Laurence Harvey, an Oscar-nominated British actor of the 1960s, used to like telling the story of how, even though he was struggling to pay his rent, he hired a Rolls Royce and drove it to audition for a movie called the Manchurian Candidate. He got the part and, even more importantly, a bigger fee than he’d expected.
In 1931, aged just 16, Orson Welles, who had never acted anywhere professionally, walked into the Gate Theatre in Dublin and sent a note to the manager saying he was an 18-year-old “star of the New York Theater Guild… with experience working on Broadway”. He was, he continued, visiting Ireland and might, just possibly, be persuaded to play Hamlet or Macbeth, if the terms proved acceptable. In the event, he was given the lead role in another play and received a standing ovation.
Okay, both men’s behaviour was maybe a little extreme and Welles’s a lot easier to pull off in the days before one could Google someone’s credentials. (In fact, his claims were apparently unconvincing even at the time, but he still got the part: the manager admired his confidence and he aced the audition).
What matters is that what they did was only an extreme example of what we all do when going on a first date, or to an interview. It’s called ‘positioning’: trying to get the other person or people to take you at the value you would like to choose for yourself.
Positioning matters because, every time you meet a stranger, somebody is likely to do it. Just ask anyone who’s ever been interviewed for a job by a potential employer who’s already formed an impression from their resumé that they are probably underqualified, too old or too young or the wrong gender or race.
Imagine a different scenario in which the producer and director auditioning Harvey had been told that he was a desperate, debt-ridden alcoholic who would be grateful for any part he could get.
Making the world's priciest rosé
I was reminded of the stories of the two actors when listening to a French wine journalist asking Gérard Bertrand how he had come to decide on a price of €200 for the first vintage of his Languedoc Clos du Temple Rosé when he released it in 2019. Did he just want to have the most expensive pink wine in the world? Bertrand sidestepped the question, but only slightly. Rosé, he said, has suffered from being treated as a summer wine to be bought cheaply and drunk without much thought. He wanted to position his example amongst the grands vins of the world. Red wines like Vega Sicilia, for example. Wines for which people are happy to pay €200.
ln Europe prices of most wines are pegged by neighbouring producers, distributors, tender-operating monopolies and critics.
The strategy worked. The quality of the wine has been widely recognised and, over five years, production has risen from 8,000 bottles to 40,000. The 2018 is living up to its early promise.
What Bertrand did with Clos du Temple — and a few years earlier with his similarly costly Clos d’Ora red from la Livinière — wouldn’t surprise many New World wineries or wine drinkers, but it’s unusual in Europe where prices of most wines are pegged by neighbouring producers, distributors, tender-operating monopolies and critics. “What right,” some or all of these will ask “does Domaine X have to ask that much for a wine from an appellation where there’s plenty of decent stuff available for half as much?”
Positioning in Bordeaux
Thanks to the way its wines are sold through La Place, Bordeaux arguably offers the clearest example of wine producers allowing the prices of their wines to be positioned by third parties. Every year, cru classé châteaux have to haggle with négociants to convince them that this year’s vintage is ‘worth’ a few euros more en primeur. “Mais monsieur… your neighbour got 94 points and your wine was only a 93!”
Producers of new wines have an even tougher time. What gives them the right to ask a high price for their first vintage? Surely they should have the grace and patience to start out moderately and work their way upwards?
But which ambitious restaurateur starting a new business would dream of adopting that strategy? They know that if you’re looking for a Michelin star you have to offer Michelin quality cooking at Michelin prices.
(Relatively) cheap Cheval Blanc
Things are different in wine. Just look at the fuss that’s being made this year over Cheval Blanc imposing the 20% hike that has raised the cost of owning a bottle of its 2022 to around $700 — around half the price of Harlan Estate, three quarters as much as Pingus, or a bit less than a bottle and three quarters of Leroy Aligoté.
Looking at these comparisons, can you really blame Cheval Blanc? All these prices are stratospherically beyond the reach of most mortals anyway, so why not take what one believes to be one’s due from the people who can pay them?
Ultimately what counts is quality, and the impression made on target customers. Harvey, who died at 45 of cancer, and Welles both gave performances that supported their self-positioning, and enough people believe in Clos du Temple for Bertrand to have multiplied his original production volumes by five.
The challenge for the industry lie in far too large a mass of wines that are unsustainably cheap.
Some readers will question why I’m being so supportive of what they may see as outrageously pricy wines. From where I’m standing, however, the challenge for the industry does not lie in a relatively small number of expensive wines, but in far too large a mass of wines that are unsustainably cheap — especially in the part of southern France where Bertrand is producing his Rosé.
By getting people to part with €130-€200 for his top wines, he’s making it easier for other wineries to command prices of €50 €30, €20 or even €10 in a market where even well-made AOC Minervois and Corbiéres struggle to get four or five euros on a supermarket shelf.
By positioning his wine, Gérard Bertrand is actually helping his neighbours to reposition theirs. But that final jump from €5 to €15, may ultimately be down to the impression they make themselves - without the use of a rented Rolls Royce or a fake resumé.