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How consumers should spend on wine

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CHOOSING between one expensive wine or a few cheaper wines

Would you rather have 20 bottles of the country’s No.1 selling Carlo Rossi California red wine or one bottle of Chateau Kirwan, a Grand Cru 3rd Growth Bordeaux from the Margaux region of recent 2017 vintage? These two options would cost roughly the same amount of money. Of course, there are a zillion choices in between these two brands for the same budget. At first glance, the choice may just be a matter of economics, with the less financially endowed choosing the cheaper alternative — but for wine, it goes way beyond just simply economics. Wine for one is classified as non-essential, so abstinence is the absolute answer for the non-financially capable. So, only when one is capable of indulging in wines, meaning one has the disposable income to spend on such pleasure, can true options on wine spending be really relevant. Below are eight factors that I feel should affect how consumers spend on their wines.

1. LEVEL OF WINE SOPHISTICATION

When I started my wine career in the late 1990s, it was more about a job to fulfil rather than a genuine interest in alcoholic beverages. I did not even drink way back then. I had beer in college but it was more from peer pressure then real preference. My first real introduction to an alcohol which was more acceptable to my palate was with wine coolers, notably Bartles & Jaymes — these were fruit-based, carbonated, low in alcohol, on the sweeter side, and closer to soft drinks than beer.

From there, I graduated to real wines, starting with the American favorite, the White Zinfandel. Then it was towards more aromatic and off-dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. As I got to drink more wines — and wine is really an acquired taste regardless of what so-called experts tell you — I started gravitating towards dryer and more serious wines, so Cabernet Sauvignon became my go-to varietal. I experimented with generic Northern Californian versions, and eventually got hooked on the Napa style. I also started appreciating fuller bodied dryer reds from Bordeaux, and soon, my curiosity got me to try and enjoy Tempranillo (particularly from Rioja and Ribera del Duero), Nebbiolo (from Barolo and Barbaresco), Syrah or Shiraz (from Hermitage and Barossa) and Sangiovese (from Brunello di Montalcino in particular). We all know good wines are never cheap, but if your level of sophistication calls for it, the preferred option is always to go for quality over quantity, and therefore, if I set aside a finite wine budget per week I would opt to enjoy a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon once a week, over, say, five bottles of entry level Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon four times a week.

2. ECONOMIC STATUS

If you are rich and can afford the best wines available, then it’s just a matter of weighing your utility curve on how much you are willing to dole out for wine. But for most middle to upper middle-class people, the choice of whether to go more premium or not is really very important.

Let us first agree on this premise, in the context of Philippine retail pricing, that wines that are priced at P500 per bottle and above are more often of better quality than those priced below this number. The reason is because those wines above this price would already normally have oak-aging treatment, be from a more specific wine region, and often come in better packaging (like a deeper bottle punt or made with a real cork over a synthetic cork). But the P500/bottle and above is really a huge category. In our country, the sales volume of this range is estimated at just 10% to 12%, but the number of available brands in the market is easily more than three times those in the lower priced segment. Quality levels of P500 and above wines vary too as there are certain wine regions that are just pricier than others, and if you are to taste, say, a Barolo (from Piedmont) for example, you should be willing to shell out a bare minimum of at least P3,000 for a bottle.

3. OCCASION

Champagne (the eponymous French region) is the perfect example here. In weddings, especially among the social elites, champagnes are the de facto sparkling wine drink. This despite the fact that champagnes can easily be five times as expensive as Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) and four times the price of Cava (Spanish sparkling wine), and multiple times the price of a Cremant (French sparkling wine from a non-Champagne region). Champagnes just seem to have no substitute when it comes to important occasions and celebrations. Credit this to the way the Champagne Houses marketed their drink.

Admittedly champagne is the original sparkling wine, but like most wine regions, not all champagnes are created equal. I have tasted real good Franciacorta (named after the eponymous region in Lombardy, Italy) and modern Cava, made from the same Chardonnay and

Pinot Noir varietals and using the same traditional Methode Champenoise, that are very comparable, if not even better, than many commercial champagne brands. These two examples are more premium in price than standard Prosecco and Cava but are still easily half to one-third the price of champagnes. So, the occasion is important because it’s not that frequent that one occurs that could merit higher value wines.

4. AUDIENCE/DRINKING COMPANY

Wine, as we all know, is a social drink and is best for sharing. A bottle of wine can easily be shared by two to four people. Who you are drinking with is an important consideration. If you are bringing a wine over for dinner at your fiance’s parents’ house, it is time to shine and not skimp on your wine budget. So, a decent sub-P1,000 wine like a Rioja Crianza or a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc would do. If your fiance’s parents are wine enthusiasts, you may have to spend more, like up to P2,000 for a nice second label of a Grand Cru Bordeaux 4th or 5th growth to impress.

Now, if it is with friends who just want to enjoy some alcohol bliss (obviously not friends from your Wine Club), simpler and more affordable wines like commercial brands Hardys VR, Gato Negro, or even a very quaffable Montepulciano d’abruzzo would suffice — all are below the P500 mark, so multiple bottles won’t break the bank.

5. EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT/BRAND PREFERENCE

This is a wide subject as it encompasses emotions as well as trips down memory lane. I had Dom Perignon when I was a teenager, but it was not exactly game-changing for me. It was when I had multiple Grand Cru Bordeaux during a Bordeaux event in Hong Kong — where I was based in 1997 — that I started to truly appreciate wines.

