So here we are. Fine wine index Liv-ex is reaching its highest levels at the moment, meaning the world’s greatest wines are inexorably getting claimed by your boss. Or your boss’s boss. Or the owner of your company. Or by people who like to eat their steak covered in gold leaf. Or for whom a speeding fine is the surcharge for taking the red car out at the weekend. Or for whom a ski holiday is a quaint ambiance for buying a Swiss watch.
It’s interesting that, for all our talk of how wonderful and multi-faceted wine is, we have found no better way of doling it out than by income. From each according to their terroir to each according to their salary.
Many people counter this with the pro-Rudy Kurniawan, pro-universal pricing argument: that there are more than enough great and just-as-well-made wines to go around. It’s an argument that, to some extent, every wine forger the world over has proved. It implies that the rich are effectively being duped and that we should show no concern thereof and that, that being the case, somehow pricing is quite the opposite – it is not the issue. Which is an interesting take. Presumably this is why En Primeur scores are published without taking wine prices into account?
Or there’s the more nuanced: “there are wines to suit every budget” (lit: know your place, pleb).
I’ve long been a proponent of maximum pricing for wines – $100 is your limit ($150 if I’m feeling particularly indulgent). Apart from the feasibility of such a scheme, the counter is that such an imposition on the most expensive wines will simply pass their profits onto the rich people who can buy them for a steal. But I don’t buy it. Sure, that means they can bulk-buy Lafite (this effectively turns them into wine retailers, and if you want to kill off wine speculation, I can think of no better route). On a side note, I see wine speculation is basically tolerated now. It is not greeted with the same negative noises from the wine world as it might have been ten or 20 years ago.
To return to maximum pricing, I’ve argued that wine, as a cultural object (like art or music), should be priced like CDs – all broadly the same. You don’t pay more for Shostakovich than you do for Vaughan Williams. Maybe we could have a Spotify-style wine subscription service in which we pay a monthly subscription fee to a Scandinavian firm and, every month, we get to choose the contents of an unlimited, mixed 12-pack? Supply and demand would potentially be an issue (although perhaps less than many might argue – honestly, where do you begin to make a weekly 12-bottle selection?), but if it is, working out how best to apportion the in-demand wines outside of financial considerations would be a liberating exercise. It would make a change from implying the well-off appreciate wine the best.
But, short of crow-barring a clause into WTO’s remit, I see no feasible way of demanding maximum pricing for wines across the globe. Much like sorting out the three-tier system in the US, it’s a pipe dream. Know your place.
Although I think there is another way.
Let’s admit that even if we did limit the price of wines, working out who gets those wines and how they are distributed is not plain sailing. But let’s make one assumption: that people in the wine industry are likely to be the most interested (and, dare I say, deserving) in trying these out-of-reach wines. People in the wine industry (sommeliers, cellarhands, retail staff, pruners, pickers, even wine writers) are also some of most able to evaluate and form meaningful judgements from drinking them.
I don’t say they are alone in being able to truly appreciate wine – that is definitely not the case. But “appreciating” wine today only appears to be knowing how much a wine cost, not whether said wine is objectively worth that much. Indeed, many wine critics steer clear of this (except to promote the “good value”, of course – an interestingly blinkered approach to price critique). So let’s say the wider wine industry (from the vineyard to the shopfloor/restaurant) deserves to be able to drink these wines. Not just taste these wines; not check if they’re not corked for a table of bankers; or minesweep the dregs after said table has left for the strip club; actually have them and drink them.
So let’s pay them all more.
For last few decades many sectors of the wine industry have thrived on other people’s “passion” or, simply, straight-up exploitation of the workforce. In the cellars, wages have remained relatively stagnant while a number of informal arrangements have been slowly eroded. One cellar I know of used to let its full-timers leave work at lunchtime on a Friday, in recognition of all the extra hours put in by staff on a salary over the harvest period. Today, this has all but disappeared.
Winery and vineyard work is a good example of ever-increasing overproduction by relatively few people. I want to say this changes slightly during the harvest period, but from what I can tell of our top wineries, mechanisation has practically taken over much of it. Look at the likes of grape receival, which appears to involve a person tipping grapes into a line of stainless steel machines while somewhere along the line there may (or may not) be a small team of human sorters and one or two people in branded jackets operating buttons. This will deposit perfect berries into a pristine stainless steel tank/oak vat/concrete cuve. It’s not like there isn’t any money knocking around.
And there’s the vineyard, where passion is basically out of the window (and if salaries continue to drop in the cellar, this will progress to having casual staff plunging tanks and bottling wines). Sure, hand harvesting is relatively expensive. But exploitation is rife and if not, it is still subject to poor pay and conditions. Some people (from New Zealand to Champagne) have worked – I use the past tense generously here – practically as forced labour, some as slaves. It happens depressingly regularly. Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a grape picking ring getting busted in Champagne.
However, because so many wineries or vineyard owners use contractors, said wineries and owners can claim plausible deniability. Even attempts to make the actual owner of the land responsible for the conditions and pay of the people working on it meet with fierce resistance. In Australia just this year, efforts by legislators in Victoria to make farmers and vineyard owners as responsible for people picking their fruit as if they were their direct employer were met with staunch opposition.
