Should fine wine be its own category?
ARENI Global held an Oxford Union-style debate on the evening of 19th January 2023, at Sotheby’s in London, on the occasion of the launch of Rethinking Fine Wine, ARENI’s latest whitepaper.
The motion was “Fine wine should be cut from the wine category.”
In favour of the motion were Amayès Aouliand Richard Bampfield MW. Against the motion were Felicity Carter and Polly Hammond.
Please note that in Oxford Union-style debates, team members are told which side they are going to be on, and may end up arguing for a motion they privately disagree with. The goal is to be provocative and thought-provoking and, if possible, entertaining.
What follows are the full recording of this session and the edited transcripts of each debater’s arguments. These transcripts do not truly capture the delivery and showmanship that are an integral part of these debates.
FOR THE MOTION
Fine wine should be cut from the wine category
Head of Sales for Europe, Sotheby’s Wine
What follows are based on Amayès’s debating notes, as the recording failed to capture him adequately.
Since 1744 at Sotheby’s, thousands of my former colleagues have — in every category —dedicated their life to the burning question of understanding what ‘fine’ is versus what is not. It is a fair question for arts, furniture, design, watches, jewellery, cars etc
The question is very much alive today. In that respect, wine is no different. It’s a constant question for our specialists as we focus on the finest and rarest wines. When we find a collection, especially private, we ask ourselves which wines should enter in the fine category and can be included in the sale. It requires knowledge, expertise and understanding of the clients/markets.
Where it differs from the other categories is that it is alive. It is an agricultural product which is produced to be shared, consumed, enjoyed. I’d like to good deeper in the split by separating:
- Living wines – approximately nine months of pregnancy in the vineyards: a grower, a beginning of its life, a maturity, and a decline. An anthropomorphic product. Fine wines are closer to the arts. They are born with a vision, an intention to create an emotion and a memory.
- Agricultural wines – which are “necessary” goods. They can be substituted by others beverage to meet an immediate, basic need. They belong to the food industry.
From the start of their life to their end, fine wines are treated differently and should be clearly cut from agricultural wine for three reasons:
- History. These wines are appreciated for the longer term, beyond its creation, and its creator. The recognition.
Burgundy is a good example of this, as Grands Crus notoriety (2% of the vineyards), is spreading to 98% region. Ex: Clos de Vougeot, you can breathe the historical layers.
Insert yourself in millions years of geology, thousands of mankind history. Approximately 60 years of the producer’s life, one year of the vintage. There’s a strong link between fine wine and history. Fine wines are cultural ambassadors, for the region, the country, the community. Once bottled, fine wine will be treated accordingly, and continue its own journey and insert in your personal one (birthdays, anniversaries) when joining your cellar. When you drink fine wine, you are in communion with all these layers of histories.
2. Education—the present
Fine wines carry with them tons of knowledge and plant the seed of curiosity.
You must be curious by nature to try to understand it (which you’ll never succeed in doing..). Anyone starting to appreciate, taste, share, wants to understand the geology, meteorology, physics, medical, chemistry, agricultural techniques, history, sociology, economics and more. Importantly, the women and men behind the bottle. It’s eclectic.
Whether technical or philosophical, you are diving into a full set of humanities that have made possible your encounter with the bottle. It is an aggregation of infinite knowledge.
[Fine wine] is an aggregation of infinite knowledge.Amayès Aouli
3. Preservation/sustainability—the future
Understanding fine wine is respecting and preserving the terroir, the landscape, the community. It preserves the soil by an intense focus/pressure for them to be better/cleaner.
Whole dedicated chain of value: Bottling, shipping, storage, distribution, advisory. Fine wine requires specialised distribution and advisory: Sommeliers, critics, journalists, places, events, research institute like ARENI. All are mandatory.
The category needs to be split from the rest of the wine! Fine wine is a category of its own, but a moving one. Again, it is alive. Fine wine is about passing knowledge. For agricultural wine, there is not much to say. Little to no history, little to no education, little preservation. It is about consumption, filling a basic need and can be substituted.
The question is around the accessibility of fine wine and having the chance to taste them even if you have limited budget, but the answer is not by creating confusion, but reinforcing transparency and opportunities.
To conclude, a bottle of fine wine is never destroyed, it is just transformed into memories.
A bottle of fine wine is never destroyed, it is just transformed into memories.Amayès Aouli
Richard Bampfield MW
Partner, Wine and Spirits at Preferabli; Consultant: Lidl, Albert Bichot (Burgundy), Santa Rita Estates (Chile and Argentina), Château Brown (Bordeaux); Trustee of the Sustainable Wine Roundtable
To make my case clear, I’m arguing that fine wine should be separated from the rest of the wine category. When Pauline first asked me to participate this evening, I thought that’s fair enough. I could probably argue for either side.
