Luxury wine: luxuriously defined
The French term elevage, meaning to be grown or reared, with regard to winemaking is a good starting point for understanding what luxury wine is. The wine world at the highly commercial end is made up of manufactured commodities, wines made by formula and at industrial scale, often to great effect, but manufactured more than grown. The other extreme is the small farmer, meticulously tending to his or her small plot and “raising” the wines from the vineyard to the cellar to the bottle. Though luxury wine is the opposite of a commercially manufactured product, that still does not fully encapsulate the definition of luxury wine.
In order to define luxury wine, it is useful to begin with some basic definitions of the term “luxury.” Merriam-Webster provides the following:
1. a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort: sumptuous environment // lived in luxury
2. a: something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary //one of life’s luxuries
b: an indulgence in something that provides pleasure, satisfaction, or ease // had the luxury of rejecting a handful of job offers
These definitions showcase that luxury should provide a sense of a sumptuous lifestyle, refinement, privilege, and pleasure. However, it is also instructive to examine luxury from an economic standpoint. In his book Macroeconomic Analysis, Hal Varian states that “a luxury good is a good for which demand increases more than proportionally as income rises.” This definition adds the element of high price and scarcity to the mix. Therefore, when all of these concepts are combined, some boundaries are created around what luxury wine is.
Definition of luxury wine: Luxury wine is of the highest quality, coming from a special place on earth, has an element of scarcity, an elevated price, and provides a sense of privilege and pleasure to the owner.
The six attributes of luxury wine
The above definition can be further explained by delving more deeply into the six attributes of quality, place, scarcity, price, privilege, and pleasure.
1. Highest level of quality – globally recognized for producing a wine of the highest quality that can age and is suitable for cellaring. Must have achieved this for a long period of time with consistency – at least twenty years – proving the unique heritage of the brand.
2. Coming from a special place – recognized as coming from a special wine-grape-growing region with cultural significance. High-quality grape vines can only be grown in unique places in the world that have a special climate and soil. Many of these locations have long been recognized as supreme wine-grape-growing areas and have a strong sense of heritage.
3. Sense of scarcity – part of the branding component of luxury wine is that it is difficult to obtain, which can be developed through actual scarcity (hard to find), perceived scarcity (barriers to purchase), or price (so expensive it feels scarce). Often luxury wine has the ability to achieve higher prices on the secondary market.
4. Elevated price point – a foundational element of luxury wine, high price creates a barrier to purchase, higher perceived quality, and, if sustainable, higher willingness to pay by consumers. Generally speaking, luxury wines should be $100/bottle or greater in US retail.
5. Provides a sense of privilege – part of the exclusivity of luxury, be it from price, scarcity, or the symbolic nature of the brand and product is the status it confers on the owner, or in this case, drinker. This provides a sense of privilege to be able to partake in a wine that few others may have the opportunity to enjoy. The bottles in the cellar are the envy of other wine geeks globally. Luxury, by its definition, is a privilege, and wine is no exception.
6. Provokes pleasure – provides an aesthetically pleasing experience by viewing the bottle/collection and showing it to others. Also provides a hedonistic experience through consumption.
The growing importance of sustainability
Having both the highest level of quality and coming from a special place, luxury wines exhibit a character common amongst many luxury products, which Kapferer and Bastien describe in Luxury Strategy as “timeless” – the ability to be relevant decades from when the product was produced. When this is applied to wine, several elements come into play. The ability to improve with age and be of consistently high quality are both fundamental elements of luxury wine. Being relevant over a sustained period of time, to produce the highest quality, creates the special places where luxury wine is grown. For all those attributes to flow into luxury wine, both the viticultural and winemaking practices must be increasingly sustainable, often incorporating elements of organics, biodynamics, and environmentally sustainable practices. If they are not, the land and the vines will no longer have the energy or the nutrients to consistently, continually, produce the quality necessary for a luxury wine. Interestingly, most luxury wines do not aggressively market themselves as organic or biodynamic, though most utilize those practices, in order to focus on their brand and the quality of their product as opposed to the farming methods.
