What is quality?
“Quality” is the first word of our logo, and it is a central element of our philosophy. But what do we mean by quality, and what role does quality play in our company’s activities?
Gerald Weinberg, the famous computer scientist and consultant, described quality as “value to some person”. Weinberg’s formulation points to the fundamentally subjective nature of quality and its dependence on personal and social interests. Quality, as its definition in the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, arises from a “correspondence to some standard of excellence”, and standards of excellence are always subjective constructs, even when they are expressed in objective, quantitative terms. The labels “good”, “bad”, “better”, and “worse” are not given by nature, but are rather assigned by individuals and social groups in relation to specifically human perceptions and perspectives.
This idea is certainly relevant to a discussion of quality in wine. Wine can be and is assigned objective quality criteria, such as its level of alcohol or its region of origin, and these criteria are often codified, especially in Europe, into quality labels. The European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) label is an example of these objective quality criteria. However, most wine consumers would agree that the quality of any specific wine is only fully realised in the act of drinking it, and more specifically in the sensory impressions that it provides the consumer with. Objective, externally verifiable quality criteria are therefore ultimately secondary to subjective, private ones. This fundamental characteristic is clouded by the tendency of professional and also amateur wine tasters to assign objective, numerical quality assessments in the form of scores to specific wines, and precisely for this reason its importance cannot be stressed enough. Consumers have individual, subjective preferences which are based on their knowledge of and previous experience of wines, on the specific social and physical context in which they drink a particular wine, and indeed on their physiological makeup and thus their ability to perceive and differentiate wine’s sensory elements. Furthermore, and equally importantly, wine (and especially wine made with low-intervention methods) is a mercurial product – the contents of every fermentation barrel or tank are different from every other one, every wine develops differently in every bottle into which it is filled, and every bottle of wine will exhibit different characteristics depending on the specific physical environment in which it is consumed. In other words, no wine is, in chemical terms, the same wine at any two moments in its history, and no two wine drinkers have precisely the same vinous experience, because no two wine drinkers have exactly the same set of tastes in either physiological or psychological terms. Given this fundamental fluidity, it seems ridiculous to assign to any wine the simplifying and ossifying label of a numerical score, but that is precisely the way in which wine is very often judged and marketed. This is not to say that scores have no utility, but it is important to put them in their proper place. They are in effect an extremely reductive and objectifying representation of an immeasurably complex, variable, and subjective phenomenon, and their effect is to facilitate the establishment of a simplistic consensus among wine sellers and consumers that can then be converted into brief and impactful marketing communication. In other words, numerical scores, whatever the intentions of the wine professionals who create them, are typical elements of an attention economy, and this is arguably the main use to which they are put. Wine, however, is a paradigmatic slow product, and its appreciation requires that wine drinkers invest far more time and reflection than that involved in the reference to a critic’s score in the various apps provided by wine publications. The returns on this investment are, however, correspondingly high, and the following paragraphs seek to give an outline of just one way in which consumers can approach the demanding but also highly rewarding quality experience offered by wine.
Quality is realised when consumers perceive the expression in a specific wine of a value or values that they themselves hold. For example, if a consumer values a certain aroma, whether in general terms or in a particular type of wine, that value will be realised as a quality experience in the perception of this aroma. Furthermore, and very importantly, this definition of wine quality precludes any hierarchy of quality characteristics outside of the individual preferences of individual consumers. De gustibus non est disputandum, or, as our American friends would say, “whatever floats your boat”.
We unreservedly support this tolerance of diversity in individual preferences, and we encourage all of our customers to drink with likeminded friends the wines that they personally enjoy, whereby a specific wine culture arises in which sensory and social pleasures comingle. However, we also believe that it is important to question values, and to be willing to modify or extend them through the process of dialogue and critical reflection, as this is the basis for both personal and cultural development. In this spirit, and in the hope of starting a conversation with our current and potential customers, we would like to describe below the values that inform the wine culture that we subscribe to, and the quality criteria that derive from them.
Quality as culture
The notion of product quality can be divided into intrinsic and extrinsic aspects. Intrinsic quality is connected with the valued inherent physical characteristics of the product itself, for example the freshness of a vegetable or the speed with which a computer can perform a task. Extrinsic quality refers to everything else that is connected with the product’s manufacture, distribution, marketing, and consumption. It is thus an at least potentially very wide field that includes not only elements associated with the acquisition of the product, such as packaging, price, sales service, brand reputation, and the social status conferred by ownership and/or consumption, but also elements in the product’s extended value chain, such as its environmental footprint and the social conditions involved in its production and distribution. In practical terms, however, the number and relative importance of extrinsic quality characteristics depend on the extent to which these properties are valued by the consumer. They cease to contribute to the sum of intrinsic and extrinsic quality at the point where the consumer ceases to value and therefore to care about them. This boundary, which with reference to groups of likeminded consumers can also be described as the limit of the consumer culture associated with the product, circumscribes what is referred to as the consumer’s Total Quality Experience, and it is a very important concept for businesses, because it also defines the field in which they can deliver value to their customers.