Then I realised that today was the memorial service of Steven Spurrier who, of course, in 1976, helped us understand that fine wine could be produced on both sides of the Atlantic. And then I remembered that the Stevens Spurrier that I knew showed as much curiosity for a new Feteasca Albă from Romania as he did the new vintage of Petrus, and for a moment I wanted the other side. But I thought about it, and I realized that there’s only one winner in this debate—and that’s us.
Let me explain. I am normally a positive person. But I cannot ignore the ill winds that are blowing towards the wine business and the alcohol business. The World Health Organisation. They’re influential. They’re anti-alcohol. Look at what’s happening with governments. In Ireland there are going be health warnings on all bottles of alcohol. In Canada, the government has said that two drinks a week is the maximum recommended intake.
You look at viticulturists in many parts of the world. Viticulturists are realising that they’re going have to compete with agriculture — more often with more valuable agriculture. Fraud. Water. Dramatic declines [in wine consumption]. It’s worrying.
Now, not all of these threats are purely towards wine. They’re towards alcohol in general. But surely we must agree that wine has not been great at fighting its cause with a single voice. And I’m not betting on [it] being able to do so any time in the future. If Polly and Felicity can show me a way of getting us to talk with a single voice, I’ll be thrilled, but I’m not betting on it.
I think when you look at the narrative, of wine narrative and the media, it’s often driven by fine wine. Fine wine has a real responsibility and I think it’s up to fine wine to promote the positives of wine. So what positives are these? Well, fine wine’s place in national and local culture. In traditional cuisine.
I relish diversity as a wine drinker. Surely that’s much more likely to be preserved and maintained by fine wine producers than people making their FMCG wines. [When it comes to] sustainability, I think this is an area where fine wine must take the lead, partly because fine wine producers have the resources to do so. Do FMCG wine producers have the margins to do the research? To do what’s required in the vineyards, in the winemaking, in conversations with logistics suppliers, packaging, everything else? I’m not sure. it’s pretty tough these days. It’s tempting to cut margins and to cut corners rather than to invest in something like being sustainable.
Whether we like it or not, the wine world is divided. Just look at Bordeaux. Wealth and privilege at the top end, and poverty and despair at the bottom. I saw a recent report saying that possibly 70% of Bordeaux producers were earning less than a minimum wage.
In practice, I think the fine wine market is already separated from the main wine category. I think it’s happened in developed markets;80% of wine is sold through supermarkets, an FMCG sector with increasingly small margins that’s totally separate from the fine market.
Whether we like it or not, the wine world is divided. Just look at Bordeaux. Wealth and privilege at the top end, and poverty and despair at the bottom. In practice, I think the fine wine market is already separated from the main wine category.Richard Bampfield MW
When you look at producers who work in both sectors — Treasury, Jackson, Gallo, Concha y Toro — they’ve already separated their portfolio. They sell their fine wines through two different channels to their FMCG wines. The market is already separated. We’re not proposing anything new in that sense.
One of my favourite quotes is about education is that education is not about filling a vessel, it’s about kindling the flame. I imagine if we use that in wine, FMCG is about filling a vessel. Fine wine is about kindling.
Should fine wine separated from the rest of the wine category? I think that fine wine has a responsibility to the future of the wine business. It has to be separated from the rest of the category in order to take the leadership that we want it to do.
Should fine wine separated from the rest of the wine category? I think that fine wine has a responsibility to the future of the wine business. It has to be separated from the rest of the category in order to take the leadership that we want it to do.Richard Bampfield MW
AGAINST THE MOTION
Fine wine should NOT be cut from the wine category
Editorial director, ARENI Global; International Editor at Star Wine List; journalist and editor
I’m going to begin in an unusual way by actually agreeing with everything that Richard just said. Fine wine is indeed facing the possibility of losing its social license to operate, as anybody who is watching the news can tell. And in this environment it does make sense to lobby for the value of fine wine as a patrimonial product. To protect it. These are the wines that are made with meticulous care from meticulous farming, which have a history that is deeply entwined with that Western civilization itself. So why shouldn’t we first define them and then seek to protect them, away from the category “wine”, which is awash with products that are truly awful? Products that wine would be better off without.
It’s a terrible idea. Let me explain why.
First and foremost, who is going to define ‘fine wine’?