A similar case can be made for economic sustainability as well. Without generating strong enough returns to survive, the winegrower will no longer be able to continue producing top-quality wine. For luxury wine, this is embedded in the elevated price, as crafting luxury wine with meticulous care often requires a great deal of investment in facilities, tools, and labor.
What luxury wine is not
Just as important to understand what luxury wine is, is to understand what it is not. The world of wine is privy to trends like the fashion industry, technological revolutions on par with the digital revolution for an agricultural industry, and instantaneous hits similar to food fads – yet luxury wine separates itself as being classic and timeless. It may be easy to consider wines marketed with a luxury lifestyle component – advertisements set on yachts or in high-end clubs – as luxury wines, but more often than not they fail to live up to the definition of luxury wine.
The luxury lifestyle
Often, the term luxury and luxury wine are directly associated with a luxurious lifestyle. Many aspiring luxury wine brands believe they must appear to fit in with a lifestyle of private jets, yachts, and twenty-thousand-dollar watches to be a successful luxury wine. However, the two are not always related. Many top Burgundian producers will often profess that their wines are not luxury, that they are farmers, and their wines are merely an expression of the land. In their way, their marketing focuses on the special place where their wines are grown and their focus on making wines of the highest quality. These wines also happen to cost hundreds of dollars, are limited in production, are scarce, and are sought after by a global set of wine collectors. They fit the definition of luxury wine more easily than other wine brands with multi-million-dollar marketing budgets.
The luxurious cult
A common and confusing subset of fine wine is the notion of cult wines. Cult wines have a rabid, loyal following and are generally very small in production, often with fewer than 2,000 cases produced a year. However, it is possible, given enough time and with consistent high quality over a long period of time, that a cult wine can become a luxury wine. Two good examples of this are Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate, which have built their history and heritage and now firmly belong in the luxury category. They meet all the criteria – high quality, from a special place, elevated price, scarcity, aesthetically pleasing, and imparting a sense of privilege. However, there are equally as many cult wines that do not meet the definition but do have scarcity from low production and a loyal following. This could apply to Frank Cornelissen’s wines from Mount Etna in Sicily and Clos de la Roilette in Beaujolais. Their wines are unique, small production, and high quality, but generally not with an elevated price and are generally appreciated by specific niches of consumers. For example, Cornelissen’s wines are natural with no sulfur dioxide used in winemaking and Roilette is a sommelier favorite, partially due to its relative value as a Cru Beaujolais, and would not meet the definition of a luxury wine.
Extract from Luxury Wine Marketing © Peter Yeung and Liz Thach MW (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the publisher.
Wine has been collected by enthusiasts for centuries and today luxury wine is a growing market, yet little has been written explaining how a wine business can attain a coveted position among the world’s luxury brands.
Enter Peter Yeung and Liz Thach MW. Both have worked in the world of luxury wine for a number of years, he as a strategic marketing consultant to several high-end Californian wine producers and she as a professor of both wine and management. Recognizing the need for serious analysis of this subject they have pooled their expertise to write what is destined to become the go-to book for anybody working within the world of luxury wine.
In Luxury Wine Marketing the pair present their own unique research examining the size of the market and the profile of the customer base. From this they go on to explain every stage in the process of creating, launching and maintaining a luxury brand, from crafting the product, though pricing and packaging to hiring the right people and managing client relationships.
But luxury wine marketing is about far more than selling product, regardless of how high its quality may be. It is about creating a world, a narrative, around a brand to draw people towards it. Peter and Liz point out that “It is usually the story of the wine brand that captures the attention and can lead to a desire for more wine and, eventually, luxury wine. It is critical that the story emphasize what is unique about the wine, as well as provide the consumer with a sense of pleasure and privilege.” What that story is will vary from brand to brand, from the quiet focus on craftsmanship and heritage of some top Burgundy estates to relatively new Californian producers such as Screaming Eagle, which has traded on scarcity and a certain amount of mystery to create a cult following that has seen the average price of its wines increase in price from $50 to $3,000 per bottle in under 25 years.
