Mike Paul: in search of the true value of a bottle of wine

The BBC Watchdog report on the questionable value of half price deals in the supermarkets sparked a great deal of interest. Such deals have always stirred emotions, but the ensuing discussion also  highlighted  a concern I have when I hear commentators making definitive statements about the price a particular wine is worth.

Let us imagine for a moment that a committee was set up to investigate over pricing in the UK wine market. On the face of it their task would not appear to be too difficult, after all we certainly have the wine knowledge. It’s interesting to speculate too on whether anything under £10 would come remotely close to the short list of those most over priced. The focus would surely be on emperors wandering around their estates without any clothes rather than on lesser mortals hanging around naked in supermarkets.

However, I need hardly say that such an enquiry could never be more than an interesting fantasy for two main reasons.

At a basic level it falls down because, despite the fact that those of us who work in the category are much closer to being able to judge the ‘true’ value of a liquid than outsiders, even the experts among us fall some way short.

As an example, if I presented a buyer with a good Pinot Noir at £10 per bottle and said it was from Eastern Europe they might say I was pushing it at that price. If, however, I said that the same wine was a Burgundy then it would likely be seen as a bargain. We are all inevitably prisoners of our history and experience.

What is perceived as fair or appropriate pricing to us in the trade varies significantly by region, style, varietal and even possibly by producer. There isn’t some global standard. So given experts can judge most, if not all, of the above when they taste then surely their preconceptions must play a role in determining their view of a wine’s value ?

The correct price for a bottle of wine ultimately has to be the price someone is happy to pay for it. Providing the wine is legal (in other words it matches the description on the label) then to make it more complicated than that is really not tenable.

I would wager, for example, that for every wine in the  market there is a cheaper alternative which a consumer might well prefer; is a retailer morally bound to point this out?  In the example above do you insist someone buys Eastern European Pinot Noir rather than Burgundy? And, to take this to an even more ridiculous extreme, should we push Cava as opposed to Champagne to consumers who we believe won’t know the difference?

Secondly, the consumers’ definition of good value may well be different than ours. They may want a Burgundy rather than a cheaper alternative because the name resonates with them or they want to impress friends. They may want a well-known brand (of mainstream or fine wine) because they value the reassurance the name provides. They may even prefer the taste of a BOGOF wine purchased at full price to many equivalently priced or more expensive wines.

The consumer’s level of contentment indeed may be determined by a number of factors and the ‘quality ’ of the wine itself as perceived by an expert may be of little relevance. Consumers behave in the wine category as we ( wine people ) almost certainly behave in other categories: often irrationally, probably far more influenced by brand imagery than we would care to admit, and generally overly influenced by factors that have little to do with the substance or function of the product.

All of which implies that there are assuredly many instances where we are making purchases which insiders would regard as significantly overpriced. However, if we do so quite happily, are inclined to repeat the purchase, and even to recommend it to others, than that is surely the closest one is going to get to a measurement of good value.

Many of us may well be concerned about some of the ways wine is promoted but that is in my view quite a different issue than the one I’m raising here and we should I think be careful before we conflate the two.

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