Knechting the Dots

The Price of Value

“Would I have happily paid much more for this wine?” Answer yes, and you have just defined “good value.” Perhaps it’s a $15 estate-bottled Muscadet for which you would gladly have paid $20. Surely the grower of that Muscadet would love to have gotten a 33 percent greater return on the fruits of his or her vines and labor. In that sense, growers whose wines represent value have left money on the table. Investigating what leads them to do this not only highlights categories of value wine but also the precariousness of a viticultural livelihood and of the world’s stock of wine bargains.

A pretty reliable rule for discovering wine value is: find a top-notch producer in an underappreciated region or appellation. But why does this rule hold? Consider two prime French examples. Anyone who has enjoyed the principle bottlings of JeanPaul Brun, Pierre Chermette or Damien Dupeuble will appreciate how distinctively delicious yet ridiculously inexpensive AOC Beaujolais can be. The same could be said of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine from more than a dozen growers, of whom Jo Landron, the Luneau-Papins and Marc Ollivier at Domaine de la Pépière are merely the most conspicuous. But if you’ve encountered the overwhelming majority of production from these ubiquitous and prolific appellations, you’ll comprehend their low repute. Add their perception as commodities, and you have a powerful headwind against which any grower who steps out of line by asking significantly higher prices will struggle. In effect, the grower is begging that his or her wine not be perceived as “too expensive for its appellation.”

“It’s funny, but sad,” observes singularly respected UK importer Roy Richards (himself partner in a wine estate) of his “difficulty in persuading my Beaujolais growers to put their prices up in 2009, most of them having not moved for five vintages. After some continuous, gentle persuasion—and I suspect some collusion between them—they agreed to go up by fifty cents, whereupon my customers, the UK merchants, whinged about greed and profiteering.” Headwinds indeed! And these were two of their region’s acknowledged front runners, producing mostly cru Beaujolais, not Beaujolais-Villages, let alone mere Beaujolais AOC. For anyone recognizing the extent to which legions of talented, quality conscious growers struggle to stay profitable, the pleasure taken in their inexpensive offerings must be bittersweet. It certainly confirms that they weren’t priced on merit.

Unfashionable grape varieties also confront perceived price ceilings. Anybody who has experienced a Bourgogne Aligoté or Passetoutgrain from the likes of Chevillon or Lafarge realizes that even prestigious Côte d’Or growers feel compelled to bottle bargains. And it’s impossible to explain the modest prices of wines from ancient Sonoma or Napa field blends without reference to varietal fashion. But fashion also accounts for why mixed planting largely died out decades ago; and few Côte d’Or growers who perpetuate ancient stands of aligoté or gamay would contemplate replanting those varieties. Bargains of this sort are consequently a dwindling resource.

Terrific buys are frequently found among what get called “entry-level” bottlings, whether or not these actually induce purchasers to trade up to pricier offerings. An estate’s intention is often to secure a toehold in competitive by-the-glass markets. The 25 percent of Brooks pinot noir that gets labeled “Runaway Red” qualifies, a blend enhanced by contributions from each of that estate’s prestigious vineyard soloists. So does 10 to 15 percent of riesling from Weingut Günther Steinmetz that gets bottled in liters and tastes inimitably of the Mosel’s steep, slate slopes. Liter bottlings of Austrian grüner veltliner represent a genre borne of the need for inexpensive pours in the grower-owned wine taverns called heurigen that still undergird many a livelihood. Such bottlings constitute only five to 20 percent of grüner veltliner production at Berger, Hofer, Poller and Setzer. Little wonder that these commendable offerings regularly end up being allocated by their US importers. Such head-scratching bargains are subsidized by the rest of their producers’ portfolios. You might wonder how Tad Seestedt can afford to sell 60 percent of his Willamette pinot noir production, labeled “Jigsaw,” for well below $20—unless you realize that his Ransom Wines & Spirits is best known as a source of luxury whiskeys, gins and vermouths.

Even where inexpensive wines of unfashionable appellation dominate a portfolio, growers will try to profit from diversification, which explains why Brun and Chermette gradually acquired extensive cru Beaujolais holdings and growers of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine recently instituted communal crus whose appellations, tied to lower yields and longer élevage, offer opportunities for higher pricing and profit margins. But terroir-specific doesn’t imply more expensive. At Luneau-Papin, where “simple Muscadet” would be an oxymoron, two bottlings drawn from old vines in geologically distinct locations deliver delightful mineral intrigue, consummate refreshment and change back on a twenty.

Increasingly many growers are parlaying entrylevel estate wines into high-volume bottlings sourced from purchased grapes or wine. This need not be a bait and switch. From some growers, the result can generate exceptional values. Michael Moosbrugger of Schloss Gobelsburg in Austria’s Kamptal delivers remarkably refined yet inexpensive grüner veltliner, riesling and rosé (from St. Laurent and zweigelt) under his Schlosskellerei Gobelsburg label, relying principally on grapes from trusted growers in the estate’s immediate neighborhood. Christian Ebert renders an inexpensive, delectably Saartypical dry riesling in collaboration with growers whose holdings he can literally oversee from his balcony at Schloss Saarstein and with whom he closely coordinates vine treatments and shares equipment. But estate owners like these will testify that in their négociant endeavors, even marginal profitability depends on attention to detail and is hostage to meteorological fortune.

Outstanding quality-price rapport, high volume, profitability and growth potential represent a rare combination. “How can they do that for so little?” one feels compelled to ask of Château Ste. Michelle’s dry and off-dry riesling or the five Languedoc bottlings of Marius by Chapoutier, all selling around $10 or less. Efficiencies of scale go only part way toward explaining this. In the case of Ste. Michelle, important factors include sanitary growing conditions in the desert of eastern Washington allied to cool nights and water for strategic irrigation, plus terrain amenable to machine harvesting. If this formula didn’t work for the growers with whom Ste. Michelle closely collaborates, how could its riesling production have nearly doubled since 2007 to over a million cases? In its smaller way, Marius’s steady growth since its 2012 inception (to around 60,000 cases) also confirms a sound formula. As Michel Chapoutier explains, the typical Languedoc grower with whom he collaborates owns his or her land, has fully amortized facilities and, in an era when caves coopératives are an endangered species, is more than willing to meet Chapoutier’s expectations in return for long-term contracts that protect both parties from a volatile bulk market.

Savoring an amazing wine value? Consider what made it possible and consider yourself lucky!

illustration by Vivian Ho

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2017.
Like what you just read? Subscribe now