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How to find the sweet spot in the cost of a bottle of wine

Commentary

How much should a bottle of wine cost? This question reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s answer to the question of what is art: “anything you can get away with.”

I used to think of that line a lot when I looked over a restaurant wine list in the pre-COVID days. Being close to the trade, I knew the “licensee price” of most of the wines and could calculate by degrees of precision the mark-up. Often there would be no set formula. Some wines would be well marked-up, while others (maybe favourites of the house) would be modestly so.

Restaurants, of course, have lots of very good reasons to mark-up the wines they sell, like making payroll, rent and keeping the lights on. The margins in the fine dining hospitality business are notoriously low, and after the last year and a half one can only imagine the depths of the holes out of which surviving restaurants must now dig.

One surprising development out of the COVID shutdowns in Toronto was the willingness of many consumers to pay restaurant mark-ups for wines at impromptu “bottle shops” that were hastily formed when the provincial government allowed take-out liquor sales. Context matters, and we’ll pay more for a wine when it’s part of a special occasion (see Champagne).

The retail world is a different matter. Just under half of the wine sold in the world is “bulk,” which is to say it’s not initially sold in bottles, but more likely in tanks, to be bottled or boxed by the initial buyer, as a consumer good that costs around $10 for a standard 750 ml bottle or less. Even in the markets for “bottled wine,” that has been bottled where it was made, anything that costs more than ten American dollars is considered “premium.”

If, and when, I am asked if I have found any good wines lately, I always ask for a price range before I answer. In anticipation of being asked again, as our double vaccinated social lives begin to resume their pre-March 2019 pace, I thought I would organize my answers in a general way below. Prices are for a standard 750 ml bottle of still wine, bought off of a shelf, and intended to be drunk soon.

$10 and under

Cheap wine is often a false economy, especially the next morning. It costs money to make wine all throughout the creative process, from farming, to production, to bottling, to transportation and distribution, and to marketing. It also takes time to ferment and form. Any wine that sells for $10 or less is very likely going have cut corners in at least one of those things. So the trick to finding anything decent is to look for wines where there is an external factor that keeps costs low. More often that’s cheap labour, coupled with a favourable exchange rate. There are good wines from South America and South Africa that float around this price point for this reason. Alternatively, there are concept wines from Spain and Portugal that take advantage of surplus production there, and a ready market in Northern Europe. In my home province of Ontario, the liquor monopoly publishes the sugar levels in all the wines they sell. I am generally wary of any wine with a residual sugar level of more than six grams per litre. At $10 or less it’s worth checking this level.

$10-$15

The low end “premium” level of wine is less fraught with cut corners. I look for organic wines from South America or South Africa, or co-operative wines from Southern Europe. I realize that recognizing a co-operative wine is a bit of insider baseball, so put another way, wines from regions of France or Italy where rock stars don’t buy estates and there is no longer a landed gentry. As with the previous price tier, I find sugar levels a relatively good indicator of quality: a wine with lower sugar may have higher alcohol, but unpleasant flavours won’t be masked with sweetness. A wine with only two grams per litre of residual sugar is probably not trying to hide anything.

$16-$20

This is my sweet spot and the price point that drove me to become a wine writer nearly 20 years ago. The two newspapers that I read in the early 2000s had wine critics, but they almost always ignored this category. The populist paper stuck to wines at $10 or less, while the critic at the haute-bourgeois paper (who I respect very much) tended to write about wines for collectors that began at $40 and up. I started a newsletter to tell my friends and family about the great deals for $20 and less.

These days, a lot of those $20 wines now cost $30 or more, but new ones from emerging regions have taken their place. Furthermore, the places that a generation ago made $20 wine, that now costs twice as much, also make second or third wines from younger vines or parcels that don’t quite make the grade of their flagship bottling. But they are still made to the same high standard. So, the producer from Vacqueras that I used to buy from regularly 20 years ago has doubled their estate bottling, but now they have a Côtes-du-Rhône that’s great and benefits from those extra two decades of winemaking skill and relationships with local growers. It’s in this price level that exciting things happen. Watch this space for more, and more specific, coverage.

