What are de-branded Wines Worth


# **What are de-branded wines worth?** **Richard considers what makes wine truly valuable.** ‘Psssst! You like the good stuff? Got some 100-pointers here. Excess stock, guv’nor – can’t tell you who made it, but let’s just say this little Napa Cab is Seeming Legal, know what I mean?’  Everybody loves a bargain, and the thought of getting top-shelf bottles at a fraction of the price should be irresistible to wine lovers. Such offers are reasonably easy to come by, and – despite the dodgy sales patter above – are very often genuinely great wines made by venerated producers. Here in Singapore – where big brands wield influence like deities – a new operation is bringing private-label wine to a mostly word-of-mouth audience. But do these bottles retain value in spite of their anonymity, or have they been stripped of the very thing that gives them true worth? **Privacy please** First, let’s define two different types of private-label wine. The most common is the buyers’ own brand, which has become a staple feature of retailers around the world, for everyone from **[Shake Shack to Costco](https://daily.sevenfifty.com/private-label-wines-a-peek-behind-the-label/)**. These wines are made to a specification decided by the retailer, given a name and a label that often implies a grand château (or sometimes blatantly apes an established brand, as in the devilish example below), while the actual winery remains completely anonymous. subimage1 Many of these wines are perfectly good, and are often good value (as well as offering larger margins for the retailer). They are rarely found in the fine-wine category, however. For that, there is a very different operation: the declassified wine, where a hallowed producer has sold off wine to be under a label that bears no association with them – although, **[as I’ve written before](https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/cleanskins-and-the-placebo-effect)**, identifying the mystery winemaker is often extremely easy. There may be several reasons why producers would want to make such a move. Excess stock is indeed one of them, which is especially relevant in 2020, when the biggest sales channel for many luxury brands – ie restaurants – has been throttled by COVID restrictions. In California, this is exacerbated by the bumper 2018 harvest, whose reds are now being released, and perhaps also by smoke-tainted wines that need to be offloaded (as **[Alder reported on this week](https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/smoke-taint-looms-large-ca)**). Standing by in Asia to help mop up these leftovers is the Modern Wine Group. **Modern Wine Group** MWG co-founder Andreas Birnik, alongside his partners Matt Sutton and Marco ten Vaanholt, has clearly thought a lot about private-label wine. As a veteran tech entrepreneur with a winemaking certificate from UC Davis, he not only loves great wine (especially from California), but has the data-scientist’s urge to modernise how it is sold. ‘We focus on private-label wine, procured from premium wineries under NDAs, and offered to our wine club members at a steep discount compared to the wineries’ branded wine’, says Birnik. Based in Singapore, but with ambitions to expand across Asia and beyond, they started by importing wine from three private-label operations in the US: **[de Négoce](https://www.denegoce.com/)**, **[Claudine Wines](https://www.claudinewines.com/)** and **[Wine Access](https://www.wineaccess.com/)**.  The first of those three was founded by Cameron Hughes, one of the originators of the private-label concept (you can read his fascinating story on **[Alder’s website](https://www.vinography.com/2020/09/cameron-hughes-is-at-it-again)**). After his first, eponymously named venture went bankrupt and was bought by another company, he moved to his new, pre-purchase model, whereby he sources excess wine that he rebrands and sells to customers in advance of bottling. Claudine have a slightly different approach, says Birnik: they ‘specialise in only providing identical wines under their own private label. That is why they often have the score from a renowned wine critic included in the wine description. This is the purest form of a private label – an exactly identical product under a different brand name.’ Similar offers are made by Wine Access, but their website also retails conventionally released wine.  subimage2 Tasting some of the wines from Claudine and Wine Access revealed that there is no doubting the quality that can be found in this category. The best of them display all the concentration and peacockery of the most prestigious Californian wines, especially across Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, with nothing missing – except perhaps the original label. That apparently won’t bother MWG’s target customers, however. Birnik describes two types: ‘first, we have those who buy expensive bottles of wine under original labels. However, they may not feel that every day deserves opening such expensive bottles of wine. To these wine club members, private-label wines offer an opportunity to keep drinking premium wine.’ The second group would ‘rarely if ever spend north of USD 100 [...] to them, private-label wine offers an opportunity to drink wines that are simply much better value'. subimage3 MWG are already developing their own private-label range called Eta, launching with the 2007 Syrah from Santa Ynez Valley pictured above. Their ambitions don’t end there, either. As tech guys, they can’t resist the chance to develop a platform to further enhance how wine drinkers discover bottles, using AI-assisted recommendations rather than what Birnik describes as the ‘curse of averages’ on apps such as Vivino. Algorithmic wine matching has been mooted elsewhere, most recently by **[Sippd](https://sippd.com/)**, and Birnik’s explanation sounds logical: ‘as the algorithm learns more and more about a wine drinker, they get increasingly precise wine recommendations with a view to our members never again having to drink bottles of wine that they do not enjoy'. It sounds like the ideal proposition: buying wine at a fraction of its full price, with the added guarantee that it will suit your tastes. But amid all this tailor-made efficiency, is something being sacrificed? **The human touch** An integral part of wine’s appeal is what is represented by the label. Wine is not a purely hedonic experience, and the emotional baggage carried by a brand makes a vital difference. The divine majesty of **[DRC](https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/burgundy-comes-to-london)**, the war-torn saga of **[Chateau Musar](https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/ch-musar-1998-and-every-vintage-bekaa-valley)**, the family heritage of **[Gaja](https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/gaja-a-family-affair)** … Take, for example, the cult California label Screaming Eagle. Tantalisingly, the majority of every vintage they make is declassified, **[according to our Elaine](https://cluboenologique.com/story/screaming-eagle-the-original-california-cult-wine/)** – yet the value of that brand isn’t simply the combination of grapes and winemaking, it is the label itself that makes the difference: not just the scarcity, but the all-important badge of _authenticity_.   subimage4 This instinct might be deeply flawed, but it is entirely natural. When wine becomes de-branded, and matched to your tastes by mathematics, it risks losing all the cultural associations that make it so valuable, stripping away the all-important human touch. Or does it? Perhaps, for some drinkers, this is precisely the problem with the world of wine: pretension, vanity and exploitative pricing. Instead, perhaps wine should be judged purely on its intrinsic taste – as Birnik points out, ‘drinking private-label wine is in many ways the ultimate form of blind tasting'. In this case, if there’s a way of buying the finest wines at knockdown prices, then you’d be mad to pay more – which is precisely what the Modern Wine Group are banking on. _MWG's customer-facing website can be found at **[Modern Wine Club](https://modernwineclub.com/)**._