Great Expectations

People often ask me which of our Peay wines is my favorite. I usually find a way to say something positive about them all; for, it is true, I have liked all of our varieties best at one time or another. In the end, it really comes down to the vintage’s expression in a wine and my particular stylistic preference. I do so love the ‘04, ‘06 and ‘11 Chardonnays for their laser precision and minerality. And the ‘05, ‘07, ‘09 and ‘11 Syrahs capture the peppery, meaty, blood quality that thrills me. But I can say with no hesitation, that the 2012 Pinot noirs are my favorite Pinot noirs we have made, hands down. They have depth, balance, power and grace; across the board, even the interloper, the Savoy Pinot from Anderson Valley. These are wines to drink over the next 5 to 20 years. Quite enjoyable now but with the depth and intensity of flavor to develop, improve, and flower over the long haul.

Over the holiday break I was fortunate to drink a few of the “great” wines in their optimal windows of maturity. My parents had purchased some of the famous Burgundies and Bordeaux in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s when they were attainable without taking out a loan. With Nick, Vanessa, my wife, Ami, and I in town every year or so, the collection has taken a beating. This year we were down to the last bottles and did our filial duty. We drank 1986 Latour and Palmer, 1989 DRC Echezaux and Richebourg, 1993 Dunn Howell Mountain, and, of course, 2008 Raveneau, Dauvissat and Ballot Millot as “warm ups.” Why do I bore you with this litany of “look-at-me” wines. I am not trying to impress you—or rather, turn you off, as the case may very well be. Instead my experience with many of these wines underscored a realization customers have shared with me over the years. Yes, a few of these wines were wonderful. They pulled me back in as I conversed with family, re-engaged me as the wine opened, and seduced me to drink more. They not only improved the food at table but also became the subject matter for our ritualistic familial interactions. For them, I am grateful. But, half of them were simply good. Workman-like in washing down food. They left me a little deflated. Frankly, a few left me a little peeved. This gets to my purpose in relating this story.

Expectations play a vital role in the eventual pleasure we experience at consumption. Oftentimes, the anticipation is as enjoyable, if not more, than the actual event. Built up tension often explodes in a cathartic release when the moment arrives and reality meets vision. The anticipation can reach a level of insanity I used to experience when I was a sports fan growing up in Cleveland, Ohio and followed the Browns. We would talk about the game all week, we would plan our game day rituals, and then replay the key points afterwards slapping high fives as our team was on their way to finally winning the Super Bowl. But, what happened when reality did not match our starry dreams? When Ernest Byner fumbled in the last minute to lose the AFC Championship game—again? Or when the 2 ounce pour of “the best pinot noir in the world” was, well, good but I have had better at a tenth of the cost? The heartache, the feeling as if I have been duped, cuckolded, even. Disappointment was inevitable. It was unfair to the Browns to lay on them such unrealistic, high hopes of winning the Super Bowl. In the case of the wines we drank over the holidays, was it fair to expect them to realize the Platonic Ideal they have come to represent for their variety?

One of the forces that builds such expectation in wine is exclusivity. Price and scarcity—twin mistresses – make it incredibly difficult to ever experience some of these wines. We get down on bended knee before them when the opportunity presents itself. When we taste them, to not recognize them as the greatness they have come to represent and worth every penny reveals what Philistines we truly are. It is our fault, we simply do not “get it.” Phooey. Some of these wines would fetch four figures in the auction market. Crazy. Absurd, even. To leave the top of my head fully intact—and not blown across the room—is theft. Even people with inelastic demand experience a sense of disappointment at opening a $500 wine that is simply “fine.” Heck, with a few of these bottles, even a “great” tasting wine would have a hard time meeting the high level of expectation driven by their exclusivity. And who is to blame? No one.

Wine pricing and availability, like any other consumer product, is mostly dictated by the laws of supply and demand. Producers can influence who gets their wine and at what price but sometimes the market undermines their best intentions. One of my favorite Rhône producers, J.L. Chave, used to keep their wholesale price near their regional competitive set until they discovered many in the secondary market were doubling their wholesale price leaving the retail price way above their intended level. The producer was largely responsible for creating one of the greatest wineries in the world, shouldn’t they see the profit? So, Chave upped their prices to a level where they captured the margin and the market demonstrated it was willing to pay. The result? Chave wines have become even more expensive. The expectation of greatness is extremely high every time a cork is pulled. Sometimes they are “worth it”, but not as often as when they were 2/3rds the price.

This brings me to my conclusion. As consumers, pricing is to some extent largely out of our hands. When a wine gets priced out of our personal sense of value, well, we respond with our feet and look elsewhere. Buying it would attach too great an expectation premium to the wine that it cannot reliably meet. And here is where I believe the West Sonoma Coast, and more specifically, Peay wines step in. The value offered by these wines compared to their peers from the rest of the world is high. The price of most of these wines would not be considered inexpensive, but for what they deliver they are priced at a huge discount to many wines that have been hyped and whose prices have risen astronomically (as an example, think of Burgundy as a whole region). As a young winery from a new region, the secondary market has not pushed Peay prices into the stratosphere and we do not plan to head in that direction. We would rather provide superior value directly to our consumers and continue to attract disillusioned consumers looking for greatness. Go Browns.

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