If you go back a couple of weeks, I covered a host of news stories that showed the scale of the problem across the wine industry, from seasonal workers being exploited in grape-picking rings in Champagne, to full-time workers being levered out by less-paid contractors in large Australian wineries, to the flippant attitude of owner-operators towards their hired (and injured) staff. If that is happening at the bottom of the chain, you know the middle is not looking great either. Contrast that with the turnover at Accolade or Diageo.
IT’S THE STUPID ECONOMY STUPID
And I know what a lot of people will say. They’ll say all this is simply a fact of life. They can’t afford to pay more. Winery owners, restaurateurs, wine merchants, négociants and so on will staunchly defend and admiringly look upon the likes of the Liv-ex 100 and the Liv-ex 1000; they coo as, out of the global pandemic, wine prices at the top continue to rise. But they can’t ensure everyone that works for them has a living wage. This is basically the wine industry (it’s basically the economy) – a spectator sport . But it doesn’t have to be like that. At the very least the industry could look after its own to the best, or better, of its ability.
As an example, I worked a harvest at a winery that will remain nameless and in a region that was a considerable distance from where I lived. I was fed and housed but I was told that my pay would be one lump sum at the end of the season (known as “a vintage” in cellarspeak). This no doubt helped the winery – it is easier just to deal with one lump sum and the attendant taxes and fees. But, if my memory is correct, I received the money by the time I had returned home (if not it was very close to my leaving). I never had the time (while enjoying free bed and board) to actually go out and spend that money in that region – which would have been spent on that region’s wines, of course.
This, in a nutshell, is the folly of the wine industry’s cost-drives. It’s killing the ability for that passion (the whole reason people brag about how fast they can prune, or dig out a fermented tank, or the late hours they do and the stupid people they serve) to feed itself in the purchase of benchmark wines – wines that these people must be able to access if we are to have a decent outlook for the industry. Wines that, if these people can’t afford them, will drive the industry ever downwards, or into an odd corner.
Because, at the very least, the wider industry needs to recognise that its workers are fundamental to the viability of “proper wine” production. Not necessarily expensive wine, not cheap wine, not (even) natural wine. Cellarhands, waitstaff, front of house, marketing teams, anyone below middle or upper management needs to be able to afford Premier Cru Burgundy or decent (but not crazy priced) Bordeaux Grand Crus Classés.
And that should not be a controversial or laughable statement. Because if those people – the future of our industry – cannot afford those things, what does the future hold for us? It’s all very well for Burgundian dukes to put on tasting rooms for tourists and visitors, but what about Burgundy’s vintage staff? What about the people actually making the wines?
Maybe it’s just economics, maybe it’s just the way of the world, maybe it’s inevitable; but CEOs and château owners, business owners and importers, restaurant owners and so on, really should consider this. At the very least, give your staff vouchers or an allocation for wine shops. If you’re concerned a staff allocation in a wine shop is only going to get spent on buying as much of the cheapest wine as possible, I’d suggest the wine industry is already in dire straits.
PAY RICKY MORE
I should say at this juncture that there is another side to this story. That actually the inability of most people in the wine industry to afford benchmark wines means that interest is (perhaps rightly and deservedly) focused on the undercurrents and alternatives. Look at what winery interns are actually drinking at the moment. Hybrid grapes, light reds, indigenous varieties. In many ways, I’m actually being a stuffy, reactionary, old-school advocate for claret and the Côte de Nuits. I’m not being trendy. Which is uncomfortable for me.
But if the people within this very industry can’t afford such “old-school” wines, what hope is there for its future and its vibrancy as an entity outside the Liv-ex 1000?
Outside of the natural wine scene, I’m going to posit that things are relatively morose. It’s generally price-driven, and where it’s not, it’s a combination of natural wine-esque ethos (or even an aesthetic adopted by the natural wine scene) or associated natty practices combined with low-priced wines (ref. “clean wines” and commercial orange wines). This is why celebrity wines are also a thing: it’s a disposable stand-out in an industry progressively driven to the lowest common denominator. Wanna sell some competently made but unexciting bulk Spanish wine? Get a celebrity endorsement, or combine that with calling it “clean wine”.
Sure, these become easy targets. Call a wine “clean” and everyone rightly gets into the nitty gritty of the winemaking process and what “clean wine” even means. But it may pay for some people to wonder just how sceptical the wine press would have been had Lafite premiered Clean Carruades in which their whole-bunch harvested grapes were passed through a crate-washing machine to clean them, before they were blown-dry by a Collard machine and then fermented on natural yeast. There would have been amused grins and a bit of a chuckle here and there (in much the same way as the wine press reports the combination of NFTs and top wines) but there would not have been the excoriation by the industry.
So I’d suggest that if we really want to give people weapons to fight this stuff, give them the cash to do it.
You might even be getting very tired of your millennial staffer, Ricky (they/them), who’s always going on about natty wines, but consider what alternatives they have to get into benchmark wines at relatable price points. Bojo? Already into it. A Côtes de Beaune from an unknown producer, or the second wine of an underperforming Bordeaux fourth growth from a mediocre vintage? Frankly, I don’t blame them if they want to go back to hang out with the cool kids, even if they have to spend half the night talking about mousiness. The fact is, it’s more interesting in that part of the world. More interesting and vastly more affordable.
So pay Ricky some more money. Or give them an allocation account at a local wine store. One way of investing in the future is to buy a case of first growths and let it mature in your cellar (or pay a fee to mature it in someone else’s). Another way is to give it to your staff to drink.
Photo by Roman Synkevych and Unsplash