Some consumers value little beyond the immediate personal gratification that a product provides them with, and product advertising still mostly emphasises quality experiences that are directly relevant to the consumer, namely the product’s inherent characteristics, its packaging, its price, and its conferred social status. However, it is equally true that many and ever more consumers care at least to some extent about the connection of their purchases with the larger value chains in which these products are embedded, and that they are interested in buying products whose entire production and consumption network is informed by the values that they identify with. The reason for this interest is obvious – such products increase the customer’s Total Quality Experience and therefore the total value of the product. We might therefore ask why consumer product marketing has, until recently, largely ignored this broader aspect of product quality. The answer is equally obvious – the extended value chains of most consumer products are not informed by the broader values of such consumers, and therefore producers do not advertise them. Indeed, the negative quality characteristics often present in these chains constitute a liability to producers, so it is in fact in their interest to employ marketing strategies that aim to largely restrict what might be called the quality horizon of consumers to the four characteristics mentioned above – intrinsic quality, packaging, price, and conferred social status.
In this way, a business culture develops that alienates many consumers from the values that they in fact profess, and in doing so disconnects them from not only the story of the products that they purchase but also from their own personal integrity and thus their more authentic selves. It is therefore the task of companies who rightly see their activities as being located in a wider social and ecological context to construct a different culture, one that focuses not only on intrinsic quality, but also on the connections between the whole life cycle of the product and the basic values of responsible consumers. In this way, the customer ceases to be a “consumer” at all, and instead takes on the role of a participant in the communal realization of not only product quality, but also quality of life.
In order to create this culture, responsible companies must deepen their customers’ quality perceptions and, most importantly, broaden their quality horizon. This can be done by informing their customers about the intrinsic and extrinsic quality characteristics that are connected with their products, and that express their customers’ values. The further this quality horizon is extended, the more likely it is that the customer will value and therefore purchase products that not only have high intrinsic quality but are also embedded in a value chain that reflects the customer’s fundamental principles and convictions. Indeed, through their communication activities, responsible companies can even persuade their customers to change or extend their values. Marketers seek to create new desires in consumers, and thereby to sell more products. A responsible retail company can do the same thing, but in a more ethical way, by showing customers the benefits of values that they were previously unaware of or antagonistic towards, and that are embodied in the products that the company sells. Our aim is to follow this path, and the challenge we set ourselves as a responsible wine retailer is therefore firstly to combine intrinsic product excellence with extrinsic quality demands, secondly to promote these standards throughout the value chain, and thirdly to communicate the Total Quality Experience that our products offer to current and potential customers.
In our discussion of quality, we therefore need to reflect not only on the characteristics of the liquid in the bottle but also on its wider context. Indeed, we might come to the conclusion that the latter is ultimately even more important than the former. Quality is therefore not separate from the issues of environmental sustainability and social equitability, but intricately connected with them, and that is why “quality” is the first word in our company motto. As the late, great Luigi Veronelli wrote:
La qualità non è un insieme di regole e di gusti standardizzati, ma l’ottimizzazione delle relazioni produttive, sociali e ambientali che danno vita a un prodotto. La qualità di un prodotto è espressione della qualità della vita e dell’ambiente da cui esso viene generato.
Quality is not a set of rules and standardised tastes, but rather the optimization of the economic, social, and environmental relations that give life to a product. The quality of a product is an expression of the quality of the life and of the environment that generates it.
Veronelli’s words correspond with our general philosophy of quality. Furthermore, Veronelli was interested not only in economic, social, and environmental relations, but also in sensual pleasure. Indeed, he described himself as un uomo dato alla gola, e a tutti i piaceri sensuali e mondani (a man devoted to the throat, and to all sensual and worldly pleasures). We also value the sensory aspect of wine, not as a set of rules and standardised tastes, but rather as a shared hedonistic and aesthetic experience. These aspects of intrinsic and extrinsic wine quality are described in more detail in the paragraphs below.
