And made in more and more countries all over the world.

    It is a great fallacy to equate expensive wine with great wine.

    Today you have great (and often very affordable) wine from many countries and regions where previously on very modest wines were made. Just see the fabulous wines made in South Africa today (and think of what wines were made 30 or 40 years ago).

    What IS becoming more expensive are the famous brands (because the famous wines are brands), the top Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne etc. Because they have become collectors pieces, wines you put on the table (or in the cellar) to impress rather than enjoy. But why should we care or worry? There are many just as good wines that are less famous and less expensive (but simply don’t carry a famous name on the label).

    Good and even great wines are available in much larger quantities at more affordable prices to much larger number of people than what they were before.

    David K | 25 April 2023

    “the mind-rot involved in accepting the cynical blandishments of producers, merchants et al who assure us, or imply, that it is a matter of national pride that our wine prices are lifted so high that most of us can’t – or won’t – buy the stuff.” – YES!!!! I think we have all seen this kind of thinking on this and similar sites. And I might have even ruffled a few feathers with my comments in response. I have to assume that some only equate the quality of our better wines with price – thinking that if a top Bordeaux sells for X, well then a top SA blend that outscores it in a blind tasting must surely sell for more… The perfect logic to shoot oneself squarely in the foot.

    That said, I have just taken delivery of some Chateau Puygueraud 2018. I had a bottle over the weekend and was most impressed. So my first task on Monday was to order some more. And it sells for a song.

      GillesP | 25 April 2023

      Hello David

      I just received a couple of Puyreguaud red last week.

      Is the wine already pleasant to drink or should I wait? I usually like to drink my Bordeaux from 10 years of age but happy to try now and buy more if I won’t get disappointed

        David K | 25 April 2023

        GillesP, I thought it was remarkably drinkable at 5 years. Like you, I also believe that any well-structured Bordeaux (and most reds) should be cellared for at least 10 years to do them any justice. But this was highly drinkable even now. But to be honest, I bought the extra bottles to see how they develop, and my hunch is telling me that it will be at it’s best around the 10 year mark. Given the price, would suggest having a go and then buying some more 😉 The 2019 should also be very good, so be on the lookout for that as well.

        Another one you might like is Chateau Le Puy. The same area as Chateau Puygueraud, and east of Pomerol and Saint Emilion. And also a merlot dominant blend. A bit dearer than Puygueraud, but still a bargain.

    Kwispedoor | 24 April 2023

    This is incredibly sad. And true. Prices march relentlessly North. From the passionately enjoyed drink territory to the province of exclusive luxury commodities.

    Cathy Marston | 24 April 2023

    Two thoughts here. Firstly that yes, I completely agree with this. As an ongoing student of wine, it is costing me a fortune to fund my necessary tasting and I am one of the lucky ones who has an outlet for bottles after I’ve tasted them so can share the cost somewhat. But it bothers me that – as in many instances in SA – studying wine at the highest level becomes a privilege and the cost excludes far too many people whose careers could really benefit from top qualifications.

    Secondly, for several years now we have received an allocation of teaching stock from Raats Family Wines – including MR de Compostella and Eden Chenin Blanc, both of which would be out of my wine budget for teaching. I asked Bruwer why he was giving me these and his answer was exactly what you say above “If people don’t get to learn with great wines, they will ever understand and appreciate them.” Okay, so no false modesty there but he’s right and my students (and I) are all, always, extremely grateful.

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