$21-$50

This premium price range is a minefield. The greatest value per mouthful of wines exist here. This year a $30 wine made a few years ago in a corner of Northern Italy might cost $60 next year because they sold out their allotments in Milan, New York and Montreal. This is to say, if as a consumer you win in this level, you win big. This also the level of top of most restaurant wine lists. So, if you order something you really like for $70-$90 at your local bistro, Google it and order a case from the importer at least half the price. It’s also full of giant turkeys. Wines that are way over valued and and trading reputations that ought to have expired a long time ago.

This is also zone where most well made Canadian wines live. It costs more money to make wine in Canada than nearly anywhere else in the world, and our industry doesn’t benefit from the kind of help that is on offer to agricultural industries in the EU. If you want to drink local, then you’re going to have to pay more. That’s just the way it is, at least for now.

$50-$99

After $50 wine pricing is more about demand and scarcity of supply than anything else. There are, for instance only so many acres of vines in the Napa Valley or the Côte-d’Or, and there are millions of people who want to drink the wines. It’s Economics 101. There is value in these wines in so far that one might buy one today from a recent vintage at $60 and find in ten years that it’s now worth $200.

At any price, wines that cost this much ought to be very good. That is to say they should be in balance and showing some complexity or distinct and pleasing character. And generally, in my experience, they are. Though sadly, not always.

$100+

The New York City restaurateur, sommelier and winemaker, Joe Bastianich writes in his memoir, Restaurant Man (2012) that no wine should cost more than $100. What he means is that all the best inputs, from the the site of the vines, to the cost of hand farming to the craft in the cellar, could exceed this price for 750 millilitres of what is mostly rain water and molecules of alcohol. This is a man who has made a lot of money selling a lot of wines that cost much more so, of course, he knows there are many wines that are worth much, much more to many.

I have been fortunate in my life to have been put in front of many wines that pull more demand than supply. There is a magical quality to tasting them, since it’s not just about what they taste like, per se, it’s also strongly about the experience of tasting them. If I really liked to drive, then I believe I would want to try driving a Ferrari, if only just to find out what it was like. The concept of value with these experiential wines becomes meaningless. Just drink them if you got them.

Coda

Very early in my career as food and wine journalist, I interviewed Jancis Robinson, who may be the English speaking world’s most respected wine critic and was a gracious subject to a young man who was clearly out of his depth. In the mid-2000’s, she impressed upon me a two-sided coin view of the wine world, which was really exploding. On the one hand, she lamented that the great Grand and Premier Cru wines were increasingly only being tasted by oligarchs and top end critics like herself as their cost climbed and climbed to stratospheric heights. On the other hand, she told me, the quality of regular table wines had never been better and would only improve. She was right then, as she is now.

Janet Bufton: Dismantle the institutions that make collective aspiration seem necessary

Commentary

The Hub launched with a core mission of getting Canadians thinking about the future. We’ve been stuck in the doldrums, pessimistic and polarized, for too long. To lay out a roadmap for the next 30 years of Canadian life, we asked our contributors to pinpoint the most consequential issue, idea or technology for the country in 2050. This series of essays by leading thinkers will illuminate Canada’s next frontier.

On June 24, 2021, I woke up to the news of 751 more unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. This came on the heels of the discovery of 104 graves in Brandon and a mass grave for 215 children, some as young as three years old, in Kamloops. Shortly afterwards, 182 and 160 unmarked graves were identified near Cranbrook and on Kupar Island in British Columbia. Five sites down, with what could be over 1,400 dead children. Over 130 residential school sites are still to be properly searched. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Final Report upon Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials estimate of 3,200 children killed by the Residential “School” System is looking awfully, absurdly, rosy. 

You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I don’t see Canada’s next frontier as one that will be shaped by a big, shared idea — especially one implemented by the Canadian government — or if I don’t think that trying to identify a single shared direction for the country is something we ought to aspire at all. 

This is — emphatically — not a call for a specific response to the horrors of the Residential School System or any of the other failures of the Canadian government identified in the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The last thing Indigenous peoples need is another person from outside of their communities talking about what they need. Indigenous peoples have told us what they need, and it’s substantive action, not white saviours.  

