Is expensive wine worth it?
by Thor Iverson
Wine has a lot of image problems. In this country, wine has
often been seen as inaccessible -- a beverage requiring a forbidding amount
or breeding, to appreciate. Beer and hard liquor have been the
drinks of choice for Joe and Jane Average.
for a rundown of wine tastings, dinners, and events.
Thankfully, this is beginning to change. However, what's replacing this
mindset is a more insidious -- and ultimately a more dangerous -- way of
looking at wine.
A few months ago, I took the public tour at Mondavi, in the Napa Valley. It's
a nice tour, and I highly recommend it. But although I was enthusiastic about
the quality of the tour, I was bothered by the behavior of the people taking
it. It's not that anyone was being rude or disruptive; on the contrary, people
were attentive and interested. But what they were most interested in was
"How much does that cost?"
"How much is a wine from that
vineyard?" "How much
more expensive is a wine aged in
"Is the chardonnay more
expensive than the sauvignon blanc?" All in all, I heard 11 questions about
money -- three more than questions about winemaking or grape growing -- during
the one-hour tour. I was horrified.
My angst came not from the fact that people wanted to know how much things
cost -- there's nothing wrong with that -- but from a clear impression that
people on the tour were judging the wine based on its production and retail
costs. In other words, they were giving voice to the belief that the higher the
cost, the higher the quality. Unfortunately, Mondavi was not the only place
I've seen that belief at work.
In a country increasingly thirsty for knowledge about wine, a defeatist
attitude ("wine is too complicated, I'll never figure it out") has been
replaced by the notion that wine knowledge can be bought; that revelation in a
bottle is only a few C-notes away. This is why you see well-funded but
uninformed collectors having their first high-quality glass of wine on Monday,
buying 30 cases of first-growth
on Tuesday, and spending the next 20
years wondering why they don't actually like the stuff.
"Now wait a minute," you might be saying. "Haven't you written more than once
that to get 'great' wine, it's sometimes necessary to
spend more money?" Yes, I
like myself are partly to blame for this phenomenon. Also to
blame are major wine publications that associate wine with all sorts of luxury
items and lifestyles, wine regions
filled with château-like tasting rooms
(where the tiniest sip costs serious money), and restaurant
that triple and quadruple the price of otherwise affordable products.
But there's an important distinction to be drawn here. It is unquestionable
that for certain wines -- top red
Bordeaux, grand cru
small-production California cabernets, Sauternes, late-harvest German
rieslings, and others -- there's a high monetary bar to entry. However, such
specimens make up a very, very small part of the wine universe. And despite the
press and hype they receive (here as much as anywhere), they have very little
to do with the simple joys that wine can bring.
A $350 wine does not necessarily impart 50 times as much knowledge as a $7
wine. It just means you've bought a $350 bottle of wine. And yet, people clamor
for that $350 bottle as if it were the Holy Grail, thinking that if they could
only possess the bottle, they would truly understand wine. Well, they might
. . . but they might not. In terms of wine knowledge, they'd be much
better off buying one or two good books. And 50 $7 bottles will probably bring
more pleasure -- and ultimately more understanding of wine -- than that one
There's much to gain from these so-called trophy wines, but they should never
dominate one's thoughts. After all, moving from
great experience to great
experience is not what wine is all about. Wine is about fermented grapes, but
it's also about pleasure and joy. Wine is about eating well, but it's also
about good fortune and good health. Wine is about complexity and mystery, but
it's also about sharing and friendship. I treasure the memory of the many wines
I've tasted, but I treasure the friendships I've made because of wine
And that is something that can't be bought . . . at any price.
Meanwhile, it's still possible to buy actual wine. In bottles, even. Here are
a few I've enjoyed recently:
1998 Le Pigeoulet en Provence Vin de Pays de Vaucluse ($9.99). A
classic southern French red: smoke, earth, bark, tar, leather, tobacco,
mushroom, black pepper, etc. The kind of wine that you either love or hate; I
thought it was tremendous. It deserves roasted peppers as an accompaniment.
1996 Etchart Cabernet Sauvignon ($10). Cassis and black cherries, with
an earthy, herbal character. Some gritty
tannin, but mostly just fruity. Drink
NV Pierre Sparr Crémant d'Alsace Brut Rosé "Brut
Réserve Pinot Noir" ($15.99). I've been recommending a lot of pink
this year. Here's another one. Floral, creamy, with cranberry and
raspberry flavors and an unmistakable hint of
minerals. Delicious with smoked
1997 Fournier Sancerre "Grand Cuvée" ($19). A strange and
wonderful white wine. Intense mineral
and lime flavors, but dominated by a corn
and yeast character. An oddity, but well worth the price.
Thor Iverson can be reached at email@example.com.
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