This was an event at a luxury hotel in the Kowloon side and sponsored by the Conseil des Vins du Medoc (Medoc Wine Council). At that time, I had just started my career working for a huge Californian winery, and I was not very brand conscious, nor was I sold on the Old World, the Grand Cru classifications, or the most renowned wine regions. I was just learning about wines based on my own appreciation level and had just undergone rigid wine-training so I was more attuned to the California style of wines. But at this Bordeaux event, I got my first serious taste of Grand Cru wines which at that time I would not spend money on, and I may not have been able to afford them too. The two wines that appealed to me the most were the Chateau Lascombes and Chateau Rauzan-Segla — both happened to be from the Margaux appellation too. This is why Margaux is until now my favorite wine region in Medoc. In a trip to Bordeaux prior to COVID’s existence, I bought a 1988 Chateau Lascombes that was quite stiff in price as you could imagine, but because I have a fond attachment to this brand I did not hesitate to purchase it — much to the chagrin of my wife when she found out later on.

6. AESTHETIC VALUE

Medoc royalty and first growth Chateau Mouton-Rothschild started the concept of different labels per vintage way back in 1924, with French graphic designer Jean Carlu rendering the wine’s label for their 1924 vintage. But it took two decades before this concept of different art labels per vintage became an annual Mouton-Rothschild tradition, starting with vintage 1945 — a post WWII label created by artist Philippe Jullian that flashed the V for Victory sign used by Allied forces led by the great Winston Churchill. Since then, all Mouton-Rothschild wine labels have featured art on their labels, and the label has been as much anticipated as the newly released wine vintage. The labels have featured some of the most renowned artists in the world including Picasso, Dali, Miro, Balthus, and Chagall.

The aesthetic value of the wine label is one thing, but the external packaging is another. This external packaging comes in the form of the gift boxes that contain the wine. I am here reminded of Seoul. I had been to Seoul around half a dozen times over the last decade, with 2019 being my most recent trip, and I noticed that wine boxes — whether they contain individual bottles or packs of two or three bottles — were quite popular and dominated the wine shelves. Obviously, the cost of the gift box is added into the retail price, but as gift-giving items the boxes are so invaluable, especially for their presentation and face-value factor.

The Chateau Mouton-Rothschild may not be a good example here as each bottle, even from a less than stellar vintage, easily retailed at P30,000 per bottle (so, this probably is covered by factor No. 8), but my point is that aesthetics are value add-ons. Look at the new wines coming to the shelves of late — several have similar artsy labels and others have their own gimmicks. One example is the 19 Crimes wine from Australia that has augmented reality labels that come to life when used with an app. Perhaps aesthetically appealing bottles taste better psychologically?!

7. AWARDS/HIGH RATINGS/MEDIA INFLUENCE

I want to start by saying that there are plenty of wine competitions or contests around the world,

Though obviously there have been fewer during the pandemic. Having said this, if a wine brand joins several of them, it is bound to hit some real high scores and come home with some awards to boot. However, the credibility of the competition colors these awards and quality citations.

It is the same case with wine critics’ ratings. A lot of times, a high score translates to a higher price. It may be the winery jacking up the price, or retailers or online sellers wanting bigger margins after the high scores come out. But the good thing is that there are so many critics and so many high scores given these days that if some wines are just too pricey, you have so many other options to consider.

We are often faced with the dilemma when looking at wine shelves and confused at the wide selection on hand — that is why we may feel more comfortable if we see Gold Medal stickers on the wine label, or make a quick Google search to get wine critics’ scores. If the wine with awards or high ratings is within your budget or even slightly higher, and you feel reassured of its quality and media reputation, then by all means go for it. But learn to trust your taste buds, because if, say, a Mr. Robert Parker gave the wine you purchased 90 points and you did not like it at all, then you do not need to rely on his reference for future wine purchases.

8. AS INVESTMENT (FOR FUTURE CONSUMPTION OR TO SELL)

This one is strictly in the context of being a wine consumer. It may be a bit hard to fathom for those not engaged in the wine business, that the wine you bought for yourself can be an investment solely for “reselling at a profit” purpose. To me it is like buying a Rolex watch. We know Rolex is one of the few watches that appreciates over time (pun intended) for certain models, but if you like wearing this watch, it probably just makes you feel better that your watch is appreciating in value, but it doesn’t mean you are willing to sell it to make money. However, wine has the element of tasting better with age (only in the right storage conditions, though). Most premium wines, especially Bordeaux from the best vintages, are meant for optimum drinking in 10, 20 years or even longer from its vintage. This is the difference maker.

Perhaps by chance, you bought half-a-dozen of a 5th Growth Bordeaux Grand Cru, and it was purchased relatively cheap in 2018 for a 2016 vintage, now considered quite a classic vintage. Wine ratings from renowned critics can also help the appreciation of these wines. This same Bordeaux you purchased is probably now worth 30% higher or more than the price you purchased it — this is your chance to sell a few of these bottles from your stash to your friends and make some profit (… a few bottles, not commercial quantities) and then use the money to move on to your next discovery wine.

Or you may just want to save this same wine to age. If your purpose is to let the wine age as it accumulates higher value over time, then it is the investment in time you are doing. Because if the wine appreciates so much in value, you may no longer be able to afford this very same wine as it gets older and presumably gets better. Again, as a consumer you do not need to approach this like those engaged in the business of Wine Futures and En Primeur — you don’t have to lose sleep over a handful of premium wines since the intention of purchase to begin with was for personal hedonism.

At the end of day, money spent on wines should be solely yours, whether it is for real enjoyment, for flaunting, or for whatever purpose, as wine is not cheap — especially the good ones — and it is your hard-earned money and prerogative to choose how much to spend and what feels appropriate at the right time. But if you are to drink with someone like me, remember factor No. 4! I will be waiting.

The author is the only Filipino member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy and other wine related concerns, e-mail the author at protegeinc@yahoo.com or via Twitter at www.twitter.com/sherwinlao.

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