It’s something we talk a lot about at ARENI. It’s our reason for being, and yet it’s because fine wine doesn’t have a clear definition that we have such fertile ground for debate. We can explore every angle of what it takes to be great and discover new things.
But if we truly wanted to separate fine wine in a different category, somebody would have to define parameters of this category. And such parameters could not be fluid and ongoing and a space for debate because otherwise they would have no practical value.
So who would be in charge? Would we set up some kind of tribunal? A tasting panel? Would we have Michelin inspectors for wine? That would introduce a whole new world of pain. There are restaurant operators who don’t want Michelin stars, or who don’t want three Michelin stars because the pressure to maintain them becomes too intense.
If we truly wanted to separate fine wine in a different category, somebody would have to define parameters of this category. And such parameters could not be fluid and ongoing and a space for debate because otherwise they would have no practical value. So who would be in charge? Would we set up some kind of tribunal? A tasting panel? Would we have Michelin inspectors for wine? That would introduce a whole new world of pain.Felicity Carter
Not least because of the risk of falling out of the system with the public humiliation that brings. Just this week the Financial Times interviewed a chef who’s got one star. Michelin told her they’ll give her two stars if she gets rid of the paper napkins, but she doesn’t want to, because she doesn’t want the expense that goes with another star. Wine producers would have to spend more and more money to stay in the system.
And what would happen to producers who couldn’t produce a vintage one year? Would they fall out of the system?
But in the absence of the wine tribunal, who else might decide [what fine wine is]? Could producers just do it themselves and declare their products fine wine? And if they could do that, then those who could afford to do it by marketing would do that. We already see this with producers who declare they have produced an ‘icon’ wine. Usually a Bordeaux blend that’s heavy on the oak. They list it on the Place and then what happens? Nothing, of course, because in reality, producers cannot declare themselves fine wine producers. That is a title that’s bestowed. It’s a collective decision.
We already see this with producers who declare they have produced an ‘icon’ wine. Usually a Bordeaux blend that’s heavy on the oak. They list it on the Place and then what happens? Nothing, of course, because in reality, producers cannot declare themselves fine wine producers. That is a title that’s bestowed. It’s a collective decision.Felicity Carter
For me the closest category to wine is books. They have a ‘fine wine’ category — it’s called literature. As in wine, you cannot call yourself a literary author, but must wait for the community to bestow that title upon you, and it takes time.
In any case, the market already has a mechanism to determine who belongs in the fine wine category. It’s called the secondary market. If your wine’s heavily traded on Liv-ex or at auction, then guess what? You’re fine wine. But what if we were to formalize that as a definition and the secondary market became the only place you could be considered fine wine? We know what would happen next, because we’ve seen it in other industries.
Let’s talk about publishing. Being declared a New York Times bestseller is the goal of every author and of every publishing house. It’s the pinnacle of achievement. So people buy books in bulk, 20,000 at a time, to game the system. Once you set up a tangible prize, there’s an incentive to game the system. And can you imagine what that would do for an industry like wine, that’s already grappling with counterfeits?
But let’s say you could define the fine wine category. We all agreed on a definition and there is now a clear fine wine category. What would happen next? Absolutely nothing Things would function just as much as they do now. Coveted wines on allocations.
Well, let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say we did create a different category. To do that would require a legal change. The world would now recognize that ‘fine wine’ is a different entity to ‘wine’. A nightmare would ensue.
New paperwork, new tax regimes, distribution changes at the retail level. And for what? Would wine retailers and restaurants be better off? Would their job be any easier?
While everybody who has an MW would be in the rubble of the wine industry, sorting through the debris of their careers — wondering if they should have learned to code, after all — the big companies would be creating certified fine wine brands. Because as soon as you create tight parameters for fine wines, you could analyse and copy them.
If your goal was to protect fine wine as a cultural product, this would be a terrible way to do it.
But let’s pretend that, legally, fine wine now is category and fine wine producers have an incentive to go and lobby on its behalf. What a disaster. First of all, you would pit fine wine producers against producers who make both fine wine and commercial wine. What would Mouton Rothschild do? Would they really lobby on behalf of their First Growth against Mouton Cadet, their cash cow?
Second, you would arouse popular opinion against wine altogether. At a time of growing social unrest, the sight of cashed-up First Growths trying to argue that they should be exempt from regulatory oversight of an alcoholic product because they’re so culturally significant would be socially explosive.
Anyway, you don’t need to do it. Categories emerge when people need them. In books we have literature, romance, crime and thrillers. In wine, we have Burgundy, Rhône, New World. Recently, we added a new category: natural wine. Do you remember what happened? People can’t stop arguing about who gets to be called “natural”. Who doesn’t, who’s in, who’s out.