It is perhaps through the case studies of high-profile wine brands that we learn the most about the world of luxury wine, gaining tantalizing glimpses into this privileged environment. Learning that Penfolds’ limited edition ‘Ampoule’ (of which only 12 were made) can only be opened by a senior winemaker, flown to the customer with a special tool, will provoke a variety of reactions among readers. What comes across above all though is the clarity of vision and consistent quality of product that all these brands share. This book makes invaluable reading for any company with aspirations within this market.
About the authors
Peter Yeung is a leading wine business consultant. He was previously Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Kosta Browne Winery and Realm Cellars, both in California, where he developed and executed strategic marketing plans, and a senior consultant at McKinsey & Company. He holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and a BA in Economics from the University of California, Berkeley.
Dr Liz Thach MW is the Distinguished Professor of Wine and Management at Sonoma State University where she teaches on both the undergraduate and Wine MBA programs. She is an award-winning author who has published over 150 articles and eight wine books. Thach holds a PhD. from Texas A&M. She also works as a wine judge in various competitions, and has served on many non-profit wine boards. She became a Master of Wine in 2011.
Luxury Wine Marketing is published by Infinite Ideas on 23 September 2019.
ISBN: 9781913022044, hb, rrp £50/$69.95, 234 x 156mm, 300pp, b/w figures.
Also available as an eBook.
Review copies available from firstname.lastname@example.org; 07802 443957
Most regular wine drinkers will be familiar with Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, and red wine lovers may well have sampled one of the South Island’s Pinot Noirs. But how many of us have explored beyond that? New Zealand is a relatively new wine country, whose modern industry is only around 40 years old but in that time huge changes have taken place and there is now an extraordinary variety of wines coming out of these two islands.
During this century exports have increased from 19.2 million to 253 million litres, so the country’s wines are clearly popular. As the industry approaches middle age it needs to keep on its toes – the fickleness of fashion means that producers cannot rely on the continuing popularity of New Zealand ‘Savvy’. So now seems a good time to take stock. In a new book, The wines of New Zealand, master of wine Rebecca Gibb expertly takes readers through the past, present and future of New Zealand wine. Gibb notes that, “New Zealand wine has reached its early adulthood with new faces, new varieties and innovative new methods appearing at breakneck speed, and there is so much more to come. The national industry and all its many components are constantly adjusting in the vineyard, the winery and the global marketplace.”
Gibb confesses that she is “known to get excited about wine,” and that excitement proves infectious here. She guides us energetically through the history of New Zealand wine, employing a genial style that makes even the section on climate entertaining, without taking away any of its authority. Her chapter covering the grape varieties is far more than just a study of cultivars – as an MW student Gibb was awarded the Bollinger Medal for her outstanding tasting skills, and her keen abilities are put to use here in her descriptions of the flavours involved, while each of the major varieties gets its own fascinating biography, rounded off with a top 10 of ‘must try’ wines.
Gibb then takes each of the 10 main regions in turn, starting with Northland, moving southward through Hawkes Bay and Marlborough to end in the South Island at Central Otago. At last count there were 670 producers so rather than turn the book into a directory, Gibb provides a selection of producer biographies featuring the most exciting, innovative and visitor friendly winemakers, along with details on which wines to try. If Gibb’s enthusiasm has you booking a flight, the final chapter will prove invaluable, packed as it is with suggestions on wine-related places to stay and things to do. All in all the book is an invaluable resource for anyone keen to adventure beyond Sauvignon Blanc.
About the author
Rebecca Gibb MW is an award-winning wine journalist and editor. Securing her first editorial role at UK wine trade magazine Harpers after being named UK Young Wine Writer of the Year in 2006, she has since edited several print and online publications. Rebecca contributes to prestigious titles including Decanter, The World of Fine Wine, LUX and Wine Business International, in addition to running a small business, The Drinks Project.
In 2015, Rebecca became a Master of Wine. Having lived in New Zealand from 2010 to 2016 with her Kiwi husband and son, Rebecca recently returned to the UK. She maintains her strong ties with the people and wines of Aotearoa.
The wines of New Zealand is published on 30 July 2018. Review copies available from email@example.com
We asked our authors to recommend some wine-based trips and activities. Here’s what they came up with.
