Thursday, April 24, 2014

The oddities of the wine market

Jens Beckert, Jorg Rossel and Patrick Schenk at Cologne's Max Planck Institute have been looking at variations in the price of wine. Or more specifically, as the title of their paper states 'Wine as a Cultural Product: Symbolic Capital and Price Formation in the Wine Field'. For their study they analysed data from 110 wineries and 1,071 wines (it's not clear if they sampled any of them) as well as data on wine consumers in four German cities.

There are some real oddities in the wine market. Even expensive wines don't cost more than €10 a bottle to produce but, although chemically the same, a bottle of wine can cost 1.99 euros or 300 euros. 'These price differentials are justified by alleged quality differences between the wines. However ... it turns out that the price differences are largely unrelated to different production costs and to the sensual experience wine connoisseurs report when tasting the wine in a bland tasting ... even experts are not able to differentiate between wines based on objective characteristics and cannot rank wines according to their price'. Moreover, each time a new vintage comes along, the taste changes.

There are some generalisations one can make about price. Wines made of high status grape varieties (Riesling, Pinot) are usually more expensive. Dry wine is more expensive than sweet and semi-dry wine. Red wine is more expensive than white and rosé. Older wine is usually more expensive than that of a younger age.

Wine producers can develop symbolic capital that can be turned into profit. Wine producers that produce wines that are 'difficult' to drink because the consumer must first learn to appreciate them and 'work' on developing taste can accumulate such capital. This sounds like a formula for the consumer to be conned and a passport for pretentiousness - which does bring to mind an advert currently shown on British television in which a wine buff is mocked for such pretension.

It's an interesting paper, but there is relatively little about supply and demand which is always a key factor in any market, even one as unusual as that for wine.

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