More conversation with Becky and Peter Wasserman:
BG: By the way, thanks for spending so much time talking with me.
BW: It's my pleasure. All of this is pre-obituary and it's good for me to do.
BG: (Nervous laughter, followed by throat clearing and vigorous subject-changing) So, I'd like to learn about pricing in Burgundy. How do you decide the prices for each bottle?
PW: We don't, we're sent a price list each year and that's basically it. If we feel that we want to change the prices some, we can work with the producers on that. We might feel like we want to come down on the villages pricing, and to compensate we'll go up on the 1er Crus, for example.
BG: Are you selecting the barrels that you want and the wines that you want?
PW: No, we're given an allocation and that's what we take.
BG: Why would you want to adjust the pricing - why down on the villages, for example?
BW: You have to understand something - it is always easy to sell the top wines. The Grand crus and the top 1er Crus sell out very quickly, there's never a problem. Even in off vintages, even in a recession, these wines sell. Restaurants buy them, good retailers buy them, there's just never a problem. It's the everyday wines, the Villages wines, the Bourgognes, that are hard to sell. It takes 3 visits a year from me and eight months on the road for Peter to find the right home for those wines every year.
BG: Wow, I'm surprised to hear that. I guess I understand that Lafarge's Clos de Chênes should always be a pretty easy sell, but you're saying that his villages Volnay, and his Bourgogne are tough?
PW: Always. People buy based on the lofty reputation of the wines and not on what's good to drink in the near term, what's appropriate for current drinking.
BG: Can you give me an example of how this works with one of your producers?
PW: Take Freddy Mugnier. I can sell Musigny and Amoureuses no problem. Marechale, which I think is one of the best Nuits st. Georges 1er Crus out there, that wine is very hard to sell. His Villages Chambolle, which is a blend of young vines from great vineyards (he said which ones but I didn't note them), always a hard sell. And this is great wine - I 'm always super excited to drink Freddy Mugnier's Villages wine. But to sell it, I have to tell people "You want Amoureuses, no problem. But you're going to have to step up to the plate on Marechale."
BG: Wow - that's the same kind of bundling that's in the news now with the cable television industry. You can't buy only the channels you want, you have to buy a huge package that includes hundreds of channels you don't want in order to get the ones you do want. And people think that if the channels were available individually, the prices would come down. But I'm not so sure...
PW: If I let anyone who wanted it buy Amoureuses and only Amoureuses, the price would absolutely skyrocket.
BG: Yeah, I guess you'd lose a lot of Villages sales, and also there would be much greater demand for Amoureuses if it wasn't bundled as part of a much larger purchase.
BG: You mentioned the economy before and that it doesn't impact sales on the top wines. I feel like it impacts the market for those wines somehow, though. I'm seeing top wines I don't usually see on shelves. I've seen 2007 Mugnier Musigny on two retail shelves in NYC recently, and I haven't seen that in a long time.
PW: Which stores?
BG: Chambers Street and Uva, in Brooklyn (and since this conversation I saw it online at another NYC area store called Grapes the Wine Company).
PW: I think Chambers' is gray market, but that's great.
BG: Yeah, but here's another issue with pricing. I'm not questioning the greatness of that wine and others like it. But I think it's sad that people who come to wine now, like myself, unless we are very rich, will never taste a Mugnier Musigny. The '07 vintage is something like $450 a bottle. And it's sad because people who love art can go see it at a museum for a reasonable price. People who love opera can pay various prices to hear it live. But Musigny - an incredibly tiny portion of the wine loving population will experience it, and it's sad.
BW: (A frown darkens her expression for a moment) Yes, it is. But you need to know that people like Freddy Mugnier and Christophe Roumier are horrified at the prices charged for their Musigny. Some of this is the awful dollar. It's hovering at about 1.5 to the Euro now, and that makes it very hard. But there are ways to drink these wines. I remember teaming up with seven or eight people and going in together on a great bottle so that we could all taste it (but good luck reconvening those 8 people after the 15 years it takes to properly age that wine - ed.).
PW: Do you realize that these people make maybe 3% profit? Mugnier cannot afford to drink his own Musigny.
BG: That is absurd. So are there still undiscovered producers in Burgundy?
BW: Of course there are! Kids come home and their parents used to sell to the négoce, but they want to make wine under their own label. Brothers and sisters inherit vines and begin to produce wine, things like that.
PW: Do you know how we select who we're going to represent? We eat lunch every day with our staff and we drink wine. If we're moved by the wine then we go to meet the people to see if we want to work with them. Our business is very personal and we have to want to work with the people we represent. We literally do not sell what we do not drink ourselves - the lowest wines too, from Bourgognes to0, We happily drink everything that we sell.
Stay tuned for the final installment of a conversation with Becky and Peter Wasserman...