Caroline Gilby MW, The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova
“The Melnik Wine Routes map is available from the tourist office and some tour companies, and a Facebook page details all the producers open for visits and wine tastings. It also shows the location of key tourist destinations such as the dramatic Melnik sand pyramids, the Kordopulov house, the town of Melnik itself and historic sites at Sandanski and Heraclea-Sintica. The region also organizes joint events such as open cellars around the feast of St Trifon Zarezan, working with social media and tourism agencies to bring visitors.”
Rebecca Gibb MW, The wines of New Zealand
“Want to stay on a vineyard? Marlborough’s country casual Hans Herzog cottage is highly recommended, The Bell Tower offers luxury bed and breakfast accommodation at Dog Point vineyard and St Leonards has a number of restored cottages with little extras including a swimming pool, grass tennis court, bicycles, and chickens laying fresh eggs for breakfast.”
Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, The wines of Greece
“The Attican Vineyards Wine Producers’ Association set up the Wine Road of Attica to promote wine tourism in the region, which is close to Greece’s capital, Athens. A must visit on the Wine Road is Ktima Papagiannakos, with its beautiful bioclimatic winery. It’s also so close to the airport that you could even squeeze it in between flights.”
Michael Garner, Amarone and the fine wines of Verona
“Take a trip off the beaten track in Valpolicella, to Tenuta Santa Maria Valverde, the winery on the cover of the book. Just 10,000 bottles are produced from the terraced vineyards, located at up to 500 metres altitude. For those fit enough, the best way to approach is by bicycle – the winery is also an accredited bike station where cyclists can rest and carry out minor repairs.”
Richard Mayson, Port and the Douro
“For a true appreciation of the grandeur of the Douro scenery the train journey from Oporto to Pocinho is not to be missed. During the four-hour journey the train snakes alongside the river through countryside so rugged that neither mule nor motor vehicle could gain access. For a shorter trip alight at Pinhão and take in the impressive scenery and the many famous port quintas within walking distance.”
Raymond Blake, Côte d’Or
“Beaune is the best place to base yourself for a visit to the Côte d’Or. The Hotel Le Cep is a gem for wine lovers, with a new tasting cellar opened in July 2017. And do not miss the Athenaeum book, wine and wine accessories shop. Standing opposite the entrance to the Hôtel Dieu, it stocks a superb selection of wine books, glassware, maps, souvenirs and a reasonable number of wines.”
Stephen Brook, The wines of Austria
“When in Vienna don’t miss a trip to a traditional Heurige, an inn serving wine grown and vinified by the owners. Only cold food is served and a pine branch is hung over the door of any Heurige open for business. Be careful to avoid the fake Heurigen, set up to cater to the demands of mass tourism, and head instead to Fuhrgassl-Huber in Neustift to sample Thomas Huber’s Rieslings, Grüner Veltliners and Traminers.”
Nicholas Faith, The story of Champagne
“A day trip to Champagne is easily built into a Parisian holiday, since it is only an hour away. Although some houses still eschew the ‘theatre of champagne’, only welcoming professional visitors, buyers and journalist, many others now run tours, including Moët, Canard-Duchêne, Drappier and Château Thierry Pannier, which offer tours of the thirteenth-century cellars, and Lanson, which includes a trip to vineyards in Reims.”
Sarah Jane Evans MW, The wines of northern Spain
“The first weekend in August sees the Festa do Albariño in Cambados, located in Galicia in the far north-west of Spain. This jolly affair offers plenty of Albariño to drink from producers’ stalls, fireworks and partying through the night. (If you are staying at the Parador de Cambados and want to go to sleep before 4 a.m., book a room that is far from the fair! I speak from bitter experience.)”
Rosemary George MW,
“Balades vigneronnes combine an opportunity to walk and taste in the format of a meal. You walk a kilometre and reach your aperitif stop, with an appropriate amuse-bouche, and some wines to taste and enjoy with it, before walking to the next course, with more wines to taste. Each grower who wishes to participate mans a barrel. Try the Pic St Loup, Terrasses du Larzac or La Clape walks.”
