Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fine Wine & Einstein (or Bordeaux as it relates to quantum physics & the Theory of Relativity)

I should preface this piece with the warning that I am not an expert in physics. I'm probably not even a novice. My expertise in metaphors is a touch dubious to boot.

The idea for this post first came as a reaction to the recent explosion of fine wine on the Asian market, primarily the wines of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Fortunately, Sarah Abbott MW penned a level-headed, insightful piece that is so good that I don't have to deal with matters of culture or geography, as she's covered it better than I ever could. Instead, I'm going to concentrate a bit more on the abstract.

In order to understand quantum physics and its implications, one has to accept the existence of light as both a particle and a wave. In order to understand how fine wine works, one has to accept that it is both an agricultural product and... something else. What is that? I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps I'll have figured it out by the time I've finished writing this rant. Perhaps that something else is not a constant. It's possible that it changes, or is changing.

When I first started in the wine trade, in 2001, the average trade price for a case of Lafite 1982 hovered at just over £4,000. Berry Bros sold it in their Heathrow Terminal 3 shop at just under £500 per bottle. It was cheaper than the Latour '82. Last month, at an auction in Hong Kong, a case of 1982 Lafite sold for £84,289. That's more than double the market value of that vintage prior to the auction.

The passage of time is relative to the speed at which you are travelling. The faster you go, the slower time gets. This has been proven to fractions of a second at speeds we would consider normal, though it only becomes noticeable when travelling very, very fast - approaching the speed of light. The speed of light is constant, moving at 186,000 miles per second.

Wine is grape juice. The grapes are harvested, the juice's sugars are converted to alcohol by hungry yeast and naturally occurring sulphides (with some added ones) prevent it all from turning to vinegar. Sometimes it's put in steel, sometimes it's put in wood, sometimes it's put in epoxy and sometimes it's put in concrete. There's a nutter/genius on the Italian side of the Slovenian border that puts it in clay amphorae. That whole process is incredibly hard work but the concept and goal is quite simple: make palateable, boozy grape juice. A month ago, nine litres of that juice sold for £84,289.

One of the first things I was taught when I entered the wine trade was the qualitative difference between wines in certain price ranges. A £4 wine's goal was to be quaffable and inoffensive; a £15 wine should be complex, but not distracting; a good one should taste like it ought to cost £10 more and suggest that it would benefit from ageing. Once you enter the domain of proper fine wine, be it First Growth, top flight Californian, Grand Cru Burgundy or Barolo, there needs to be lift, that ephemeral and immediately noticeable mark on the nose and palate that suggests, even in the poorer vintages, something that was made to be better. Was it worth the money? Hopefully. If it deserved its rating, its place in the wine hierarchy, then yes. How do you know? How can you honestly assess such things? There's really only one way - to taste from the bottom up. Everything from £4 to £40 and from £40 to £400 (at the time, you could get Petrus at that price) and, if everything lived up to expectations, you would begin to understand. Of course, trophy wines were given their due beyond perhaps their actual empirical quality difference out of deference, but they still had to be among the best. Appreciation and understanding of those differences - outside or in spite of personal preference - is one of the most important qualities a wine merchant or sommelier  can possess.

The first Lafite I ever tried was the 1997. I tried it on April 30th 2002 and it was extraordinary to me at the time. The memory is a fond one, though I've since tried finer wines, including better vintages of Lafite. It retailed at £120 per bottle, though I believe Oddbins Fine Wine had it on offer at £80. This was the aftermath of an over-hyped en-primeur campaign. The current trade price for Lafite 1997 is about £500-600 per bottle, and rising. Having tasted it again recently I can categorically state that it isn't worth anywhere near that amount, regardless of prestige.

That case of Lafite '82 did not sell as a case of wine. As it approached the speed of light - or £84,289 - it ceased to be wine and existed briefly as something far greater than the sum of its parts. Taking one of the twelve bottles away would reduce its value by far more than just one twelfth (or £7,024.08). Similarly, the simple wooden box those bottles were sealed in counted disproportionately towards its merit. Glass bottles, encased in wood, filled with wine. Twelve of around a quarter of a million produced. Curiously, as soon as it was purchased, it became less valuable. A great deal of its value was its provenance - coming straight from the Chateau's cellars. Now it has a new owner, and as such is no longer of such sparkling pedigree.

A few days after the Southeby's auction there was a second auction in Hong Kong, where a bid of $13,000 won six bottles of Lafite '82. Circumstances were different - the wines were not of the same provenance. I assume they were genuine, but they weren't ex-cellars. At the time of writing, the average market price for a bottle in perfect condition from a reputable merchant in the UK is somewhere around £3,500. That's about £300 more than before the Southeby's auction.

I asked a friend in the trade what he thought of the auction and his immediate response was enthusiasm. He thought it was brilliant for both the trade and wine in general. I'm less convinced. If was simply an aberration in the market - a one off explosion that has settled - then that's that and the price will rise steadily but perhaps less violently. But I don't see that as the direction the trade is heading. Merchants and wineries are both hyping vintages beyond reason, trying to make every top wine, to some extent, as necessary to own as Lafite 82 (or Petrus 90, or Palmer 61, etc.). It's a distasteful, self-fulfilling practice that leaves wine behind. They may as well be selling internet stocks or real estate. And where does that leave us? The wine-bloggers, the wine writers and those whose interests are focused more on the liquid in the bottle rather than the hype surrounding it. For whom there are no quantum mechanics; just appearance, nose, palate, finish and most of all, enjoyment. We react with initial incredulity, then seem to shrug it off. Like the loud drunk at a dinner party, we hope that it will go away or at least just lower the volume a little. I don't think that's going to happen. I think there will continue to be outbursts; that more and more fine wines will move further and faster beyond what they were made to be. And in the midst of that all, we've should remember two things that get lost more frequently than they should:

It's only wine. And it doesn't last forever.


1 comment:

Robert McIntosh (@thirstforwine) said...

Taking the physics metaphor and running with it ... we may all be physicists, but only a few get to work at CERN on the LHC. It takes £billions to research the Higgs Boson ... but how relevant to life and other physicists is it? THere are plenty of folks out there doing useful jobs making better products, improving folks lives that do not really need to know the intricate details of the Large Hadron Collider ...

I can easily do productive wine communication (and drinking) and NEVER come across a bottle of Lafite ... and not be worse off for it.

Stories about stupid prices paid by greedy people for products, whatever they may be, are really of no interest to me, and should not define what I do.