Why the wine world is like a Monopoly board

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Patricia Arquette is making headlines over wage inequality; best-selling books analyse the growing gap between rich and poor… Online wine forum members rail against the unaffordability of top Bordeaux and Burgundy, and the madness of Napa.

It all puts me in mind of my nine year-old’s favourite board game. The brilliance of Monopoly lies in the varying values and earning potentials of the differently-coloured properties. If you are lucky enough to buy the two dark blue squares and can afford to build some houses or hotels, you stand a much better chance of winning the game than the player who’s only been able to accumulate the brown and purple ones.

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(For a statistical review of the value of the different squares,
I recommend you join the 2m people who’ve visited this site.)

The parallel with wine is all too clear. If you own land in Napa or Pauillac or Vosne Romanée, you operate in a different world to the ones occupied by those languishing in California’s Central Valley, the Mâconnais or Entre Deux Mers. As the price of top wines rises with every vintage – give or take the occasional hiccup – those at the bottom barely move, which is why those Central Valley grapegrowers are switching to almonds.

But as with wages, it’s not just the poor who get squeezed; it’s getting tougher for the middle classes. This was illustrated by the recent decision by Jean Christophe Mau and the Dirkzwager family to sell their Médoc property, Chateau Preuillac. Over the years since buying it in 1998, Mau, former owner of the négociant firm Yvon Mau, had made leviathan efforts to improve the quality of the wine, and had become deeply involved in the battles surrounding the revision of the Cru Bourgeois classification. But, as he admitted to me in December, ultimately there’s a limit to what you can do with a mid-level Médoc estate. It made much more sense to invest in the Maus’ and Dirkzwagers’ Chateau Brown which, as a Pessac Léognan, is more of a Green or Orange Monopoly property.

The polarisation of Bordeaux appellations is acknowledged by almost everyone who knows the region. Christian Moueix always loved his Fronsac estates and produced some tremendous wines in them, but eventually he admitted defeat and moved to concentrate on Pomerol and St Emilion; Bernard Magrez of Chateau Pape-Clément took the same view regarding his lesser Bordeaux estates.

All this occurred to me while listening to a good friend telling me about the Napa vineyard they are about to buy. At first sight, the land prices are crazy; at up to $350,000 per acre, they have risen by nearly nine times in just over a quarter of a century. You can buy three acres in Sonoma for the price of one in Napa. But… the only reason Napa land costs as much as it does, of course, is the demand, both for Napa lifestyle and Napa Cabernet at $100 per bottle, and that shows no signs of slowing.

Patricia Arquette is right, of course, to call for women to earn as much as men, but neither she nor anyone else is ever going to stop the most popular stars – in business, entertainment or sports – from commanding higher incomes than their less glittery peers. The irony of Arquette’s position, however, is that the statue she carried home on Sunday, raised her value over other similarly talented actors who failed to make the nomination.

You can argue with the logic of this as much as you like – is a Napa Cab really three times better than a red from the adjoining county?), but you might as well be arguing with the makers of Monopoly over the price tags and rental values of their dark blue squares.

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