But that’s still not enough. Non-Indigenous Canadians have a responsibility to understand how on Earth we ended up with a history that threw kidnapped toddlers in the ground. When we say never again, we should mean it. That statement should have teeth. 

Against collective aspiration

I agree with the introductory essay of this series that Canada is being held back by the lack of “collective aspiration.”  A suffocating administrative state is what holds back substantial change with its insistence on approving any direction we might take. I fervently hope that if Canadians ever again go in one direction, it doesn’t lead to more rows of tiny shoes.

Instead, we should dismantle the institutions that make collective aspiration seem necessary and replace them with respect for all individuals and communities. 

Against this vision stand those who worry about what ordinary people, left to their own devices, might do. Canadians have lost faith in each other, but expect that if our aspirations are collective then our goals can be made better than they are individually. 

This isn’t totally incoherent. Canadians don’t expect grand visions to be implemented by our neighbours. We expect the government to put experts in charge of choosing and implementing the right collective goals. 

The sneering dismissal of the idea that ordinary Canadians — let alone those most disenfranchised — could be fit to make important decisions is on full display every time a Conservative despairs that a drama teacher could be prime minister of Canada and every time a Liberal indignantly remarks that the premier of Ontario doesn’t hold a post-secondary degree. Sneering is mild, though, compared to what happens when experts decide, as Canadian governments did in the late 19th and in the 20th century, that the choices of entire peoples and cultures aren’t good enough. 

Expertise is simply no substitute for choosing appropriate goals. The authors of the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 were our best and brightest. They had big ideas to move the country forward. Duncan Campbell Scott was well-educated with years of relevant experience. He applied both to the goal of eliminating the language, culture, and religions of Indigenous peoples. This is all, undeniably, part of our history, and a dream of unity is part of the reason why.

The problem with collective aspirations, especially when chosen and implemented by privileged experts, is that they will always be chosen by people with power on behalf of those who lack it. Freedom has to apply to everyone, not just the most privileged and credentialed. Freedom for a few isn’t freedom. It’s power, plain and simple. Equality under the law is indispensable if we are going to let people forge their own paths.

What’s the alternative?

People most comfortable with the status quo will be uncomfortable with loosening the reins on people and communities who want things to change. But individuals have a better track record than you think, especially when they’re appropriately and equally constrained by rules and institutions. When people are free, they can accomplish — they have accomplished! — an awful lot. 

Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, studied how communities solved environmental and resource management problems that experts had decided couldn’t be solved. Unlike European settlers who were too myopic to recognize anything but wilderness when they saw Indigenous polyculture farming, Ostrom approached the communities she studied with respect and curiosity that helped her understand solutions that experts thought shouldn’t exist. 

Ostrom helped us understand what makes community rules strong and effective and what makes them fragile or dysfunctional. One type of fragility comes from a higher level of government imposing solutions divorced from the people to which they apply and the things that those people know. Such “solutions” can even create or entrench problems.

Without laws founded in the equality, freedom, and worth of all people and their communities, we’re bound to blind ourselves to the potential, the knowledge, and the solutions of others.

Collective humility, individual boldness

Colonial governance is only one possible avenue that collective arrogance can take. It’s the one most relevant to Canada’s history, and its legacy is shameful.

It’s scary, especially for those who became politically powerful through the status quo, to think about what could happen if people in Canada were allowed to live without oversight and approval. But we should be bold enough, individually, to be collectively humble. 

Whether the decision is to allow opening a new sort of business, building a different sort of building, or practicing self-governance, Canadians need to take seriously the costs to people and communities different from us of imagining that we share our most important goals and aspirations. If you’re very fortunate, ignoring these costs might feel like the “doldrums of decadence.” But for others this selfish dream has resulted in generations of trauma that sits with Indigenous peoples to this day.

To see Canada’s next frontier, we must sweep aside all these imposing plans that have left the Canadian majority feeling they’re in the “doldrums of decadence” while leaving marginalized people dealing with generations of bigotry, racism, and trauma. 

Indigenous people deserve action, not words, from a government that takes full responsibility, pays reparations, and grants sovereignty. But Canadians should go further and take the teeth out of the very systems that allowed Canadians to think that they ever could or should impose one right way forward.