This post originally appeared in Italian on the popular Italian wine blog Intravino.
In order to discuss “wine myths,” we need to begin with some objective data.
A Romanée Conti costs 400 times more than an excellent entry-tier Tuscan red wine.
The exact same thing can be said of a Lamborghini Veneno Roadster, which costs 400 times more than a Fiat Panda, or a Leonardo da Vinci painting, which costs 400 times as much as (or even more than) a painting by one of his contemporaries, even if said painting is superb.
But there’s an enormous difference between the former and the latter in each case.
The Lamborghini can do things that are impossible for the Panda to do. It’s an entirely different kind of car — in nearly any situation. It’s made out of different materials, with much higher costs for the materials themselves and the technology used to put them together.
As far as Leonardo da Vinci’s visual genius on the canvas compared with a mannerist contemporary of his, is further explanation really necessary?
But if we were to drink Romanée Conti out of a plastic glass at the beach or even in any basically normal situation, more than one expert might think that she/he were sipping an excellent Tuscan red purchased at the supermarket. Obviously, I’m exaggerating. But not much if you really think about it.
And yet, the thousands of wine lovers who choose to buy Romanée Conti are happy to do so.
Why? The label is ugly. The bottle, cork, and capsule are ordinary. And the main ingredient is Pinot Noir, from the same clones grown all over the world. It’s not the only Pinot Noir on the market and it’s probably not even the best. It’s not even that much different than the typical Pinot Noir produced by its neighbors.
There’s nothing extraordinary about the technology employed to produce it. And even the “hands” that make it aren’t so deft as to create a perceptible difference in the wine itself. Just to drive the point home, it’s not like the difference between a Giotto and painting I painted myself.
So why is it that people are happy to pay 2,000-3,000 euros for it? In the absence of a concrete explanation, we need to look to the intangible.
And this is were it gets interesting…
One of the answers is marketing. But even marketing has its limits. When the product doesn’t really justify the price, you can always find someone who will tell the emperor he’s wearing no clothes. And there’s no wine that justifies a difference of 400 to one.
Another answer is limited availability. But here in Tuscany there are plenty of wineries that make minuscule amounts of absolutely extraordinary wine. But then they are forced to sell the wines off at reduced prices because nobody wants them. Limited availability, alone, cannot account for such a high price.
I could go on. But it really comes down to one thing: Any similar difference in price is beyond any rational explanation. The exception is mythology. And here’s where we start to get into more lofty plains of thought.
Wine is a food. But it’s never been just a food. Every culture ascribes special meaning to certain foods. But those foods vary from culture to culture. Wine cut across cultural lines: It’s the only food that has abstract meaning in every culture in the world. It inspires holy people and poets; it’s prohibited and its blessed; it’s divine blood. Countless books have been written about it, perhaps even more than about anything else connected to humankind — except God and love.
Wine is unique. And this is borne out by the fact that few of the rules that apply to other foods are applicable to wine. And that’s not by chance. It’s because in wine (and not just in wine), the cultural component greatly outweighs the commercial value. Therefore, mythology in wine outweighs any logic. And this is the reason that a phenomenon like Romanée Conti or Petrus or Vega Sicilia can exist in wine. And it’s also the reason that, however much smaller it may be, there can be a phenomenon like Brunello.
But what is myth in wine? By definition, it’s something irrational. I don’t know how it’s born or how it grows. Every myth is unique. But wine myths exist. And they represent a powerful factor in how wine is perceived. Unlike fashion, they tend to be enormously more enduring over time and they are relatively and sometimes totally indifferent to promotional campaigns.
I have never seen a wine myth created in a laboratory, even though in fashion it’s something that happens all the time. Myths aren’t taught at school, nor are they spread through education, although there are those who try, bless them. Myths either exist or don’t exist. And if they exist, they grow.
Wine myths are often associated with people. But they tend to live on after the people are gone. It’s a phenomenon that’s not well suited to cultures that want to be rational in their business dealings. In other words, wine myths don’t work among those who want to base everything on price-quality ratios, on marketing, and on promotional investment.
But they exist nonetheless.
For our ancestors, myths lay on the fringes of the sacred. But what about us?
Stefano Cinelli Colombini
Brunello grower and myth-maker
Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.