Do wine writers write only for the one percent?

Gawker ran a piece recently that rips into the idea that the “one percent” don’t have enough money to live on. What provoked it was a Canadian one percenter who wrote in Toronto Life about his plight, and details his living expenses and several others posed for the magazine and detailed their expenses. One line item that caught my eye–as well as those of numerous commenters at Gawker–was that a one percenter admitted to spending $800 a month on wine. Assuming a bottle every evening, that works out to $26 per bottle, or adding them all up, about $10,000 a year. Granted, this one percenter lives in Toronto so he has to buy his wine at the LCBO, which has higher prices than in the US.

Still, it does raise a question or two about wine writing: how often do wine columns recommend wines north of $26? Assuming the answer is pretty often, then are wine columnists writing for the one percent? (In fairness, Canada’s threshold for inclusion in the one percent is only about half what it is in the US and we’re extrapolating this all from one single guy’s spending on wine.)

Certainly some columns, such as the current Wall Street Journal’s, might be more openly trying to target the one percent than others. Still, a lot more than one percent of wine recommendations are north of $26 a bottle (and still a lot above $52, if we use that as the American one-percenter wine threshold) even wine writers aren’t consciously targeting the “one percent” reader. While it’s true that a reader can pick and choose from a list of recommendations, it’s still worth bearing in mind that if a reader were to have a $15 bottle of wine every other night, the total spend on wine a year would be $2,730, a significant figure for most household budgets. (Clearly, a $30 bottle every other night would be $5,460 and every night would be $10,920, etc.) While we wine writers often delight in wines from specific places, as opposed to “brands” that can source from multiple vineyards or even wine regions, we should strive to highlight those elusive wine picks, the singular bottles at reasonable prices. Then we would be doing our small part for decoupling “wine” from “snob” in America.

Related: “Why so few tasty American wines under $12? Wine importer Bobby Kacher
The dearth of recommendable California wines under $12

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36 Responses to “Do wine writers write only for the one percent?”

  1. in defense of wine writers, they get all of those bottles for free, so the issue of price starts to become a forgotten detail for them.

    my questions is: why are 50% of wineries making wine that only 1% of the people can afford?

  2. Interestingly, some time ago I asked 1WD readers directly if they wanted me to continue to talk about what we might call aspirational wines (expensive, difficult to obtain, etc.). The overwhelming majority of responses were in the “Yes, we want to hear about them” category.

    Just because they get covered, doesn’t mean people re disconnected from the prices; some people clearly find value in understanding more about those wines, helping them determine if they should or shouldn’t splurge on them once in a while.

  3. Yes, most of us are out of touch.
    We perpetuate wine elitism by writing about expensive bottles. (Delicious, delicious bottles…) Is the answer not to write about expensive bottles? As a consumer publication, I try to mix it up to give my readers a variety of all the wine options out there.

    Also, most people don’t drink 3-4 bottles of wine a week, so the amounts are angled for heavy drinkers.

    All the best,

    Nannette Eaton

  4. agree with 1WD–as snobby as it might seem, it can be fun to learn about special bottles…even if you do have to go back to that box in the fridge *ahem, ahem my life**

  5. While I agree with some points from Nannette and 1WD, I don’t necessarily agree that if you write about $26+ wines you just communicating with the 1%. It boils down to how people want to spend whatever disposable income they have. If you advertise a $10K flatscreen TV are you also only communicating to the 1% ? I think not. $26/bottle might seem excessive to someone who thinks nothing of spending similar amounts on cable, the latest iPhone or other electronic gadget. While I am conscious that many of my readers are young and prefer to stay south of $20 / bottle of wine, I also recognize that they too like to splash out for special occasions and gifts.

  6. Wine writers are in a tough spot. The elite vintners are the ones that pay their bills either directly or by allowing them access to wines that give them credibility. If they don’t kiss their butts, they won’t be relevant or worse won’t have work.

    Still, that doesn’t preclude them from seeking out the wine in the middle between industrial Walmart wines and heavy bottle Cabs. There’s a whole world of middle-class producers who work for a living. They cost more than industrial plonk, but don’t charge crazy prices due to ego, lifestyle or marketing excess. These are what writers can focus on, and usually they are $20-$50. A moderate splurge, but for once in a while what working folks with some discretionary should support.

  7. Many wine drinkers we have studied at Wine Opinions are not in the 1% in terms of income or net worth, but they spend a disproportionate amount of disposable income on wine – often along the lines cited in the article above.