Intrinsic or organoleptic quality in wine
Wine quality is most often discussed in sensory terms, as a product of wine’s visual, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile characteristics. This is true both for those consumers who do not in general attach a high value to wine and for self-proclaimed wine lovers and professional wine writers. The latter are often grouped together under the label of “wine freaks”, but they might also be referred to as members of elite wine culture, whereby “elite” does not necessarily mean “better”, but rather refers to a certain amount of experience, expertise, and perhaps more importantly influence over the reputation and thus the price of individual wines. Within elite wine culture, and this is one thing that makes it a culture, there is a broad consensus about the general attributes that constitute sensory (also called organoleptic) quality. Once again, this consensus does not confer on elite wine culture any absolute superiority and therefore any justification for snobbism of any kind. Nevertheless, the deep involvement of oenophiles with the question of wine quality produces a wine culture that can provide less engaged consumers with interesting insights into the value that the intrinsic characteristics of wine can generate. It is therefore worthwhile for wine consumers to familiarise themselves with this culture, even if the majority of them ultimately decide that it is not one in which they would wish to invest further time and money. What follows is therefore a necessarily brief summary of the quality characteristics that oenophiles typically subscribe to. Its aim is to provide a general orientation with regard to our understanding of intrinsic quality in wine, and to whet our customers’ appetites for the discovery of this quality in our product range.
Quality wine must first of all be free of undesirable and possibly illegal impurities (such as toxic residues), and of obvious faults that compromise its fundamental integrity (such as excessive oxidation). Once this baseline is met, wine is in general terms appreciated for the clarity, palatability, variety, and intensity of its specific aromas, flavours, and textures, and for the complexity and harmony that the combination of these elements creates. In this context, clarity refers to the visual aspect of the wine, but also to the clear distinctness or “definition” of its sensory elements when it is tasted, while palatability has the simple meaning.of the pleasure experienced by the taster in the sense that the wine “tastes good”. Intensity refers to the sensory force of the wine, including the strength of its bouquet, the impression of weight on the palate, and the length of its aftertaste, while variety encompasses the number of different organoleptic sensations that the wine presents and that develop as the wine evolves in the glass. However, with regard to both intensity and variety, more is not necessarily better. Oenophiles value wines whose intensity complements the character of their olfactory and gustatory profiles, from more ethereal to more robust, and whose variety of flavours form a complex, dynamic, and harmonious whole. Quality wine is thus above all characterised by a certain aesthetic unity, and this is what makes it not only a beverage but also a work of art.
This is a relatively modest set of criteria: integrity, clarity, palatability, variety, intensity, complexity, and harmony. These elements can be described as primary intrinsic quality characteristics in the sense that they do not depend on a specific point of reference outside of the wine and the taster. Put another way, these are quality criteria that can be applied in a blind tasting without any need for further information, such as the name of the grape variety, to validate the value assigned to them. This is one reason why many oenophiles consider blind tasting the benchmark for assessing intrinsic quality, according to the motto “the brown bag doesn’t lie”.
However, often the primary aim of a blind tasting is not to assess the quality of the wine but rather to identify its component grape variety or varieties and/or its geographical origin. This purpose is informed by a secondary intrinsic quality criterium, namely typicity. Typicity is secondary in the sense that it arises relative to the type of wine that provides a standard. It might therefore be recognised by tasters in a blind tasting, but, unlike primary intrinsic characteristics, it requires additional information in order to be validated, specifically the name of the type that the wine in fact belongs to. Many producers, consumers, and wine experts, as well as quality classifications such as the European PDO system, place a high value on the typicity of a wine with regard to the grape variety or varieties from which it is made and/or with respect to the perceived viticultural and vinicultural quality traditions in the region in which it is produced.
When this notion of typicity is applied to the geological, climactic, and cultural factors that combine in a wine’s production, and that distinguish a region or even an individual plot of vines, elite wine culture tends to use the French term terroir. Terroir can be understood as the typicity of a specific viticultural area. As a differentiating quality, the concept of terroir is an important marketing instrument in elite wine culture. Indeed, it arguably represents the single most important driver of the extreme price differences between the most prestigious wines and those further down the elite wine culture hierarchy, especially in those cases, such as the Bordeaux First Growths, where scarcity is not an issue. However, this understanding of terroir is less concerned with specific viticultural practices, which can be relatively easily copied and thus provide a limited competitive advantage, than with the quasi-mystical character assigned to a particular geographical area, the wine property or properties associated with it, and the unbroken tradition, as it were the genealogy, of the wines produced at this location. Understood in this way, terroir is an essentialist notion that assigns to wines an idealised, fundamental, chronologically fixed identity, what modern marketers call a “brand”. In elite wine culture, this identity is typically expressed as a geographical location and a producer, whether in a single brand name, such as “Château Latour” or as a combination of these two elements, such as “Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet”. Terroir as brand identity is thus a central determining factor in the level of quality assigned to specific wines by consumers. Combined with the factor of scarcity (whether real or created by the wine property), it provides the basis for price differentials that are limited only by the willingness of consumers to literally buy into the ideology of exclusivity and transcendence that it represents.