Glancing behind me as I write this, at shelves loaded with wine books, I can count perhaps a dozen Classic Wine Library titles, from the black-spined Faber & Faber editions, through the less soberly jacketed Mitchell Beazley versions to the elegantly presented and up-to-date publications from Infinite Ideas. I am not sure when I bought my first one, or which it was, probably Julian Jeffs’ Sherry or Anthony Hanson’s Côte d’Or, but I am certain that without the Classic Wine Library my journey of discovery through the world of wine, from keen consumer to Wine Editor of Ireland’s Food & Wine Magazine, would have been more challenging and certainly less enjoyable. The library has been a go-to reference point for longer than I can remember.
I always regarded the Classic Wine Library like a club – not exclusive but inclusive – led by authoritative and informative writers whose knowledge and enthusiasm for their subject shone through on every page. Thus it was with great excitement that I joined the club over a year ago, commissioned to write about the wine region closest to my heart – Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. The excitement was not so great as to blind me to the challenge ahead – the labyrinthine complexity of its nomenclature alone intimidates the neophyte – but I could also call on one asset beyond value. A little over 10 years ago my wife and I were fortunate to buy a house in the Côte d’Or and since then we have visited the region dozens of times. Thus I was able to explore at leisure, chasing up the back roads, discovering unexpected delights, as well as more formally, packing in scores of visits to winemakers, from the biggest négociants to the smallest domaines.
I never – ever – tire of the Côte d’Or and I believe it is now at one of the most exciting periods in its history. That history has seen it stamped by innumerable forces, two of which – the French Revolution and the scourge of phylloxera – are largely responsible for its shape today. And perhaps now, as the memory of their trauma fades, the côte is slipping into the grip of another pair: climate change and the extraordinary surge in the prices paid for mere scraps of prestigious vineyard land. How these will shape the côte in the decades to come is still a matter for speculation, but they make every visit challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
Notwithstanding the undeniable influence of these forces, at a micro level the Côte d’Or is probably producing more high quality wine today than at any point in its history and hence it rewards repeated exploration. There is always something new to be seen, to discover, change is ever present – and this in a region that appears unchanging to the casual observer. In Côte d’Or: The wines and winemakers of the heart of Burgundy, I hope I have managed to present an early twenty-first century snapshot of an era that future historians may well come to label as a golden age – for what I consider to be the world’s greatest wine region.
Côte d’Or is published on 8 September 2017, priced £30, available from your favourite book shop. Or click here to buy your copy today.
One of my favourite tasks as editor of the Classic Wine Library is choosing the photos that grace the covers of the books. A great cover is essential in creating the right first impression. Reading the books makes me (and I assume others) want to sample the wines and visit the places talked about, but readers first need to be enticed into picking up the book. A beautiful and interesting cover picture can make all the difference. Picture research can sometimes be quite wearisome, particularly if you are desperately trying to depict some abstract concept in an original way. But the Classic Wine Library, with its series focus on inspiring photos of the landscapes behind the wines under discussion, is different.
It is important to have a reliable and expert supplier when purchasing such photographs. Without having visited many of the places myself how can I be sure that the photo I’m looking at is really of Roussanne vines in southern France and not Chardonnay grapes growing in South Africa? So over the last few years we’ve made this task a lot easier by working with a specialist wine photographic agency, which features a huge selection of wine-related photos from all over the world and is run by Mick Rock, a very knowledgeable and helpful, not to mention world-renowned, photographer.
But there’s more to cover design than finding a beautiful image. The title font used by our designer is called Trajan and was designed by typographer Carol Twombly. Although the font itself is less than thirty years old it is based on the inscription found on Trajan’s column, built by that Roman Emperor around the first century AD. Unlike the column’s inscription the information in these books is not carved in stone, as the world of wine is in a constant process of evolution. However we think that this elegant font, which is only available in capital letters, lends our books a certain authority and timelessness.
Over the last month we have signed up new books on the wines of New Zealand (Rebecca Gibb), Sake and other Japanese wines (Anthony Rose) and the wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova (Caroline Gilby), and I am looking forward to taking virtual journeys through those countries very shortly. So watch this space for new covers. We hope you like them and find the photography as inspirational as we do.
Titles being added to the library this year include The wines of Canada, Côte-d’Or, Rosé, The wines of northern Spain, Amarone and the fine wines of Verona and The wines of Greece. You can find out more here and order published books at 20% discount here.