What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Fine Wine’?

What do we mean when we say fine wine
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When Justin Pass talks to prospective buyers about Sera Luce, his ready-to-drink canned spritz company, he often mentions his background in fine wine.

“It lends credibility to the brand,” says the former Winebow sales representative. “Working in fine wine means you’re learning about the way wine is made around the world, what the growing practices are, what the soils are and all these nuances that go into a quality wine.”

Whether everyone who hears the term shares those connotations is almost beside the point. As with so many aspects of wine, fineness is in the mind of the beholder. Like natural, fresh or even farm-raised, there’s no official definition or regulation that permits some wines to be deemed fine while others languish unmodified.

This vagueness gives the term widespread application. Importers, distributors, retailers and hospitality professionals like Pass call themselves fine wine specialists. Investment company Cult Wines describes its mission as “transforming the fine wine industry,” and a quarterly luxury lifestyle magazine, The World of Fine Wine, has subscribers in 30 countries.

What do we mean when we say fine wine
Justin Gibbs, Liv-ex / Photo via Liv-ex

But what exactly do we mean when we say fine wine? Do we use the term to describe something materially different about certain wines versus others? Is the term even about wine, or about the perceived status of some bottles and the people who pursue them?

“People don’t define fine wine,” says Justin Gibbs, cofounder and director of Liv-ex, a global wine marketplace. “It defines itself by having an active secondary market.” For Liv-ex’s purposes, a fine wine has resale value, improves over time and has brand recognition due to heritage, critical acclaim or some combination thereof.

Scarcity can be part of this equation, too, Gibbs says, elevating the desirability of specific houses, brands and vintages.

Other wine professionals associate viticultural and winemaking practices with the term.

“I define fine wine as anything that is made with passion and attentiveness,” says Jermaine Stone, founder of Cru Luv Selections, host of Wine & Hip Hop and a 2020 Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 Tastemaker. “I think about single vineyard wines or grower Champagnes. When the winemaker is taking a bit more attentiveness and care, to me, that’s fine wine.”

Demeine Estates, a Napa-based importer and wholesaler of what the website calls “the world’s finest wines,” has a similar take.

“Fine wine is a quality descriptor,” says Scott Diaz, senior vice president of global brand strategy and marketing, Demeine Estates. “We define fine wine as a category that represents the highest quality producers from their respective regions. These are the producers that have implemented the highest level of winemaking and viticultural standards that align with producers from other great global regions. These are wineries that value uncompromised quality above any commercial demand for quantity.”

What do we mean when we say fine wine
Jermaine Stone, Cru Luv Selections, Wine & Hip Hop / Photo by Head Make Book Productions

That said, Stone and Diaz are wine experts who have the time, experience and inclination to understand agricultural science and production practices. How should a consumer know what differentiates fine wines from the rest of the bottles at their local shop or bar?

“It depends on how knowledgeable or educated they are about wine,” says Deniece Bourne, an account development manager at Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Some people might consider fine wine to be exclusive to Old World regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy. Others might say anything less than Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wouldn’t qualify. Bourne believes fine wine can come from anywhere, though, and cites English sparkling wines as “some of the finest” she’s tasted.

“Fine wine is about a perception,” says Bourne. “With globalization, and increased information about and access to different styles, the definition of fine wine is changing. There’s more education and access to the internet, it’s easier for people to travel and have experiences at vineyards. All of that has changed the perception.”

This evolution can occur on an individual level, too.

“When you truly get into the weeds of wine, you start to understand that what’s truly important is your taste,” says Stone. “Something as ambiguous as a term like fine wine, it’s impossible to define because it’s very personal.”

What do we mean when we say fine wine
Deniece Bourne, WSET / Photo by Dominique Bennett

Stone suspects that many consumers associate fine wine with price, assuming that expensive bottles are more likely to be finer than others. This, too, presents a minefield of subjectivity.

“Generally, Burgundy is more expensive than German Riesling, but maybe I like German Riesling more than I like Chardonnay,” says Stone. “So maybe you’re giving me a taste of a $100 Burgundy, but I like my $12 Riesling more.” Who’s to say that Burgundy is any finer than German Riesling, especially if the person footing the bill prefers the latter?

Like natural, fresh or even farm-raised, there’s no official definition or regulation that permits some wines to be deemed fine while others languish unmodified.

Affordability is not a universal concept, either. If you typically spend $15 per bottle, you might figure a $35 bottle is the finest around. If your wine budget starts at $50 a bottle, the calculus changes.

“Back in the day, you couldn’t have told me that when I was spending $20 on a bottle that I wasn’t drinking fine wine,” says Stone. “It was totally fine. I mean, it was totally fine with me.”

Besides, cost and value are not necessarily identical and are always in flux.

“Was it Warren Buffett who said price is what you pay, value is what you get?” asks Gibbs. “They’re two very different things.” Again, Gibbs refers to the secondary market value of a wine, which is set by buyers and sellers.

“Often the buyer and seller set the price and I think, ‘You must be joking, surely there’s no value in that,’ ” he says. “But, on the basis the market is always right, the market is always right. What the market is prepared to pay, the market is prepared to pay.”

What do we mean when we say fine wine
Scott Diaz, Demeine Estates / Photo by Hardy Wilson

In that case, whatever you deem to be fine, is. Wine is a large enough category for any subsector to encompass a range.

“The industry is so expansive that someone at a natural wine bar serving up less expensive small-production skin-contact wines would certainly think of fine wine differently than someone with an expansive Burgundy list serving up bottles regularly over $300,” says Ramon Manglano, sommelier at The Musket Room in New York City. “Are either of them wrong? No, and honestly, they probably see both sides of the coin.”

If we all agree that there is no one way to define fine wine, why does the term persist? Is it marketing copy writ large? Or is the very notion of fine wine an affectation, the textual equivalent of Niles and Frasier Crane swirling Sherry and scoffing at their displaced dad’s beloved recliner?

Perhaps it’s less sinister. The notion of fine wine could endure because it provides a framework to decipher the Talmudic complexities of wine, with its opaque labels, multilingual terminology, and competing national and regional classification systems. Even if it’s a personal, highly subjective framework. Or, especially because it’s a personal, highly subjective framework.

“With wine, like anything else, the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know,” says Pass, the Winebow rep-turned-canned spritz founder.

Wine is a big topic with a lot of rules. Sometimes, it’s nice to get to make your own.

Published on December 8, 2021
Topics: Wine Culture