    Wine writers are writing for wine lovers, not income groups.

  8. Part of it is dollars and cents, part of it is aesthetic. There’s a tendency to recommend wines that are hard to get, made from obscure grapes, and have flavor profiles that appeal to jaded palates — if you’re tasting/drinking wine every day, then lower alcohol, higher acidity, more refreshing wines are that much more appealing. I love many of these wines, and wine writers should be at the vanguard of such things, but a $18 bottle of Romorantin that’s only available at one teeny wine shop is, in its own way, as 1%-ish as a $45 Napa Cab. (Which some 99%ers could at least justify buying as a birthday/holiday splurge.)

  9. I agree with the previous comments. People who are into wine do want to hear about the high end stuff, even if they aren’t buying it. But I definitely read with more interest the best bargains articles. And on the previous comment about wine writers getting their bottles for free, I don’t think many do. Parker says he doesn’t, I believe him on it. Though it seems some of his people have been getting paid in other ways. That being said, Parker used to have his “Wines under $15” as his bargain point. Now its $25. I personally don’t think that a $25 bottle is a bargain wine. There are still plenty of very good wines for under $12. So in the end I think most wine writing (print) is written for the one percent. Its where the money is, thank you Willie Sutton.

  10. I agree with Mary’s comment. I don’t belong to the 1% (sigh), and I buy the wine in the range from $2.99 to $100, it is simply used differently (okay, only a couple of $100 bottles a year, but still). We can’t assume that $10K are split evenly between all the days of the month, and I don’t even think that this 1% drinks wine every day. Last point – I’m sure that some of that budget 1% spends on collectible wine which is acquired as an investment only. Bottom line – I think we need to write about all the great wines, without much regard to the price. After all, we are looking for great experiences to share…

  11. Why not help those out who would like to be into wine, but aren’t willing to regularly spend $15, $30 or more on a bottle… yet? And what about those excellent value wines? They are out there.

    Wine writers need to write for their audience… and my audience is a mix of those testing the wine waters and looking for guidance as they come to learn what they do like, as well as those a bit more experienced in comparison. I write for the casual wine drinker.

    I try to keep a good balance on my wine reviews and profiles, covering wines at the lower end of the price spectrum ($8- $15), a few in the $70- $100 per bottle range, and many in between.

    I’d like to help my readers find those excellent bargain wines… and not be embarrassed about liking whatever it is they like. And I think that goes for the 99% as well as the 1%.

  12. I keep two kinds of wine in my basement, based on whether or not I have to think about it before I bring it up. Wine writers concern themselves with the think-about-it bottles, whether expensive or no. So do my favorite small shops.

  13. Thanks for these comments.

    Gabe, You bring up two great points. Yes, many wine writers taste a lot of wines they write about for free. Given the perils of journalism’s finances, it would be very difficult to provide much breadth of coverage on the wine beat without support from the industry. Does this make it a conflict of interest? Hopefully not, but it is something to be on the lookout for.

    Also, you are right to touch on the fact that many US wineries produce lots of wines that are priced to be “aspirational.” I hope that as the industry matures, this will change. There are some rays of hope now, such as the keg wine phenomenon that can lower prices to the consumer. Or the commuter cuvees you have mentioned here before.

  14. When I look at all the stacked-up wines I haven’t tasted or reviewed, most are priced north of $26 and quite a few north of $52. Wines in the $10-$20 range are tasted and reviewed much more quickly. There’s a reason for this: I believe the overwhelming majority of my readers are interested in value wines.

    And so I am constantly looking for outstanding wines in this category from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and other places where there is at least some chance of finding interesting, moderately priced, terroir-driven wines for under $20. (California is much tougher when it comes to such wines.) And so, from my perspective, price is extremely important and the goal has always been to be as relevant to as many readers as possible, while also telling them from time to time about what some call “aspirational” wines.

  15. 1winedude – I’m glad you’ve thought about this before. But maybe there’s selection bias among those that comment on your site (the most dedicated readers and consumers) and those that would pay more? Perhaps if you made it a poll, then those who don’t want to comment could express their preferences.

    1wd, Nanette, Mary, Laura, Sasha – I agree that as people who taste a lot of wine it’s likely to taste a lot of something to stand out, be that acid, oak, alcohol or whatever the taster is drawn to. And to get distinctive wines, they are probably going to be more expensive and/or harder to find. Each writer can develop his or her own voice and audience but balancing price points is probably most relevant for those writing in newspapers. (Blogs can afford to reach more of a niche.)