In historical terms, the concept of terroir as the essential, privileged identity of a certain location can be seen as a reworking of the Roman concept of the genius loci, the unchanging spirit of a particular place. This in turn informs the more obviously relevant medieval aristocratic idea of the possession of a castle and its surrounding estate as both the sign of divine recognition of the owner family’s essential superiority and the justification of this family’s socio-economic privileges in the past, present, and future. In other words, the transcendental notion of terroir promoted by elite wine culture is deeply reactionary, and it is used to both create and justify inequalities in the wine market that no rational assessment of primary intrinsic quality differences could ever do. It is therefore important to reflect critically on this concept, and to ask if there are not other, more inclusive ways of understanding the phenomenon that it derives from.
For example, it might be argued that what makes terroir most interesting is the way in which it combines humans and their surrounding environment into a single co-evolved system that dissolves the dichotomy of nature and culture, and thus also overcomes the alienation of humankind from the natural world that it has arisen from and on which it depends for its continued survival. This inclusive notion of terroir allows every living thing, including humans, its place in the dynamics of the planetary ecosystem, and it is based on a very old idea of the need to humbly cooperate with the repeated cycles of Mother Nature, rather than seeking to overcome them and transform them into a linear trajectory of supposed cultural progress. It might therefore be described as terroir paysan, in opposition to the terroir aristocratique that is currently dominant in elite wine culture, and it provides an important element of the culture of connectivity that we seek to promote.
An even more radical way of understanding terroir is to introduce a temporal scale in terms of both cultural tradition and climate. With regard to cultural tradition, the application of an historical perspective recognises that over time traditions change, and that terroir thus possesses no fundamental stability. This, however, is no bad thing, if we understand tradition as nothing more than the preservation of successful innovations, and therefore as the handing down of the living flame, rather than the worship of dead ashes. With regard to climate, the rapid changes brought about by the Anthropocene have a similarly destabilizing effect on the notion of terroir. Climate change is in general seen in more negative terms than cultural change, but it also benefits some groups, at least in a limited sense, for example winemakers in previously marginal climate zones who now inhabit favourable ones. Furthermore, it might be argued that the rapidity of change in the Anthropocene forces us to confront the fundamental truth that all physical phenomena, including the natural environment, are ultimately mutable and temporary.
This notion of constant change is anathema to many and perhaps most Europeans, with their sense of cultural and geographical inheritance, but it in fact has a long tradition in European thought, from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ concept of panta rhei (everything flows) to Goethe in the poem Dauer im Wechsel (Permanence in Change):
Gleich mit jedem Regengusse
Ändert sich dein holdes Tal
Ach, und in demselben Flusse
Schwimmst du nicht zum zweitenmal.
With every shower of rain
Your lovely valley changes
Oh, and in the same river
You do not swim a second time.
Furthermore, this perspective is an integral part of many Eastern cultures, including that of Japan, where the Pacific rim of fire provides constant reminders of the literal instability of the ground on which the local population stands. In this respect, the Anthropocene encourages a radical, temporally limited understanding of terroir, whereby wine is not the expression of an underlying, permanent identity, but rather an ephemeral conjunction of geology, climate, biology, culture, and, of course, vintage characteristics that in turn changes, as everything does, as the wine ages and matures. Everything flows, like wine, and this Heraclitean notion of terroir is therefore perhaps the one that is truest to the nature of wine itself. It is any case opposed in important ways to both terroir aristocratique as the guarantor of privilege and terroir paysan as the enduring cyclical repetition of a conjoined culture and nature.
The eight intrinsic quality criteria of integrity, clarity, palatability, variety, intensity, complexity, harmony, and typicity provide one framework for evaluating specific wines at a particular moment in time. However, as emphasized by the above discussion of terroir, wine is an ever-changing product, and many of the most highly valued wines are judged not only on their current quality, but also on their capacity to become even better with time. This ninth quality characteristic can be described as a potential intrinsic quality, and it is called ageability. Ageability is highly prized by members of elite wine culture, because ageable wines acquire an additional dimension of complexity and harmony once they are mature. Indeed, for many oenophiles, the enjoyment of a high-quality mature wine is the pinnacle of wine culture.
