This is a story about a bottle of wine. A very expensive but also very delicious bottle of wine—a wine that so captivated me when I first tasted it that I immediately resolved to taste it again. What followed was an almost two-year odyssey that tested the limits of my resourcefulness and perhaps also exposed the warping effect that wine has had on my brain. In mid-November, at a homey restaurant on the edge of Paris, my perseverance was finally rewarded: For several gently inebriating hours, I shared with my father, just off the plane from New York, a bottle of the hauntingly good 1996 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne, a grand cru white Burgundy. My second experience of the wine reaffirmed my initial judgment: Coche's '96 Corton-Charlemagne is the greatest white wine that I've ever tasted and is destined to go down as one of the greatest white Burgundies ever produced. The cost of the bottle? $700. The pleasure? Why, priceless.
Admittedly, $700 is a lot to shell out on fermented grape juice. (And no, Slate didn't cover the cost.) Although my wine collection is worth considerably more than $700, I've never paid anywhere near that much for a single bottle, and I won't be making a habit of it. But that's a decision dictated purely by financial considerations, not ethical qualms. Sure, it's nuts to spend hundreds of dollars on something you consume and then piss out an hour later. On the other hand, I'm not aware of too many extravagances that can't be challenged on moral grounds, and compared with, say, driving a Hummer or eating foie gras, drinking a $700 bottle of wine is hardly cause for hand-wringing.
That said, I was a bit surprised at how painless it was to hand over my credit card. I figured some postprandial misgivings were inevitable, but I didn't feel even the slightest pang of imbiber's remorse. To my (twisted) thinking, the wine was actually a bargain—a steal, even. The '96 Coche Corton-Charlemagne currently sells for between $1,500 and $3,500 per bottle at retail and auction. For me, the choice wasn't between having the wine or not having it (for the wine obsessed, taking a pass is never an option); the choice was between spending $700 for it or double, triple, or even quadruple that. Thus, as I saw it, not only did I have one of the best wine experiences of my life, I got a hell of a deal in the process. I drove back into the center of Paris that afternoon feeling not just giddy, but savvy, too.
My quest began on a Saturday night in March 2005. I was attending La Paulée de New York, a biannual bacchanal modeled after the annual post-harvest celebration in the Burgundian village of Meursault. Several hundred people take part, and in addition to a handful of "official" wines, attendees are expected to bring their own Burgundies and to share them with their tablemates. This being New York, and Burgundy being a rich man's game, the wines—and generosity—are incredible.
As I sat there sipping Romanée-Contis and Ramonets and silently suggesting to God that this would be a fine moment to take me if an early exit was the plan, I noticed, in front of a tuxedoed gentleman to my left, a bottle bearing a striking gold label: It was the 1996 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne. I'd never before seen a bottle of Coche-Dury's Corton-Charlemagne, which was not altogether surprising; Jean-François Coche, who resides in Meursault, produces the wine only in minuscule quantities, and most of the bottles are squirreled away in restaurants and private cellars the moment they are released. Coche is considered by many aficionados to be the finest white-wine maker in Burgundy—some claim the finest white-wine maker period—and his wines are among the most sought-after in the world, none more so than his Corton-Charlemagne, which he has been producing since 1986.
Coche's wines are not universally adored; some people find them too opulent and oaky. And some people find the man a little off-putting. That was my experience when I paid a call on him a few years ago. Although he'd agreed to the appointment, he made it clear that my visit was an imposition. While I got to sample various Meursaults, he didn't offer me a taste of the Corton-Charlemagne, and I, feeling distinctly unwelcome, didn't ask for one.
Now, just inches from my grasping fingers, sat a bottle of Coche's 1996 Corton-Charlemagne, which was already being hailed as his greatest masterpiece. I wasn't going to be shy this time. I gently tapped the tuxedoed gent on the shoulder and asked if I might taste the wine, whereupon he made two mistakes: He said yes, and he handed me the bottle. (I confess, I poured a bit more than the circumstances warranted; whoever you were, I apologize.) Here's the tasting note I wrote:
What a nose—hazelnut, oatmeal, sweet white fruit, smoke, spice, and a touch of nutmeg. Stirring nose. Ripe, spicy, sublime, succulent grapefruit, pear. Perfect balance. Holy shit.
It wasn't a particularly incisive appraisal, but the table was crowded, paper was in short supply, and I already had a pretty nice buzz. Nevertheless, the note gives some indication of the delirium I experienced. The wine was amazing. I hardly tasted it for the first hour or so—I just wanted to smell it. Good as the aromas were, the wine was even better on the palate. I was in awe. Later that night, as the festivities wound down, I grabbed the empty bottle to bring home and add to my wine trophy case (don't ask).
The next night, before going to bed, I picked up the bottle, brought it to my nose, took a whiff, and was thrilled to discover that the aromas were nearly as vibrant, and every bit as seductive, as they had been in the glass. Thus began a quotidian, quasi-pagan ritual: Each night, I would turn off the television, close the shades, pick up the bottle, inhale deeply for several moments, and head up to bed savoring the smell. At a certain point, I realized that the wine had assumed a very powerful hold on me; one thought led to another, and I was soon in front of the computer, Googling for locations and prices.
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