    Sasha, as to your point, I guess I’m wondering if you have to be alienating, should it be on price alone? Somehow, if there’s a terrific romorantin to be had for $18 somewhere, I think it’s great to point to that as an example of a good value for readers and (implicitly) ask the rest of the industry what they can do to put a wine like that on shelves near other people.

    Mary – In defense of iPhones, although they are expensive with $100 monthly costs, they are (or can be) productivity-enhancing business devices. While wine can certainly be an important part of business entertaining, the bulk of the expenditure on wine probably ends up in our scrap books, taste memories, and in the sewer system…

    John – terrific point about some wine enthusiasts spending perhaps more than they could/should. That came up last week in our discussion about young foodies who spend 25% of their paychecks on dining out.

  16. Quizicat – Robert Parker recently reduced his claim that the Wine Advocate buys 75% of the wines they review to 60%. The critics do taste a lot in regions either en primeur or otherwise at individual properties or in regional tastings assembled by regional trade groups.

    A while back we pondered the question “Does the Wine Advocate buy over $700,000 worth of wine a year?

  17. Working in wine retail at a busy grocery store in Seattle, the most common request I got was for bottles under $10. (And even $10 every other day adds up.) My customers were people who drank wine regularly and were adventurous. It was exciting to find something new and interesting that I could recommend in that price range. That experience definitely informs my writing. I am, however, not going to turn down the chance to relate the experience of drinking fancier, costlier wines. I hope readers find interest in both.

  18. I would love to see a singular bottle for a reasonabe price. The minute it was mentioned though it would be sold out.
    What I expect from wine writers is to learn about wines I have never tried or even heard of, reviews of wines I have little chance of every trying so that at least I can get an idea of what they are like, and links to wine stores that don’t charge exorbitant shipping prices; but different people want different things. How to please everyone? I guess people have to pick and choose the wine writers who meet their needs. If a wine writer were writing to 1% of the wine drinking population, why would the other 99% bother to read that wine writer? If every wine writer targeted a different 1% sample of the wine drinking population wine drinkers could go to the blog or publication that suited them. I don’t know about distributers or retailers giving them wines to review. That’s too much reality for me.

  19. Wow. Writing about wine people can afford. That’s a novel concept. We’d better not do that. More people might start drinking wine.

    “Wine writers are in a tough spot. The elite vintners are the ones that pay their bills either directly or by allowing them access to wines that give them credibility. If they don’t kiss their butts, they won’t be relevant or worse won’t have work.”

    I never realized how successful I could be if I followed that formula.

  20. My comment on Parker’s paying for the wine he tastes was that he says he pays for all of the bottles he tastes at his own place. I did not think he was paying for wines he tried at the wineries.

  21. “Wine people can afford.” Right.

    Our wines are priced at $20-$60 and our sales volume-weighted average is nearly $40. We have a 1-1 relationship with the people in our wine club, and based on conversations, shipping addresses and the number of high-end credit cards we see, about 3%-5% of them would qualify as “the 1%.” I guess that could suggest that our stuff is not really all that unaffordable.

    I know plenty of couples who can’t live without their daily venti lattes and at least one bottle of water. That looks like somewhere between $5,000-$5,500/year. Maybe most of my 99%-er buyers are making their coffee at home and drinking from the tap, like I am.

    There are plenty of serviceable inexpensive wines ($8-$12), and at our house we go through several a week – almost entirely whites, roses and domestic sparkling. Of these I could name maybe one brand out of five. They are wet, go acceptably well with a casual meal, and have some alcohol in them – beyond that they are “nothing to write home about.”

    IMO that’s why wine writers don’t write about them. Writing is work, and why would I break a sweat to write about anything (not just wine) where the best thing I can say about it is “meh”? No excitement = no story. Suckling might be consciously writing for the 1% but I seriously doubt anyone else is, consciously anyway.

    So way to go, Tyler, for conflating wine writing (and buying) with the class warfare meme of this political season. This piece feels like you are teeing up for yet another series of “rent’s too damn high” rants. And I’m sure it will be as insightful and helpful as the last go-around. Going to focus on Napa again? How about a little love for Sonoma this time?

  22. wow. a very lively discussion today.

    dr v – i don’t think journalists getting free wine is unethical. i do think it makes wine retailers much more reliable critics than journalists. i love reading your blog, or 1 wine dude, or wine specatator, because it is interesting. but if i want someone to recommend a bottle for me, i’ll ask someone who is tasting, buying, and selling wine for a living.

    and, on a different topic, i work at a winery, so i understand why some wines must be expensive. there is nothing wrong with splurging for a special occasion. but there are many great wines to be had under $20.