Our intrinsic quality principles
Like the majority of wine retailers, we subscribe to most of the elements of the consensus on intrinsic wine quality provided by elite wine culture. We seek to stock wines that fulfil the value criteria of integrity, clarity, palatability, variety, intensity, complexity, and harmony. However, we take a more nuanced approach to the questions of typicity, terroir, and ageability.
Concerning typicity, we recognise the desire of many consumers for an assurance that when they buy a wine made from a specific grape variety and/or originating from a specific region it will conform to their expectations with regard to the organoleptic characteristics of the product. However, we believe that the same grape variety can produce excellent wines in different styles even in the same region. Furthermore, we are aware of the risk that consumer demand for sensory characteristics considered typical of a certain wine might detract from rather than promote quality, at least in terms of the understanding of quality among oenophiles. Winemakers and consumers who share this concern often point to the example of Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, in which the cat-pee aromas produced by under-ripe grapes have in fact become a sought-after characteristic among many wine drinkers. We therefore see typicity as an important but ultimately subordinate quality attribute.
With regard to terroir, we highly value the diversity that arises from the various natural and cultural factors of wine production in different regions, and we do not doubt that the combination of these factors can produce a high degree of individuality in such wines. Furthermore, the inclusion of cultural practices in the concept of terroir provides a welcome and indeed extremely important corrective to the opposition of culture and nature that characterises Western thought and that in so many ways and contexts orphans us from Mother Earth. However, we disagree with the essentialist notion that terroir is an expression, across vintages, of a fundamental, permanent identity, whether geological, climatic, or cultural. Wine is the embodiment of fluidity and change, and it seems perverse to conceive of it as the opposite – as the monumental incarnation of transcendent, immutable being – however tempting such an idea might be. This critique is especially relevant in the current period of rapid climatic change brought about by the Anthropocene. Furthermore, the notion of an essential and invariable terroir arguably serves above all to attach monetary value to certain very specific geographical locations, and thus to naturalise and thereby perpetuate the enormous economic inequalities in the wine industry. We therefore maintain a healthy scepticism concerning the notion of terroir and especially the uses that its geographical element is put to.
Ageability, on the other hand, is a characteristic that we value very highly. A wine that only reaches full maturity after 30 years or even longer not only displays a unique complexity and harmony, but is also an ultimate slow product. As such, it encourages patience, deceleration, and an appreciation of the virtues of age, qualities that our current society would do well to cultivate more assiduously. Furthermore, ageability applies not only to wines that reach their peak after many years in bottle, but to all wines that go through a process of maturation, even if this is relatively short. This process is another expression of the fluid nature of wine. However, fewer and fewer wine drinkers have access to storage facilities that allow long-term aging and aged wines are becoming scarcer and more expensive on the retail market. On the other hand, winemakers are increasingly adept at producing wines that have a long aging potential, but that are also delicious when young. Ageability is thus a characteristic to be admired and valued, but it is not a sine qua non of high-quality wine. Thus, like typicity, we consider it a subordinate quality characteristic.
The aim of the above necessarily brief description of intrinsic quality is simply to give an impression of the characteristics that we look for in the wines that we sell, and to provide a basis, within a particular philosophical framework, for both the discussion of the pleasures that wine can provide and the development of personal preferences. Thankfully, every wine drinker is different, and all consumers have a right to their personal tastes, however bizarre they may appear to others. Furthermore, no wine drinker is justified in looking down on another simply because the other cannot afford to purchase certain wines or is not interested enough in wine to become a connoisseur. A vinous philistine might rather invest time in reading Dante, Jane Austen, or Maya Angelou; listening to Mozart, Clara Schumann, or Bartok; or studying the paintings of Michelangelo, Vermeer, or Georgia O’Keefe. Who, in this case, is the less cultured individual, and who is more likely to be trapped in a fetishizing or even addictive attachment to what is after all an agricultural product? Snobbism therefore has no place in the wine culture that we promote. On the contrary, we view wine as a way to create enriching connections, not only across the boundaries of time, place, and social groups, but also between the individual and their better self, as the Argentinian author Jorge Luís Borges enigmatically suggests in the conclusion to his Soneto del Vino:
Vino, enséñame el arte de ver mi propia historia
como si ésta ya fuera ceniza en la memoria.
Wine, teach me the art of seeing my own history
as if it were already ashes in my memory.
