Parker: High wine prices creating ‘caste system’

The high prices set by famous wine estates is shutting people out of the market and creating a “caste system of wine”, according to Robert Parker, who also admitted that he “is part of the problem”.

Lafite bottlesSpeaking exclusively to the drinks business last month, the influential wine critic said that the rising prices of top labels from leading fine wine regions was a “problem and a concern”, particularly for the “younger generation”, which is being put off the category by the high cost of trying its best products.

“I remember when I first started [sampling wine] my friends and I had a tasting group and we went out and bought a 1957 Lafite-Rothschild for US$25 – and that for us was enormous amount of money – but today even if you bought an ‘off’ vintage of Lafite-Rothschild, it would probably cost you £200-300,” he said.

Continuing, Parker told db, “I think this is a problem; it means a lot are shut out because basically we have a caste system of wine – at the really desirable high end, whether the wines are Burgundy or Bordeaux, or from California, they have become so expensive that people just can’t afford them, so they look elsewhere.”

He then said that this was “having a negative effect on the younger generation,” and may be one reason why such people are turning to drinks other than wine.

Referring to the high prices of benchmark fine wines, he said, “I think this is why we are why seeing more and more interest in boutique and craft beers in the USA – I enjoy tasting some of these boutique beers because they are really good, and well made – but you can buy a four-pack of high-end, highly-rated beer for $15-20 and you are still in the budget category for wine at that price.”

Consequently, Parker stated, “There is no question that wine prices are way to high and I think Bordeaux has to have a reckoning soon about their pricing” – a remark db has addressed in more detail here.

In particular, Parker criticised Bordeaux for its pricing, noting that the left-bank estates are “big properties with a large production”, unlike Burgundy’s top growers, who may be making just 200 cases a year.

He also said that restaurants were asking far too much for famous wines, whatever the source.

“Restaurants are giving such incredibly high mark-ups that they are making wine look like an elitist beverage, when really it’s not,” he said,

Explaining himself further, Parker commented, “There is a tendency by high end restaurants to market their wines as elitist brand products – like Chanel or Lamborghini – but wine is a fungible, consumable product; it is meant to be consumed and not to be admired and squirreled away in some museum-like wine cellar.”

Finally, Parker admitted to db that he was partly to blame for the demand and subsequent high prices of certain fine wines.

“Of course, I’m part of the problem there by giving high scores, but the point is, you have to review the wines, and you have to review the great wines, and you just hope that by praising the best wines it encourages others to aspire to make great wines and maybe get a better price for their wine without making an extravagant overpriced wine.”

12 Responses to “Parker: High wine prices creating ‘caste system’”

  1. Glugger says:

    Thankfully the quality gap between ‘highly desirable’ that folk can’t afford and wines at £25 is often minimal, so rather than shutting folk out of the market, these high prices have made people realise that there is more to life than over-hyped and over-priced Bordeaux, Burgundy & California.

  2. Fredrik Svensson says:

    As a university student in beginning of 90s I could afford to buy the occasional Mouton or Lafite. By drinking them I understood a lot about wine quality.
    Today I have a net income that is more than 10 times and rather low costs. But I just can not bring myself to buy them.
    Nor seems new wine lovers have any experience of these high end Bordeaux and Burgundy. Then how can they really understand quality in classical wines?

  3. PinotJim says:

    These observations by Mr. Parker are long overdue. He is not the only one perpetuating the cost problems. I seek other publications making comments along the lines of “You should never spend less that $75 for an Oregon Pinot Noir in a restaurant”. Sheer nonsense. And it does scare off our emerging market of younger folks. My daughter reports that in her graduate school program, the feeling is that you never know what you are getting with a spendy bottle of wine, but you do know what you are getting with local boutique beers.

    I am with Fredrick, yes I can more than afford the expensive wines, but why spend that money when I can get so much more value with much lower priced wines. I recently presented in a blind tasting a collection of 2011 Rutherford Cabs. The price range was from $8 (Trader Joe’s house brand) to over $150. The TJ won hands down and there are some pretty sophisticated palates in the tasting group. Mr. Parker would have chuckled at the comments made on that TJ bottle.

  4. While I am NOT a big fan of the Parker scoring system, and I am happy to see that Parker has admitted he is part of the problem, I am VERY happy to see he is now working to correct the system of elite wines going to the super wealthy only. But great Bordeaux is available for almost every budget, but you have to explore and dig deep. When top tier Bordeaux became astronomical in price I changed my strategy; “I now buy great Chateau wines in off vintages and lesser known Chateau in great vintages”. Great wine makers will produce great wines even in bad vintages. And on great vintages, the prices go through the roof. So even the lesser known Chateau will produce exceptional wines.
    And I question the $150 Rutherford Cabs were presented properly (decanted and bottle time) vs. the $8 TJ. The $8 TJ was built to drink early. The $150 Rutherford Cab was built to age, and from my experience needed 3-5 cellar time or the tannins will rip the enamel off your teeth! But give it time on it’s side will produce an exceptional, not an average cabernet sauvignon.

  5. Jack says:

    Why not review some of the lesser known wines being produced in Ca. for example, wines that haven’t been reviewed, but sell for much less money, brands that have been around for more than a decade that haven’t been tasted by the likes of WA, WS, and WE. Not all wineries send wines in for review, and or have sent wines but get know response….yet these wines sell very well and constantly win high marks in state fairs and the like.

