Why does wine cost so much?
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
A thousand dollars for a bottle of wine that won't even be in a bottle
for another year; $53,273 for a case of that same wine from 1978; $156,450 for
a 200-year-old Bordeaux that has long since turned to vinegar.
Whether it's these absurd futures and auction prices for wines you and I will
never even see, or an "everyday" $10 cabernet sauvignon that suddenly costs $35
at the store, there's no question that wine prices are out of control. You
simply cannot buy the best Bordeaux for less than three figures. Burgundy,
Barolo, and Barbaresco (what is it with the letter B?) are rarely
drinkable under $25. Top California cabernet sauvignon and
prepared to drop $30 to $50.
Why are prices so high? Many reasons. First among them is a rampant,
speculative consumerism among the new rich of America and Asia, who have turned
top wines into commodities to be bought and sold like stocks. Many of these
trophy hunters don't even like wine, but their aggressive pursuit of
wines that rate highly in The Wine Spectator or in Robert Parker's
monthly newsletter The Wine Advocate means that those of us who do are
quickly priced out of the game.
It's not all speculation, of course. Some wines, like
Champagne or Eiswein,
are just inherently expensive to produce. And specialized, boutique wineries
that produce limited quantities of high-quality wine need to charge more to
stay financially afloat.
Finally, there are fads. Mediocre American merlot now sells for $30 on up;
five years ago, this happened to
and five years from now, it'll
happen to syrah. And sometimes it's pure manipulation: wineries hype their
products far beyond their ability to meet the demand. This technique is so
successful that even wines produced in large quantities -- like vintage port
and red Bordeaux -- are released a batch at a time, with the price of each
successive release higher than the last.
So is the wine market going to keep getting worse for the average consumer?
Probably. In much of France, Germany, and Italy, the classic names in wine are
already produced at peak capacity. There will never be more Domaine de la
Romanée-Conti La Tâche than there is right now, yet the worldwide
demand for it increases unabated. The highest bidder will, unfortunately,
always get this wine.
In the search for more reasonably priced wine, many people have turned to
Chile, Argentina, Greece,
and other countries. But producers in those countries are already
catching on to the pricing game (the best young wine I had in the past year was
the 1994 Téofilo Reyes from Spain, for which I paid $30 -- not
debilitatingly expensive, but not exactly cheap, either).
Anyway, the search for bargains and stand-ins misses an essential fact: there
is no substitute for the greatest Barolo, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and so on.
I didn't used to believe it either, but the first time Château Latour hit
my lips, I was transported to an entirely new world of wine appreciation. Sure,
California makes good chardonnay,
but it is brutally outclassed by
Corton-Charlemagne from a good producer
Although there are pretenders
and impostors, most of the world's legendary wines are legendary for good
So how do us regular types get to taste this stuff? Aside from inheriting a
fortune, there are only two ways that I know of. The first is the easiest:
and wine dinners whenever possible. The second requires
accepting this idea: some things are worth the price. I'm not suggesting that
we all go out and blow $150 on a Gaja Barbaresco every week, but I am
suggesting that we should occasionally be willing to stretch our personal
spending limits. Rather than spending $50 for five bottles of decent wine, why
not spend $50 on one really great wine?
Here are a few higher-priced wines worth the splurge.
1979 Le Colline Gattinara Monsecco ($28.49 at Martignetti's). Like
Barolo and Barbaresco, this Italian red is made from nebbiolo grapes.
Overwhelming nose of truffles, soil, baked fruit, wet cedar, fresh leather, and
mint. Still fairly tannic,
but bright, juicy red cherries and cranberries shine
through the sharpness. Decant it carefully (there's lots of sediment), and let
it air out for at least two hours before serving it with a really flavorful
hunk of roast beef.
1986 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Volnay Santenots-du-Milieu ($31.75 at
Brookline Liquor Mart). A fully mature red Burgundy, with leathery game, smoke,
strawberry, and cherry scents that set up a lovely, smooth red-berry palate.
The restrained elegance continues through a long finish. Also needs decanting;
serve it with veal or duck in a cream sauce.
1981 Château Rieussec ($50 at BLM). This wine is liquid
gold; a creamy, lush, almost unbearably delicious
dessert wine from France's
famed Sauternes appellation. Constantly changing honeyed peach, orange,
caramel, apple, and buttered lemon flavors continue through the nearly endless
finish. Give it a very slight chill, and serve it alone at the end of a meal.
One of the best ways to drink expensive wine without winning the lottery is to
form a tasting group with wine-curious friends. Here's how it works: each
member of the group purchases a bottle of wine and brings it to someone's house
-- or a restaurant that allows BYO -- where they are tasted and compared by
all. Usually, serving the wines "blind" (i.e., with their labels masked) leads
to more honest evaluations of well-known wines, but this is not a requirement.
In this way, $50 spent on a single bottle can turn into an opportunity to taste
$250, $500, or even $1000 worth of wine. And that is a little like
winning the lottery.
Thor Iverson can be reached at email@example.com.
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