The meaning of value
Author: Mark Pardoe MW
Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. There cannot be a universal definition of value as the concept must always be a subjective one. A sense of value is arrived at through a kaleidoscope of filters: price, quality, reputation, availability and status, each influenced by environment, mood and experience. What can it mean, the phrase “a good value wine”?
At Berry Bros. & Rudd, our most popular wine is Good Ordinary Claret which retails for just under £10. Yet we also sell important volumes of wine from famous Bordeaux châteaux, some of which may cost up to £1000 a bottle. Can the Bordeaux château wine (let’s call it Château Paradigm) really be 100 times better? Both will give pleasure; indeed, we have customers who buy both and must therefore consider both versions to be value for their money. Perhaps the question is better directed at why these two wines, from the same region, are so disparate in price.
In terms of production costs, the Good Ordinary Claret is sourced from a variety of options but, essentially, it represents a bulk market price. Of course, selections are made to ensure the best components are used and we are fortunate that our partner for this wine is well connected, both in terms of their own vineyards and their own suppliers. Unusually for a wine at this level, the wine is aged for a period in new oak barrels, and this helps to set it above its peers. Château Paradigm will only access its own vineyards and will use more oak barrels for longer but the principal difference is how much wine is produced per hectare. Yields are significantly lower for Château Paradigm and, furthermore, the château may only use about half of its production for its most expensive label.
Château Paradigm is a finite product of, say, 200,000 bottles per annum for the global market as a medium-sized property, although that volume will vary according to vintage. This is because the château is only making wine from its own vineyards, and it is the location of these that will dictate demand and, empirically, quality. European vineyards have an evolved qualitative hierarchy, sometimes developed over centuries, which recognises the intrinsic potential quality of particular plots of land.
As demand has grown for these wines of repute, the market has evolved to accommodate the top wines as luxury brands. The greater gross profit allows a high level of investment in the land, the cellar and the market, extracting every ounce of potential quality to justify the price which, unlike Good Ordinary Claret, is no longer related to production costs. Further investment is made in packaging, all designed to enhance the wine’s image, and every effort is made to protect the wine’s probity.
Thus, the prices have diverged because we are no longer comparing like with like. Good Ordinary Claret is a product which delivers pleasure at an affordable price, whereas the château wine is a collectible, created to the highest standards but priced by the market.
And in that statement, lies the core of the argument. To support the higher prices, the Château Paradigm must be unimpeachably the best it can be. This comes from a constant challenge to assess and improve every step in the wine’s production. Without this discipline, and without the quality of fruit produced by individual vineyards, there is no added value other than marketing gloss – a triumph of presentation over content.
Such is the status of the most collectible wines that others are always tempted to try to break into the club by creating a new brand that employs the same production techniques. Some are more successful than others and many try to charge high prices before a reputation or track record is established. In established vineyard areas, the weak link is that the best land is no longer available. In newer regions, more time is often required to establish the compatibility of vine with soil. Very rarely do new stars emerge fully formed.
Now I am at home, with a bottle I have bought of each of these wines: a Good Ordinary Claret and Château Paradigm. Which will be better value? The question, cannot be answered without context. Which is better: proper cod and chips from a chippie, or a tranche of halibut, pan-fried in butter by Mark Hix? They are both fish, but expectations are different. It is just so with my two bottles of wine.
My Good Ordinary Claret will give me pleasure whenever I chose to drink it; with supper, over a family Sunday lunch, for sharing with friends. It offers a delicious, affordable glass of wine. But my Château Paradigm needs an occasion. I wouldn’t want to drink it every day (nor could I afford to), because it needs attention and appreciation. It too will enhance the occasion, but it also needs a platform from which all the care and attention that has created it can be appreciated.
Whether the price I paid is appropriate is not the question. It is an example of the pinnacle of what wine can be and that, comes at a price. That price is what other people are prepared to pay for a limited edition of the best.
It is the case that we live in an age of wealth and acquisition. These great and rare wines are much more expensive than when I first drank them, but they are also more famous and desirable than before and this demand has pushed them out of reach for some. But, the world of wine is incredibly diverse and if you are looking for value, there are thousands of stopping places between the Good Ordinary Claret and the great Bordeaux château wine (not just Château Paradigm).
These stopping places are not defined solely by price, but by the soul of the vineyard and the care of the winemaker. These qualities are enshrined in the two wines we have compared and both aim to be the best wine in their class. Follow that rule and you will find value wherever you look, whatever the price.