Money lies at the roots of our society. It is a structural entity – a skeleton around which much of what happens is built. It is also symbolic. Of itself it has trivial value: the notes and coins in your pocket are only worth something because society has agreed that they should be. But this symbolic value is important: it shapes how we think, how we act, how we spend our time, and how we relate to each other.
Money is also quite addictive. For many people, once they have begun to accumulate it, it is as if they have no option but try to accumulate more. Decision making is often determined solely by financial considerations: they are ruled by money. Even when the individual has no real need for more money, their focus remains on accumulating more, even if this act of accumulation constrains them in significant ways and makes their lives complicated and over-busy. The thought of making a choice that doesn’t involve the financially most lucrative option is seen as ridiculous or naïve. We can be ‘bought’. And frequently these individuals will accumulate wealth that they never use. Money has accumulated more money.
It is possible to enjoy money. The problem is that few accumulate it without being owned by it. In surveys where people are asked, ‘how much more money would you need to earn to be happy?’ people typically name a figure about a third higher than their current income, irrespective of how much they are already earning (I can’t find a citation for this, but there’s a research article here along similar lines). But if you are content with your lot, money can buy happiness, to a degree. Money brings options, and as long as you can avoid becoming addicted to it, having plenty of cash – as long as you are prepared to spend it – can bring a freedom and give options that, as long as the other important elements of your life are in place, can lead to enhanced happiness.
There is no joy in poverty. It is possible to be poor and happy, but poverty itself doesn’t make people happy. It makes life complicated and it takes away freedom of choice. It forces people to accept poor working conditions and unfulfilling jobs. It removes the freedom to travel and explore the world. It constrains choices massively. So money is useful and good, if it is kept in its place. There is, however, great joy to be had in making the most of what you have, and finding contentment in your lot. I have a friend who is wealthy but complains of feelings of intense jealousy towards people who are even wealthier than he is: that’s not a happy place to be. I have other friends who are happy with enough. That’s what I aspire to.
So where does wine come in? Just as money changes how we think, so also the value of wine changes how we approach it. Wine is, at one level, a luxury good that is aspired to by the wealthy. It is a badge of success. The right wines are part of the game of conspicuous consumption. But at another level, wine is a staple. It belongs on the table and is an enjoyable accompaniment to a meal. It’s also very democratic: in classic wine-producing countries wine is as much for the poor as it is for the rich.
Yet wine is unusual in its pricing structure. You can buy a bottle of red wine that’s perfectly drinkable for a few Euros, or you can spend a hundred times as much on the most expensive bottles. But a ten times differential is more normal in the marketplace for bottles people drink on a regular basis. That’s a very broad spread, and of late the top wines have become a lot more expensive, and this spread has increased.
I know a lot of wine lovers who have been buying wine en primeur for some time. Consequently, they have cellars with bottles in them that are now worth a good deal of money. If you have a Grand Cru red Burgundy from a top grower, you could be a looking at a bottle that has a market value of more than £500. This changes your relationship with the liquid, because it is no longer just a bottle of wine, but rather a valuable asset. If you brokered a case of that wine you could buy a new kitchen or a second-hand car. It makes it a bit too expensive to consider drinking, even though you didn’t pay anywhere near that much for the bottle.
When we drink a bottle that is worth a lot of money, we think of it rather differently. Try as we might, it’s hard just to drink it on its merits. Its pedigree, as evidenced by its value, is hard to step aside from. This value influences the perception of the wine.
Approaching this from the other way round, if you open an affordable bottle of wine, then is there an unconscious ceiling on how good it can be? Of course, there’s the wisdom of the marketplace: the value of a wine is in large part because of the group call on the aesthetic merit of this wine, reflected in its market value. But I suspect that even if a wine was really great, if it is inexpensive then many people won’t enjoy it as much.
Grange is an interesting example. Australia’s most famous wine used to be relatively affordable. Back in 1993 you could buy it in UK off-licence chain Threshers for £35. Then in the late 1990s Penfolds decided to whack up the price significantly. It was a brave move: the market followed. Suddenly, Grange (which now retails for around £300 in a good vintage) had a much higher perceived value. This changes the way people approach the wine. Already a notable, famous wine, it was propelled into superstar category by virtue of a rise in price.
For me, one of the great joys of being a wine journalist is being able to scour the world for interesting, authentic wines that are not yet famous enough to command high prices. I also love finding honest wines that speak of their place but which, for one reason or another, will remain affordable even though they are well known. If we can separate our obsession with money from our enjoyment of wine, then it no longer becomes essential to spend huge sums to have some of the most profound wine experiences possible. But this is not easy to do.