  23. Wow John Kelly, you sure got your panties in a knot over this article. I think it is a fair question for wine writers to ask: what is helpful for most wine drinkers to know about. For my part, I would like to read more about wines in the under $15 zone, perhaps stretching towards 20 on occasion. There are a heck of a lot of interesting wines to write about in that range. Maybe not gorgeous, to-die-for wines, but very well-made and worth discussing.

  24. Wow. The next time I think about monetizing my blog, I’m going to read this thread and come to my senses. If I had to sit down and think about whether what I was writing was useful, and to whom it might be useful, I doubt whether I’d ever get anything written at all.

  25. “Then we would be doing our small part for decoupling “wine” from “snob” in America.”

    Eh, perhaps not.

    That line between wine appreciation and wine snobbery is whether the object of attention is intrinsically about the wine and how it makes one feel vs. leveraging of knowledge or experience for the purposes of social status (how depressing!).

    I still see too much wine snobbery around, *especially* in the media and I don’t mean WSJ.

    Maybe to really put a dent in the wine snobbery that you see, call people out for it using the words. “Wine Snobbery!” “Wine d**chiness!” “Status Clinger!” “Star **cker” Those types have a similar insufferable quality as film critics.

  26. according to Cellartrack my avg btl price is $40…….and I dont make a ton of money just dont go out a lot lol

  27. […] Dr. Vino poses a question worth pondering: Do wine writers write only for the one percent? […]

  28. I think it’s incredibly important for wine writers to write about wines over $26, because many people can’t afford to make a mistake purchasing in the upper price ranges, therefore are generally unfamiliar with those wines, and when the time comes to buy a bottle on that special occasion, they don’t have much personal information to work with. A good retailer is helpful in those instances, of course, but they are becoming rare .

    No matter what, wine is subjective, but if a writer whose palate I trust / find congruent with mine recommends something out of my usual price range — or, at least, can tell me what foods pair with it — then I have something to go by when deciding which bottle to choose on the few occasions I can splurge.

    Being disappointed in a $6 wine is tolerable and forgettable. Missing the mark on a $40 bottle can ruin an evening and make a person shy away from splurging in the future.

  29. Tyler – Regarding the poll, I guess you’re saying that people are more likely to engage via a poll than the blog comments, but the question also went out via FB and twitter. Still, could be skewed but the “crowd sourcing” was not totally relegated to the blog comments and so I suspect has a bit more “everywo/man” sentiment to it. Still, that was back in 2009 so things might have changed since then…

  30. “why are 50% of wineries making wine that only 1% of the people can afford?”

    Many wineries have very small production, and the economics of these wineries are such that they require selling fairly high priced wines. The target price varies by region and cost structure, but they generally have to average above $15, often over $20 and sometimes much more than that.

    Also, bear in mind that while daily consumption of $26 wine might be an activity of 1 percenters or wine geeks, millions of regular wine drinkers buy these wines for occasional gourmet meals, holidays, etc. while keeping their typical wine well under $20.

  31. Great discussion. As a working class guy with a serious wine bug and an obsession with writing, I try to write for the 99 percent. I like wine made by farmers and sold at reasonable prices. I like wines that give a lot of pleasure for as little as possible. I can’t speak for others, but for me wine should be enjoyed by the masses, for the masses.

  32. Out of 100 people you know (exclude your wine geek friends you met through wine) is there one that is actually into wine. That would mean they are on blogs, have temp control cellars, buy wine outside of Napa Valley and know what an offline is. For most including me I would say I am lucky to find one out of 500.

  33. […] wine writers write only for the one percent? Sometimes you might think so with those fabulously expensive bottles of wine but there are a lot […]

  34. Wine writers know their subscribers. If anyone examines the usual message on Parker’s site EBOB the typical thread has something to do with points… high points to be exact. There are NO threads about wines that receive merely outstanding scores, only monumental scores. How much the wines costs today are controlled by the points that the wines receive. The higher the points, the higher the price. If price is no object then the subscribers have no objectivity. Let them eat cake.

  35. Great blog Dr V. Interesting topic, well written, and a lively discussion on the coment section. You remain one of my favorite wine writers. (And I am definitely not one of the 1%)

  36. […] Do wine writers write only for the one percent? […]


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