The Boston Phoenix
October 7 - 14, 1999

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Money trouble

Is expensive wine worth it?

by Thor Iverson

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Wine has a lot of image problems. In this country, wine has often been seen as inaccessible -- a beverage requiring a forbidding amount of knowledge, or breeding, to appreciate. Beer and hard liquor have been the drinks of choice for Joe and Jane Average.

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 money.

"How much does that cost?" "How much is a wine from that vineyard?" "How much more expensive is a wine aged in barrique?" "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thirsty for knowledge about wine, a defeatist attitude ("wine is too complicated, I'll never figure it out") has been replaced by the notion that wine knowledge can be bought; that revelation in a bottle is only a few C-notes away.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 Bordeaux 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 have. Writers 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 wine lists 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 Burgundy, 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 bottle.

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 even more.

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 soon.

NV Pierre Sparr Crémant d'Alsace Brut Rosé "Brut Réserve Pinot Noir" ($15.99). I've been recommending a lot of pink sparklers this year. Here's another one. Floral, creamy, with cranberry and raspberry flavors and an unmistakable hint of minerals. Delicious with smoked salmon.

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 wine@phx.com.


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