One thousand five hundred and ninety-two dollars and ninety-two cents of wine sits on a bar in front of me. I don't get to drink all of it (thank god), but at an ounce and a half per taste, I know I'm going to leave happy and with crimson-stained teeth, as seven of the eight are the reddest of reds.
I'm fortunate to be at a proclaimed "Stunning Rhones (and One Chardonnay)" tasting presented by the Winehound in Santa Barbara with fourteen other people willing to fork over $95 to sample 772 points of wine. That's an average of 96.5 points (as awarded by Wine Advocate) per bottle, the kind of wine writers' praise that would lead to some "My Honor Student Wine Kicked Your Plonk's Tuchas" bumper stickers. It was a terrific opportunity to learn a host of things, like, "How much should a good wine cost?" and "How different are French and Californian expressions of syrah-based blends?" and "If you can get the teacher's prize pupil's product for a third of the price, should you?"
If you want the short answers to the above three questions, they are: "Not that much;" "Huge, as in huge;" and "Yes, indeed." But let me explain.
Obviously, like any thing priced via market, wine costs what people will pay for it. So there are people who know Marcassin is as much a cult of chardonnay as California has; that Domaine du Pegau 2010 Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee da Capo is only made in the best vintages, costs $500 a bottle, got a 100 score from Wine Advocate; that Manfred Krankl, once manager of Campanile and co-owner (and seller) of La Brea Bread, is the magnificent mind making Sine Qua Non, sought after by only the most discriminating wine collectors. This knowledge comes at a price, if you want to drink the wines, and all of them are fabulous indeed.
But when does fabulous become fantabulous? I will easily admit chardonnay isn't my preferred grape, but the Marcassin, while simply smelling sophisticated, and definitely more layered and long-lasting than most, didn't seem eight times better than, say, a 2009 Dehlinger chardonnay, despite costing eight times the price. As for the Domaine du Pegau, we were drinking a baby as it's supposed to have a 30-year bottle life at minimum, and it was rich and rare, the kind of wine you can feel arrange the taste buds on your tongue so you can taste it optimally, but $500? That's ten bottles of $50 wine, which already seems a splurge, and I can think of a lot of those I'd love to drink. So, I guess it's between you and your broker. (I don't have one.)
It was also striking that you had to turn the tasting notes to page two to get to the California versions of the generally syrah-based reds. While the French versions offered senses of real bramble, what the Wine Advocate mysteriously labeled "assorted background meatiness" (which sorts, how far in the background, of what meats?), and "forest floor," about which my fellow tasters had a fine time discussing (which forest, and who has been on its floor? "a delicious deciduousness with the slightest hint of sun-toasted shrew droppings..."), the California wines were just, well, BIG. Not just in alcohol, which tended to be masked by all the fruit flavor anyway, but in the way in the 1936 Borzage film Desire when the playing-a-European John Halliday says to Gary Cooper: "America is a big country," and Cooper leans in and says, "Six foot three." We get more sun here. Grapes get riper. End of story.
For instance the Alban 2008 Syrah Reva, Edna Valley, at a "mere" $110 a bottle, lived up to its legend, one of those ever-good wines like Hank Aaron's career of ever-brilliant years. Silky red cherry goodness and a sense of completeness you rarely get from a wine. Stephen Tanzer began his review as if he'd wandered into a blue light district, "Sexy smoke- and spice-accented aromas of candied black and blue fruits and potpourri." Winemaker John Alban deserves all the kudos he earns, and he's kept his wine at a merely crazy expensive, not ridiculously expensive price point to boot.
Then there's the teacher-student issue with Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non and his former assistant winemaker Maggie Harrison, now at Lillian (and Antica Terra). The Sine Qua Non 2011 Syrah Dark Blossom tastes almost of roasted fruit, it's so complex and rich. But at $280 is it better than the $94 Lillian 2010 Syrah, California, generally labeled as it has the honor of being composed from grapes from some of the best syrah vineyards in Santa Barbara - White Hawk, Stolpman, and Bien Nacido? Not if you like spicy, a bit smoky syrahs.
Ultimately a tasting like this one helps you reset your palate, and while you may never buy one of these wines, it's valuable to know what wine reviewers think are 100 point bottles, just to set your own calculus. And realize how much of greatness is in desire, scarcity, brilliant marketing, and being just enough better to make that seem like much much more.