Extrinsic quality in wine
Intrinsic quality is thus important, but it represents only one part of the customer’s Total Quality Experience. The rest is provided by extrinsic quality characteristics. Discussions of extrinsic quality in the wine industry typically include factors such as bottle closure, packaging, price, scarcity, reputation, marketing communication, and the service experience provided at the outlet from which the customer purchased the wine. This last point is obviously highly relevant to wine retail companies such as ours. Excellent service arises when a company fulfils and, where possible, exceeds the expectations of its customers. This requires careful attention to all the company’s service activities, from its external communication to the design of its physical and digital service processes. However, retail service quality represents only one element of a range of products and processes that are involved in making, marketing, and consuming wine, and that go beyond the creation of intrinsic quality. This full spectrum needs to be considered when assessing the overall quality of any wine. More specifically, as noted above, extrinsic quality also involves the environmental and social dimensions of the value chain, and the following paragraphs focus on these elements.
Intrinsic quality presents a problem when it is taken as the basis for or indeed the sole expression of a whole wine culture. Unfortunately, this is precisely the tendency exhibited by many gatekeepers and prestigious producers in the modern wine industry. They elevate intrinsic quality to a privileged or even exclusive status, and in doing so they subordinate or even ignore the more comprehensive wine culture and the still larger socio-economic and environmental context in which intrinsic quality is embedded. As such, elite wine culture exhibits inconsistencies and even hypocrisies with regard to its stated values and the practices that its existence depends upon. This dissonance arises in many forms. For example, wine critics value durability, in the sense of ageability, but they largely ignore the lack of environmental sustainability (French durabilité) that characterises the viticultural practices at most prestigious and also less prestigious wine estates. Elite wine culture prizes harmony, but it is happy to profit from the lack of harmony between social actors in the capitalist economy, whereby a few become very rich at the expense of the many and are then willing and able to tolerate the huge margins that elite producers place on their products in order to exploit these imbalances. Professional tasters praise the diversity of products in elite wine culture, but seldom raise their voices in support of either social diversity, which is sorely lacking in the white-male-dominated wine industry, or the biodiversity upon which viticulture, like all agricultural practices, depends. In other words, many oenophiles ignore the wider and more fundamental social and ecological aspects of the values that they subscribe to, and in doing so they compromise their own integrity. Thus, an ethically grounded business concept for any wine retailer must take into account not only the organoleptic quality of the wines in its product range, but also their relationship to the socio-economic and environmental context in which they are produced, marketed, and consumed.
In addition to this basic philosophy, it is important to remember that value is defined not only as equivalent to quality, but also as a function of quality relative to the extrinsic quality factor of price. This is the quality-price ratio, also known as value for money. The importance of this definition arises from the fundamental fact of limited resources, which is to say that in choosing one good, consumers must forego another. The quality-price ratio is thus first of all an instrument that helps individual buyers to maximise the value provided by their limited disposable income. However, value for money, in the sense of the ratio of the total intrinsic and extrinsic quality provided by the product to its price, is at least as important in the broader context of ethical and sustainable economic models, in the sense that a higher ratio means that in relative terms more resources are available to realise value elsewhere. From the perspective of the self-interested homo oeconomicus, this value is exploited in increased personal consumption or savings, but in a broader perspective it represents an opportunity to produce extrinsic quality, especially through socially and/or environmentally valuable work. Conversely, the purchase of a product with a lower overall quality-price ratio represents an opportunity cost, in that this possibility of creating supplementary value is lost, or at least diminished, depending on the relative amount of resources required to produce the products being compared, and the use to which the margin applied to each is put.
This problem can be described as the price of quality. Quality has its price, as we all know. What most people do not know, however, is that this price is not only monetary, but also ecological and social. The ecological price of quality improvements can be illustrated by the following example. A common viticultural quality strategy is the practice of green harvesting. The aim here is to reduce yields in the hope of producing grapes with more concentrated juice that will in turn produce higher-quality wine. This practice typically possesses, however, an environmental cost. Reducing the yield of a vineyard means that more cultivated land is needed to produce the same quantity of wine. If the producer had maintained yield, this additional land could, for example, have been rewilded, thereby increasing the biodiversity on the estate. In this case, the wine producer sacrifices environmental quality for the organoleptic or intrinsic quality of their wine.
It might be argued that yield reduction is a question not only of quality, but also of economic survival, in the sense that the price for a lower-quality wine produced at a higher yield would not be sufficient to produce a reasonable return to the wine producer, whereas an acceptable profit can be realised with the higher-quality wine resulting from a lower yield. This constellation has indeed been one of the primary quality drivers in recent decades throughout Europe, but it should not simply be accepted as an inescapable prerequisite for survival, and especially not one whose implementation need only consider financial criteria.
