Nothing brings out the inner Calvinist in people quite like the prospect of blowing more than a few dollars on a bottle of wine. Put a hefty price tag on that Washington state Cabernet and it suddenly seems … so decadent. This being New Year's Eve, you may well be battling your conscience over whether or not to purchase a pricey vino. Loosen up. It's the budget-busting season (unless you are among the wine-obsessed, in which case the holidays are usually a time to reflect, in shame, on the budget-busting of the previous 11 months), and, if you're genuinely interested in wine, you occasionally need to dig a little deeper into your pocket.
That's because the more you are willing to pay, the better you're going to drink. A powerful strain of reverse snobbery runs through the wine world; this school of non-thought holds that big-ticket wines are mostly a lot of hype, that the qualitative difference between a $100 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle of wine is negligible, and that anyone who claims otherwise is just drinking the label. There are certainly a fair number of trophy-hunters, people who buy cases of Chateau Latour (a Bordeaux first growth) not because it is good but because it will impress the neighbors. But Latour is good—damn good, actually, and a huge step up from Cabernet-based wines that sell for half the price, let alone a quarter.
If Slatewere to assemble 20 wine pros (critics, sommeliers, importers) and conduct a blind tasting of three Bordeaux wines—the 1998 Cheval Blanc, which sells for around $250 a bottle; the 1998 Pape Clement, which sells for $60; and the 1998 Larose-Trintaudon, which sells for $14—I'd wager my wine collection that the Cheval Blanc would finish first on all 20 score cards, the Pape Clement second, and the Larose-Trintaudon third. Like any market, the wine market is capable of blundering—the 1996 Left Bank Bordeaux, for instance, are probably undervalued relative to other recent vintages—but it generally does an excellent job of identifying the best wines and pricing them accordingly.
This doesn't mean it prices them agreeably. The cost of fine wine has skyrocketed over the last two decades. The reasons for the price surge are obvious. Blue-chip wines are expensive to produce and generally made in small quantities, and as global demand for these wines has increased prices have followed (helped along, to be sure, by price-gouging—but the gouging only works if consumers are willing victims, and more often than not they are). Basically, the number of people with the means and desire to buy, say, the Rousseau Chambertin (one of the greatest grand cru red Burgundies) has exploded, but the Chambertin vineyard hasn't gotten any bigger. Booming demand, finite supply—you do the math.
I can't afford the Rousseau Chambertin, and I've been priced out of many wines that 20 years ago could have been had for a pittance. But the fact that I can't afford these wines doesn't mean they're not worth the money. To be sure, there are some expensive wines I wouldn't purchase even if I had the cash. I've drunk enough Chateau d'Yquem to know that, while I adore it, I don't think it is three times better than Chateau Rieussec, another terrific Sauternes, even though it generally sells for three times the price. On the other hand, if I were a Wall Street heavyweight or hip-hop mogul, I'd certainly make a habit of Haut-Brion, Lafon, Chave, Giacosa, and Romanée-Conti.
To me, the only persuasive argument against costly wines is a slightly picayune one: fear of TCA, or 2, 4, 6 trichloroanisole. TCA is a chemical compound that is harmless to you but lethal to your wine, giving it an off-putting damp cardboard aroma and rendering it lifeless on the palate; when you hear people talking about "corked" wines, this is what they mean, and it is estimated that as many as 5 percent to 10 percent of wines sealed with natural cork are tainted this way. If it is a $10 Côte du Rhône you bought last week, no big deal; you bring it back to the store and exchange it. But if it is a 1986 Ramonet Montrachet that's been sleeping in your basement for 15 years, you're screwed: The wine is undrinkable, and the store that sold it to you—if it is still in business—is not going to refund your money 15 years after the cash register rang.
So, why splurge on wine you really can't afford? The practical answer is that if you are interested in wine and want to understand what turns people like me into eno-fanatics, you need to experience something other than $8 Merlots. To hone an appreciation of wine, you need to taste top-drawer stuff—not every day, not necessarily once a month, but often enough that you develop a sense of just how good wine can get and what distinguishes the princely stuff from the plonk. No doubt, there are drinkers who will never be able to differentiate a Grand-Puy-Lacoste from a Gallo Hearty Burgundy, but there aren't very many people with palates that leaden; even the completely uninitiated can usually recognize a high-quality wine when they taste one.
What makes for such a wine? The telltale signs include a come-hither aroma; complex, harmonious flavors; good bones (polished tannins, pleasant acidity); and a long, satisfying aftertaste. Generally speaking, the higher up the quality (and price) ladder you climb, the more pronounced these characteristics become. There are exceptions: Two of the consistently greatest Rieslings (albeit two very different styles), the Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile, from Alsace, and the JJ Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese, from Germany, both sell for less than $30 a bottle.
In a really mind-blowing wine—the 1990 Romanée-Conti La Tache, for instance—every aroma and flavor is perfectly articulated, yet nothing protrudes. And as good as the parts are, the sum is substantially greater. Smelling the wine, you'll want to throw on a bathing suit, dive in, and drown. As the wine rolls across your tongue, it will seem to expand, the flavors becoming larger and more vibrant. If someone slipped me a glass of the '90 La Tache tomorrow, I would recognize it immediately. Great wines carve their initials on your brain.
But there are also what you might call poetic reasons to enjoy expensive wines. A great wine isn't just edifying; it has a way of bringing life into sharper focus (even as the alcohol content makes the room a little blurrier). If the wine has some age on it, the natural inclination, while nursing a glass, is to think back to where you were when the grapes were being harvested and to reflect on where the intervening years have taken you. There is a reason so much wine-writing is flowery: Wine is not art, but like great art, great wine tends to uncork the emotions. Purple prose is often the result, but many literary giants have waxed lyrical about the fruit of the vine. Drinking an ethereal Burgundy or Bordeaux, you begin to discern the poetic possibilities.