by Mike Supple
First and foremost: not only is Bordeaux producing some of the world's greatest wines, but it is also producing some of the world's greatest values. In the rush for the top growths, this important fact often gets lost in the shuffle. I am not advocating that everyone hurry out to their local wine merchant and purchase any bottle that says Bordeaux on it: along with the world class wines, it is an unfortunate fact that there are thousands of wineries that produce below average wines.
However, there are far too many estates that produce exceptional wines that they have difficulty selling. The concept of selling direct from the winery is a foreign one in Bordeaux. Many of these producers know about the mailing list and waiting list system employed by so many of the top tiny production wineries in the US, and to put it bluntly, they are jealous. Rather than releasing their allocated wines to a select few customers in the know year after year, they are forced to entertain dozens of negociants and their clients (like JJ Buckley) and use many samples. I have tasted wines this week where the production levels are less than 200 cases. Less than 200 cases! And they have to waste sample after sample. Granted not all of these small Chateaux are worth it, but many of them are. They have internationally recognizeable names, have received 90+ scores, and price the wines far below similar scoring beauties from small production wineries in the US.
I have spoken with several people (negociants, Chateau owners, wine makers) in Bordeaux about why these Chateaux need to go outside of the country to sell their wines, and it all seems to come down to one thing: market atmosphere. In the United States, we are taught that we can have it all: nice house, great family, expensive car, etc. The key factor though, is that we are also taught that they way we can achieve this is by working. Hard. And we do. As a country, we have some of the longest work weeks and the fewest days of paid vacation per year. In France the work week is 35 hours, and on average they get about six weeks off per year (along with many other European countries). From that perspective only, it looks like they really have things figured out. More vacation means more relaxation, and higher productivity right? Whether or not you believe that one, a simple fact is that if you are working 35 hours a week and your neighbor is working 70+, your neighbor is probably making more money. Earning more money means you have more money to spend.
In a greater Bordeaux vintage, the United States represents around 60% of the total amount of wine sold as futures. Of the remaining 40%, not much stays in France. The simple point here is that when it comes to wine, Americans are willing to pay more per bottle than the French. We make more money so we have more money to spend. So what does that mean for the small producer who makes 1000 cases that he is selling for 25-50 Euros a bottle? It means he has no market in his own country. So how does he market his wine? How does he sell a product that nobody will buy in his own market? Small production means he does not make a ton of money, so there is no way he can afford to visit the US and hand sell to restaurants and retailers. It is not time or cost effective. Instead he needs to rely on his importers to market his wine for him. For this reason, more and more Chateaux are entertaining the idea of exclusivities. If only one importer has the right to sell wine in a specific market it gives a sense of pride and ownership, which in turn leads to more energy and enthusiasm to sell.
Cry foul at the rising prices in Bordeaux if you must, but a little time, due diligence and a good palate (or somebody's you trust) and your cellar can be full of world class wines for a fraction of their value.