Luxury and wine explored

Vineyards in the Mornington Peninsula, which is seen as a luxury region. Victorian Wine Industry Association

The ‘Pinot Noir Celebration Australia’ held recently on the Mornington Peninsula was the 10th iteration over a 20-year period, and I believe I’ve been to them all, but this one was very different.

Those who were expecting wall-to-wall wine tastings and accompanying expert dissection of the wines might have been disappointed, as a large part of the two-day event was taken up with some fascinating segments that could have been seen as not very relevant.

Luxury brands are about more than price. You can’t just slap a very high price on a product and claim it’s a luxury brand.

First-up was a long panel discussion of luxury, as it applies to wine. It was interpreted by some attendees as an attempt to pitch high-end pinot noir wine as a luxury product, which would have stuck in the craw of many of our more artisanal and earthy wine producers. They may have thought they were being given a handbook to fast-track their wines to luxury status. Most serious winemakers abhor this idea, but at the same time they acknowledge their need to be adequately recompensed for their labour and investment.

The panel included marketing/advertising expert Carolyn Miller, who appears on The Gruen Project on ABC TV. The session was titled Challenging Our Philosophy, which seemed to assume some consensus about what ‘our’ philosophy actually is. Miller started by asking whether there was a place for luxury in a world that seems to be falling apart. She quoted authors who had written that the Mornington Peninsula is a luxury region—no doubt because its land prices are sky-high, necessitating high wine prices.

There were some reassuring lines. “True luxury cannot be faked or counterfeited”. “True luxury gives a sense of indulgence and reward”. Luxury is a balance between availability and exclusivity. Luxury brands are not all about time—Tesla is a brand that was established quickly.

Luxury brands are about more than price. You can’t just slap a very high price on a product and claim it’s a luxury brand. There is a whole myth and intrigue that needs to be built around it. And this is done in such a way that the consumer buys into the idea. They then use it to badge themselves.

I felt the winemakers in the room shuddering as they heard these words. I suspect most high-end winemakers would like their wines to be seen as iconic, and quality recognised and paid for where it deserves to be, but they would hate to be lumped in with the senseless brand-acquisition-for-status camp along with Prada, D&G, Gucci et al.

Authenticity is a word that hung in the air long after being uttered, as it seemed to be at the heart of things. Without authenticity, a wine cannot have iconic or luxury status. Aaron Drummond, former CEO of Craggy Range and now MD and part-owner of Stonier Wines on the Mornington Peninsula, put his finger on the nub of the matter when he said most top pinot makers would hate to think of themselves as in the luxury business, but when wine becomes rare because of intense demand, it becomes a luxury. These producers earned their status and price because they did a better job than others as farmers, but when winemakers focus too much on producing a luxury they lose sight of what got them there in the first place. Their authenticity is then under threat.

Without authenticity, a wine cannot have iconic or luxury status.

My mind kept returning to an excellent recent article in Noble Rot magazine, in which Jon Bonné lamented that while the prices of top-end wines are getting further and further out of reach, little of that money is being returned to those who need it, earn it and deserve it—the producers. Burgundy, where several poor yielding seasons and ever-strengthening demand have resulted in absurd price increases down the retail chain, is a prime example. The money is going mostly to middle-people.

What is the answer? If you’re a winemaker, sell direct, as much as you can. Do what Barossa winemaker Chris Ringland did many years ago, and raise your ex-cellars price to what the rip-off retailers and restaurants are charging. Siphon their margin off into your own pocket.

Oh, wait. It’s still going to be too expensive for you and me.

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