A winemaker, like any producer, should therefore reflect on both the ecological and the social implications of the increased profitability offered by a shift to a higher-quality, higher-priced product. This repositioning requires a certain number of prospective customers who are willing and able to pay a higher price, which in turn posits the existence of an economic surplus represented in the discretionary income that these customers are prepared to spend on wine. The question which then arises is how ecologically sustainable the creation of this economic surplus was, and how socially just its distribution. If we apply the first part of this question to the current global economic situation, the answer is obviously that the surpluses generated by the global economy, which provide the financial resources for the global fine wine market, are not produced in a sustainable manner. Thus, from a broad ecological perspective, increasing profitability through quality improvements is fundamentally problematic, irrespective of the specific environmental impact of quality improvements in the vineyard.
With regard to the social cost of quality, it should be noted that the greater economic inequality becomes, the greater the incentive becomes for producers to keep increasing perceived quality and thereby margins and ultimately profits. Income differences are of course not by definition a bad thing, but the acceptability of specific levels of inequality needs to be continually called into question. The problem for a producer of high-quality goods is to identify the point at which the company is profiting at the unfair expense of other social actors. If we look at the developments over the last twenty years regarding income inequality in the countries with major wine markets, and if we compare these with the increases in the price for fine wine, the obvious conclusion is that producers of prestigious wines such as Bordeaux classed growths, Burgundy, and Barolo have been doing precisely this. Furthermore, the increasing price premium for elite wines reflects a shift of quality perception away from the arguably already secondary dimension of intrinsic quality to the totally decoupled value of social cachet. The skyrocketing prices of top wines from prestigious regions in no way reflect either a corresponding increase in intrinsic quality relative to cheaper products (indeed, the intrinsic quality gap between the top tier and those below it has in many ways closed in the last twenty years), or a corresponding investment on the part of the famous estates in environmental and social quality. These price increases are rather the result of the rise of a global economic elite for whom expensive wines are above all status objects, and thus no more than hollow symbols of their own spiritual emptiness. Furthermore, the circulation of huge amounts of money through the luxury asset economy means that less money is available in other parts of the economy to produce more tangible and more socially just value. Indeed, the availability of ever-more exclusive products increases the incentive for wealthy wine consumers to further increase the income imbalance in the economy. In this way, quality and socio-economic imbalances become entangled in a vicious circle; the upward spiral of profits and elite consumer satisfaction blinds both producers and wealthy customers to a corresponding downward social and also ecological vortex.
This is not to argue that price increases do not reflect the addition of some kind of value or quality, as both terms describe subjective perceptions and are thus relative to the interests of the consumer. The real question is rather this: what underlying values shape the quality experience of elite wines and thus their price, and to what extent do these values reflect those of society as a whole, or even the professed ethical principles of elite consumers? The simple answer is that the elite wine market is not primarily driven by differences in intrinsic quality, as the price differentials between the most sought-after wines and the rest stand in no relation to any reasonable assessment of the gap in organoleptic quality between the two product groups. Rather, it is informed by values of exclusion, inequality, and maximum short-term profit for the few at the expense of both society as a whole and the environment. These are the divisive, destructive, and oppressive values of the oligarchs and their enablers, not those of a responsible wine producer or retailer, and we therefore reject them categorically. We stand for the opposite values of inclusion, equality, and long-term benefits for the many as the basis of a wine culture that connects people to each other and the planet, constructs mutually enriching networks, and thereby raises not only the quality experience but also the quality of life of all its members.
Quality is thus a complex issue for both winemakers and resellers. Greater intrinsic wine quality and the higher prices that this leads to are not ends to be pursued at all costs. On the contrary, they must be subordinated to higher social and ecological values, and this is why “quality” is only the first word in our motto. Nevertheless, we believe that the aspiration to intrinsic quality can be satisfactorily reconciled with the more fundamental extrinsic quality requirements of sustainability and equitability, and with the economically critical dimension of the quality-price ratio. What is needed is imagination and courage on the part of wine producers and the other actors in the value chain. One of the main aims of our company is therefore to identify and promote measures that fulfil this ambition, and to communicate the progress made towards these goals to our stakeholders.