  6. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Any taste comps using Calif. 2011 wines, in my view, is not very useful, given the poor weather and poor quality for a big part of Calif. wines. I can see TJ scoring better than some wet wool Rutherfords that should not have been made or sold at regular price. Try again using 2010, or 2012 and see if the line up improves. I tell people to mostly ignore 2011 and drink any/every other Calif. vintage, and yes it is good to read Parker trying to remedy how his scores are used.

  7. I was a winemaker for 40 years & saw 1st hand the effect of high scores & status. Most of the problem is supply & demand. However as new winedrinkers entered the market over the years, their lack of knowledge led them to easy fixes. The 1st growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, & American wines with Parker or Wine Spectator scores over 90 made life simple. For the higher income buyers status rather than taste became the important thing. Snobism cajoled Novice drinkers to seek the “in” thing rather than the enjoyable thing. Restaurants are a nightmare. If you don’t know the producer or the vintage, its a crap shoot. Little relation between price & quality. You don’t know if the waiter or sommelier is pushing something to win a contest or move out something. As wines by the glass have improved & am often torn between the abilty to taste before I buy & an uncertain recomendation, & I have 10 times the knowledge base of the average consumer. Also, extremely few restaurants have any red wines that are old enough to show their potential & if they do they are rarely affordable even if you are willing to spend $100-200. Lastly, the old reliable stand-byes of Beaujolais or Cotes Du Rhone are largely gone. If you are a white wine drinker it is so much easier with so many nice & reasonable wines available. There is so much good red wine out there, but finding it is the problem. If only the Parkers et al had never happened & folks relied on their local wine shops advice, the wine consumer would be better off. Parker & the Spectator don’t take back bottles, good wine shops do & help you make a slection more to your taste next time.

  8. Chad says:

    As a member of the “younger generation,” I do lament the fact that in all likelihood I will never be able to buy a bottle of First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy. I have had the opportunity to sample these wines, but only because I work in the wine trade and have the opportunity to attend tastings and events for trade only. But in my opinion, these tastings are a mere shadow of what these wines should be like, when enjoyed in the company of friends, or with a meal. The experience Mr. Parker describes of scrounging up $25 amongst friends to afford one bottle of an exceptional wine is a common story among friends I have in his generation. Sadly, and I think Mr. Parker would agree, this is not the experience of my generation. Prices have indeed become much less affordable.

    That’s not to say, as other commenters have noted, that there aren’t other great, even exceptional wines out there. And there will always continue to be exceptional wines outside of the Grand and Premier Crus. However, it’s important to remember that Mr. Parker didn’t make these wines famous. They were famous long before he was around. The question then, is how much did Mr. Parker contribute to the rise in prices in the past 50 years. His remarks on the caste system of wine are valid where this is concerned. And this is where I have always had trouble with his touted 100 point scale. These points can sadly influence the price of a wine drastically, not because they are inherently powerful, but because it oversimplifies wine to the average consumer. As a “consumer advocate” I believe Mr. Parker has failed because he has steered consumers to care less about the wine and more about the score. Given some of his recent decisions (and some of his recent scores) I hope he is realizing this as well.

  9. Rachel says:

    Great article, Parker is right – very few people are able to afford the top tier wines. Lucky for us, wine production has improved by leaps and bounds since he bought that ’57 Lafite-Rothschild, and now there is a whole spectrum of delicious wine in the $10-50 range. Maybe that ‘upper caste’ of wine will be out of touch to all but a few, but the average consumer does have access to a wider range and selection of wines than ever before in history!

  10. Greg Linn says:

    It’s not all Mr. P’s fault of course however he is an honorable man. In fact he’s a small part of the problem. I have had the great pleasure of tasting the finest labels from the finest vintages through a 60 year lifetime. However when prices crash through the $1000.00 a bottle plateau it’s long time to stop. The biggest cause is Bordeaux and Burgundy them selfs and there lack of control on their importers, or is it lack of interest? it’s easy to keep raising pricing when China pays what
    ever they ask, however China is down 13% for bordeaux. and if that trend continues they will be Hat in hand coming back to the country that saved them. People in France do not Drink these wines most are exported. So I say stop buying them,
    let the China market crumble and watch the prices fall. A few back vintages later even the French might apologies?
    One could hope!

  11. It’s fermented grape juice people! Meant to be part of your daily diet! Yes people do a better job than others making it into wine, with the quality mainly related to the Terroir and the Winemaker. Unfortunately the high cost is because you pay for the label name/Wine House and fall for the marketing and popularity of said wine. I believe scoring wine should always involve the suggested retail price to be fair and this would help consumers who work hard for their buck to be rewarded fairly for their purchase!! Just my two cents, from your friendly neighborhood Winemaker. Cheers! SP

  12. Karen says:

    Have any of the ‘high end of town’ consumers in wealthy nations such as America ever thought that they are the problem?
    Making wine exclusively to suit ‘Parker followers’ created obsessive winemakers eager to establish themselves quickly then sit back and enjoy the spoils as equally obsessive ‘wine wankers’ paid exorbitant prices for average wines in the ensuing years. Bordeaux already had the profile they just had to get up to speed and win some points so they could double their prices.

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