Anyway, you don’t need to do it. Categories emerge when people need them.Felicity Carter
And I haven’t even touched on the question of what it would mean for wine producers further down the chain, who would be told publicly and in law that their work is second rate.
The reality is, fine wine is wine. If we want to protect it from the very real and very urgent threats that face it, we have to protect “wine”.
As someone once said, we hang together — or assuredly we hang separately.
I’m a wine marketer, which means I’m every winemaker’s least favourite person because it’s my job to pare down your beautiful work into a handful of words and a whole lot of numbers.
Bear with me while I keep that ball rolling tonight as I ask: fine wine as a category, how do we measure it, communicate it, and sell it?
Anyone in here been through sustainability certification? If so, you’ll know there are two kinds: quantitative assessments that require rigorous commitment just to get through the certification process, followed by regular audits and recerts; and those that you pay for at 2am because you need a badge to add to your marketing materials. You’ll know that it’s hard to find the right certification for your brand. You’ll know as a consumer of knowledge yourself that it’s hard to know which certifications are valid.
Fine wine, and specifically a fine wine category: can we make it measurable? If so, who measures it? Will they want to be paid? Where does that money come from? What does that financial impact mean for wine producers around the world? What advantage does that give old world over new, global houses over cult independents?
But wait — how do you protect your own mark? What happens when someone decides that your version of fine wine isn’t theirs and they produce the Finest Wine Certification or the Napa Fine Wine Badge?
Of course, this leads squarely into communication. On average, a wine brand spends 5% of its annual revenue on marketing. And we know Houses of Brands spend significantly more, but even at the barest minimum 5% of 250k has far less brand building power than 5% of 250 million. Differentiation of a fine wine category will lead to prohibitive marketing and communication costs for smaller actors who will now be pitted against global luxury powerhouses. This is especially true when we consider that many smaller or independent producers rely upon single brands and limited SKUs while larger producers may leverage not only dozens of brands but placement across all tiers of the consumer product pyramid.
On average, a wine brand spends 5% of its annual revenue on marketing. And we know Houses of Brands spend significantly more, but even at the barest minimum 5% of 250k has far less brand building power than 5% of 250 million. Differentiation of a fine wine category will lead to prohibitive marketing and communication costs for smaller actors who will now be pitted against global luxury powerhouses.Polly Hammond
Speaking of pyramids, what we are asking is for a bifurcation of the wine product pyramid, effectively lopping off the uppermost segment to become the fine wine product pyramid.
In creating two separate pyramids, we introduce a fundamental shift to our aspirational and non-purchasing audience.
In the non-fine wine pyramid, the mass market wine audience shifts their aspirational drive from fine to premium; They identify as a ‘wine drinker’, not a ‘fine wine drinker’. They aspire to good but not great brands, because we ourselves have given them the language to do so.
In our new, much tinier Fine Wine Pyramid, we create a hierarchy of lesser-Fine and finer-Finer wine, and therefore lesser-Fine Wine Drinkers and Finer-Fine Wine Drinkers. We formalize the wine equivalent of the guy “with the cheap Rolex”. Does anyone want to be the Cheap Fine Wine Producer or the Cheap Fine Wine Drinker? I would ask, where does this end?
In our new, much tinier Fine Wine Pyramid, we create a hierarchy of lesser-Fine and finer-Finer wine, and therefore lesser-Fine Wine Drinkers and Finer-Fine Wine Drinkers. We formalize the wine equivalent of the guy “with the cheap Rolex”. Does anyone want to be the Cheap Fine Wine Producer or the Cheap Fine Wine Drinker? I would ask, where does this end?Polly Hammond
And finally, sales. In carving off a fine wine category, we are adding increased complexity to an already complex market. Who is our customer? Where do they crossover? How do we reach them? Right now, amidst current cultural shifts, is it in our best interest to launch a further elitist, gatekept arm of the wine world?
Referencing the white paper content, how do we achieve reputation and recognition of our region, estate, or variety, so essential for consumer credibility?
As Felicity has already asked: What is the impact on our sales and distribution channels? How would this dictate pricing models? What happens when things go wrong, as will happen in an agricultural product at the forefront of climate change?
Again, I assert that siloing fine wine from wine would be the death knell to small independent producers who have not the ability to control their brands, embellish their product pyramid, own their sales channels, and ultimately ensure ongoing resilience in contrast to their large, global counterparts. And that would be a shame.
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