To sum up, we believe that sensual and aesthetic pleasures, and thus wine’s organoleptic qualities, are not equal but rather subordinate to social and environmental principles. We do not value a harmonious wine whose production or marketing involves the erosion of the communal harmony provided by social justice, and nor do we value a complex wine made in a way that reduces the complexity and diversity of the natural world. Furthermore, we recognise that value for money, in the wider sense of the price paid for the total intrinsic and extrinsic quality of a product, is not only an expression of the rationalizing tendencies of homo oeconomicus, but also an opportunity to direct resources that would otherwise be bound in the product towards the production of quality, and especially social and environmental quality, in other locations. Therefore, we seek out producers who are not only committed to inherent quality, but also to making and marketing wines in a way that expresses higher social and environmental values, and we choose our business partners in the further areas of logistics, finance, marketing, and IT as far as possible according to the same basic philosophy. In addition, we encourage all our partners and customers to join us on the journey to a sustainable future, by communicating our philosophy to them and by engaging them in a dialogue aimed at discovering and exploiting opportunities for improvement in the Total Quality Experience of the wines that we source and sell. In this way, we to aim fulfil the duty, described by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in the final two lines of his Oda al Vino,
a recordar la tierra y sus deberes,
a propagar el cántico del fruto.
to remember the earth and its duties,
to propagate the canticle of the fruit.
The challenge we set ourselves as a responsible wine retailer is therefore to combine intrinsic, organoleptic excellence, as the first word of our motto suggests, with extrinsic quality demands in the areas of customer service, value for money, social principles, and environmental responsibility, and to promote these standards throughout the value chain. We are convinced that this challenge is not only an ethical imperative, but also a sound business proposition, not least because of the rise in social and ecological consciousness that we are currently witnessing throughout the world. Consumers are paying increasing attention not only to intrinsic product quality, but also to the social and environmental impact of their purchase choices. We believe that our business concept can take advantage of these trends, and that by doing so our company can flourish.
Our product and service quality commitment
Our commitment to environmental and social quality is set out in the separate sections dedicated to these topics (Sustainability and Equitability). Our commitment to product and service quality is expressed in the following principles:
1. We only stock wines from producers whose philosophy of intrinsic quality is in accord with our own. In our web shop we indicate scores given by the Wine Advocate, where these are available, but only as an orientation that many customers desire. We do not recommend wines based on critics’ scores, but rather on the Total Quality Experience that we perceive the wines as offering.
2. We stock a wide range of wines in order to satisfy all tastes.
3. We place a high importance on the price-quality ratio of the wines that we offer, firstly because we believe that this emphasis corresponds to the demands of a majority of our customers, and secondly because a higher price-quality ratio allows the production of more quality elsewhere. However, we believe that sustainably-made quality wines are mostly not economically viable at a retail price of less than €8 per 750ml bottle. Furthermore, our alcohol pricing policy (see the section on equatibility) of a least €1 per standard unit of alcohol means that in practice none of our wines are sold for less than €7.50 per 750ml bottle. Finally, different consumers with different budgetary constraints have a different perception of the relationship of price to quality. In order to cater to these personal perspectives with regard to the price-quality relationship, our web shop offers a price filter and a sort-by-price function. Further information on our philosophy regarding price and margins can be found in the Equitability section of this website.
4. We encourage our customers to learn about wine and to try different grape varieties and different wine-making styles in order to develop their personal preferences. To this end, we offer all our wines as single bottle purchases. We also organise tastings with expert input on both intrinsic and extrinsic quality criteria. In the medium-term, we aim to provide a large range of tasting sets of wines in smaller formats, to further increase our customers’ opportunities to extend their quality horizon, and to take advantage of the possibilities for virtual tasting events.
5. We have put a lot off effort into making the customer experience in our webshop as user-friendly as possible. We process orders as quickly as possible and ship them fully insured from the temperature-regulated warehouses of our logistics partners in certified transport boxes. However, we do not risk compromising the intrinsic quality of our products by shipping them when ambient temperatures at any point along the delivery route are likely to rise above 28 degrees Celsius, unless the customer specifically requests this.
6. All online customer purchases inside the EU are protected by the EU regulation for online retailers that allows a 14-day cooling off period, during which the customer can decide to return the goods for a full refund. We support this regulation, in part because it allows customers to return unopened bottles of a wine that does not meet their personal quality expectations. It is therefore a key element in our quality assurance strategy. If a customer wishes for any reason to return or request a refund on a wine after this period or after it has been opened, we seek to find a solution that fairly considers the interests of both the customer and our own business.
7. We are committed to the principle of continuous quality improvement, and we understand this imperative as involving all aspects of the Total Quality Experience. We therefore welcome and indeed are reliant on both praise and criticism from suppliers and customers. Customers can communicate their feedback to us via e-mail or through our contact form. We regard this information as a source of quality improvement, and we seek to provide fair and timely solutions to all customer complaints.