Take care of the pennies, they say, and the pounds will take care of themselves. Well, not when it comes to wine.
Down at the bottom of the wine lists, it seems that every bottle is now priced at something +99p. From the murky depths where CJ unearths bottles for £3.99, to the wines for £10.99 and more which I find up at the snorkelling level. And I’m forced to wonder why, in this age of electronic payment, the handing back of a penny in change persists – and whether I would feel better about my wine given a tiny, one penny rise in the price of a bottle, in order to round the prices up.
Some people assume that the reason for such prices is psychological; that we read from left to right, encounter the pounds figure first, and have registered the fact that it’s, say, £7 + something, before we recalculate for the fact that the “something” is actually 99p. In our minds, we still think it’s essentially a £7 bottle, not an £8 one.
But in fact, the origin of such pricing lay in forcing sales assistants to put cash from customers through the tills. By requiring staff to give change on every cash sale, it meant that they had to open the till, recording the transaction, and thereby reducing the opportunities for simply pocketing the customers’ banknotes.
If I had a penny for every time someone had told me that, I’d have…well, I’d certainly have a penny.
Take care of the pennies? Personally, I don’t want to take care of very many of them. A pocketful of pennies won’t even buy you a newspaper; it will just spoil the line and damage the pockets of your suit. And sometimes you can’t even give them away. I saw a chap once try to bestow a handful upon a Mancunian, but the latter was more interested in taking a corner kick at the time.
Be all that as it may; my concern here is with the pennies in the prices of wine.
Take a posh London wine merchant like Uncorked. Some time ago, I mocked the fact that they were selling a bottle of La Mission Haut Brion for £600.01. I just loved the idea of a City boy thumbing his wad, handing over a dozen £50 notes, and then scrabbling in his pockets for an additional penny. They did apologise, saying it was a computerised price rise error; but the same merchants are currently selling a magnum of Bollinger Rosé NV for £99.99.
Now let’s be honest. If you handed over a brace of fifties for a bottle of Bolly, and got a penny back in change, would you exit the store, whistling gaily at your financial acumen? I think not.
In fact, I think exactly the opposite – you want to feel, and indeed would probably say to anyone who asked, that this was A Hundred Pound Bottle of Champagne.
There seems to be a point, in most merchants’ lists, at which prices switch, from .95 or .99, to round pounds. That point will differ from merchant to merchant – but that is often also the point, for them and for me, at which wine becomes Fine Wine.
At Majestic, for example, it seems to be £20. Below that, prices range from £4.99 to £19.99; then suddenly, magically, it’s £22, £25 etc. And it works, on susceptible types like me. Immediately, it’s as if the wines have moved out of the bargains, and into a better class.
Because small change has always been a bit…low rent. At the gentlemen’s club Boodle’s until quite recently they used to boil the coins given in change; silver used to be regarded as a notoriously unhygienic metal, due to its more frequent contact with the lower classes. Silver could not be considered as correct tender from one gentleman to another. And supposedly a vestige of this survives when a shop assistant, apologising for giving you change, says “Sorry it’s all silver…”
But St James’s isn’t what it was. Berry Brothers & Rudd, my benchmark for wine poshness, don’t bother with pennies; their wines are priced to the nearest 5p; £7.95 rather than £7.99. But that goes right up to a bottle of L’Ermita 2006, at £427.90. Don’t forget to pick up that 10p change, will you?
And then, insanely, they ask for a few paltry pennies on top of their case prices. So twelve bottles of, say, Calon-Ségur 1996, is £1064.16. That’s well over a thousand pounds… plus 16p.
And right at the very, very top of their list, they have a case of 6 magnums of La Tâche 1971. £25,000 a bottle (yes CJ, that's twenty-five thousand pounds), a very gentlemanly sum – but, for the case of 6, it’s £134,307…and 36p.
Where is the sophistication in spending the price of a small house on wine, and then quibbling about 36p? A bag of crisps with your drink, sir?
But we no longer live in a gentlemanly age. Wine prices, with their percentages of Duty, VAT and margin, are presumably calculated by computer, resulting in the absurdities above. And we invariably pay by card, where tapping in four digits, be they 1499 or 1500, has none of the physical aspects of coins versus notes.
Nevertheless, I would feel less of a bargain hunter, and more of a gentleman, if that single penny were added to the price of a bottle. A fifteen pound bottle of claret has more ring to it than one at £14.99. Whether or not it tastes like a Fine Wine, it feels more like one.
I would like A Hundred Pound Bottle of Champagne, please.
And not a penny less.