I was drinking wine with a couple of friends last weekend and mentioned that they would enjoy the sparkling wine. One of them took a sip and said, yes, that was pretty good. But it doesn't taste like one of your $10 wines, she said. (Now I know how actors feel when they get stereotyped.)
The wine, of course, was not $10. It was Ruinart, perhaps my favorite bubbly and not cheap at all at $70. And, to add insult to injury to my reputation, the other bottle of wine that night was Domaine Borgeot Puligny-Montrachet Les Charmes 1999, which cost around $65.
Which raises the question: Is there something to these wines that makes them worth that much money? The answer is yes, but the point is not how much they cost, but what they deliver.
Regular visitors here know that I believe in cheap wine so much that I don't even think that it's an insult to call it cheap. The difference is not about price, but about quality. Expensive wines can be poorly made just as easily as inexpensive wines.
The other key is the price-quality ratio. Does the wine offer fair, or even better, quality for that price? I'd argue that more cheap wines do, if only because they're priced more fairly. Inexpensive wine producers aren't trying to sell their product to people who aren't so much interested in drinking the wine as showing it off: "You'd better be impressed because I paid $100 for this wine." One reason I don't do scores and don't like scores is because they justify those kinds of high prices. When someone sees a 92 on a $70 bottle, it's considered a reason to buy it. Instead, they should be asking: "Why did a $70 bottle of wine only get a 92?"
Inexpensive producers, on the other hand, are trying to sell wine to people who want to drink it, and that's a big difference. Someone who pays $70 for a 92 wine and doesn't like it may be too embarrassed to mention that, stuck in an Emperor's New Clothes Moment. Those of us who don't like a certain $10 wine have no qualms about saying we didn't like it. And some of the most heated wine discussions I have had have been over $10 wines.
The other thing about expensive wine is that it should be a treat, something that you don't drink every day. Yes, that may be curmudgeonly, but it's also practical. Forget the cost for a minute (if that's possible, which it isn't), and look at it this this way: No matter how much I love Ruinart, I'd grow tired of it if I had it more than a couple of times a year on special occasions.
So why are the Ruinart and the Borgeot Les Charmes worth their price? I've written about the former before, so just let me add this: It can change preconceived notions about champagne. My pal John Bratcher, who does Two Wine Guys with me and knows a thing or two about wine, couldn't believe how delicate and graceful the Ruinart was.
The Borgeot, a chardonnay, was equally impressive. Les Charmes is a premier cru vineyard (which means its fruit is good but not of grand cru quality). Puligny is my favorite part of Burgundy because it produces classy, sophisticated wines that are not overwhelming, which is not as easy to do as it sounds. The winemakers and negociants who do Puligny also understand the role of oak in a way that no one in California ever will; that is, it's there as part of the wine, not as the wine's reason for being.
The Borgeot, though nine years old, was still bright, with crisp green apple fruit on the front and a bit of oak on the back (sort of the way the flavor of creme caramel lingers in your mouth after you swallow it). This alone almost made it worth the price, because that sort of combination doesn't happen very often. But the wine also worked as part of the meal (chicken with saffron rice), not only complementing the food but adding something to it. That happens even less often.
This Borgeot wasn't quite as rich and fatty as some Puligny's I've had, and I'm not sure if this was a vintage difference or if the wine will pick up that richness as it ages. But it wasn't a drawback.
Will I drink these wines again this weekend? Of course not. I got the last bottle of that Borgeot in Dallas, for one thing. But I don't want to. This once was enough, until I have another reason to find $70 wines that offer the same kind of value. Until then, I have my $10 wine, and that's more than good enough.