My wine life has been good. Great, even. Under the guise of professional responsibilities, I’ve tasted cabernets that cost an average monthly salary. I’ve been invited into cold Burgundy cellars to sample wines that could finance a new car.
Such moments give readers daydreams and have afforded a great sentimental education: I have tasted enough of the world’s best wines to have a deep understanding of why people consider them exceptional. Yet over the past year or two, I’ve come to an awkward conclusion: Yes, those wines are great. But I can live without them.
It’s not just me. Many former customers of classic wines have been chased off by price, and all those newly minted millennial wine drinkers will know most of the world’s legacy “great wines” simply as distant names.
This is a sea change. A generation ago, a top Bordeaux or Burgundy was an affordable luxury, available to the middle class. The same was true of great wines from California and Italy. But rapid price inflation over the past two decades has squeezed many of us out of the game.
So, yeah, the usual culprits: 1-percenters and all that. But it’s more that the best wines filled a need to provide status symbols for the upwardly mobile, not just here but in new markets, such as China. And there’s both a finite supply of great wines (you can’t just dig up an untapped vein of Musigny) and limited opportunities to canonize new ones. So great wines shifted from modest luxuries to immodest ones. They’re at the heart of a secondary auction market, thriving again even after the body blow suffered by a flashy new breed of collectors from the early 2000s, hit by the sort of fraud embodied by scammer Rudy Kurniawan in the recent documentary “Sour Grapes.”
And yet the rise of wine’s crazy economics has gone largely unmentioned, perhaps because so much wine is considered effete to begin with. A $1,000 date night might draw flak, but there’s barely a peep when, say, a wine such as Domaine Roulot’s Meursault-Charmes hits $300, jumping sixfold from its mid-1990s prices. Even a wine from a less-hallowed spot nearby, Hubert Lamy’s Saint-Aubin En Remilly, costs nearly $80, up from $22 (or $34 in 2016 dollars) over the same time period.
Something else is happening. The obsession with a thin tranche of the best wines has thrown shade on the wine reality the rest of us live in. Other wines can be good, even exceptional. But they lack star power. The great, to crib a line from Voltaire, has become the enemy of the good.
So I’ve landed at what I consider the only reasonable response. Give up on great. Drink good instead.
That isn’t to say I’ll turn down a great wine, even a proverbial unicorn wine (someone, please garrotte that term), if I have the chance. But I can’t keep worrying about those moments of reflected glory. I can’t let FOMO — fear of missing out — dictate my life. It’s like British wine critic Andrew Jefford, who recently acknowledged that “something had changed in my relationship with wine. I didn’t want the best any more.”
How to achieve that? Think of it as a less wonky version of the Billy Beane strategy for baseball that Michael Lewis documented in “Moneyball.” If you can’t afford great, then get the best out of good.
And, sure, simple numbers can’t always capture the romance of greatness: Is Jayson Werth worth 4.3 Bryce Harpers? Is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s timeless La Tâche worth 46 bottles of a $65 Vosne-Romanée from neighbor Jérome Chezeaux (or 100 bottles of Beaujolais from a brilliant talent like Jean-Louis Dutraive)?
Maybe it is, in that the $3,000 La Tâche offers a rare window into timelessness. But how many of us will ever have the opportunity to taste such great wines? In the words of Andrew Limberg, the wine director at Pineapple and Pearls, “For me, they are worth every penny, even though I don’t have nearly enough of said pennies to afford them.”
That is especially relevant because Washington is a place that has long appreciated classic wines, with a strong tradition of middle-class aficionados stocking their cellars. But today, most of those wines are out of the price range of the average civil servant.
This shift is also visible in the current, reasonable debate over fair value for both dining and drinking out, driven by tasting menus at places such as Shaw Bijou. It lies behind such innovations as Limberg’s all-included beverage pairing at Pineapple and Pearls, which threads well-known regions with emerging ones like Australia’s Adelaide Hills and takes price out of the equation. It has shifted the balance of drinking power, from whale lists like Plume’s to nimble selections at places like Kinship, where wine director Kerstin Mikalbrown taps white Burgundy from outer boroughs like Mâcon-Loché and Saint-Romain. Or at Convivial, where it’s almost impossible to find a wine above $100.
In each case, it is a matter of giving up on impressive in trade for — I’ll borrow a word here from Mikalbrown’s wine list — interesting.
The appeal of these wines can be summed up by one of Lewis’s lines in “Moneyball”: “The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.”
For now, I’ll let inspiration win.
Bonné, a former wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, is a senior editor at Punch and the author of “The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste” (Ten Speed Press, 2013). Wine columnist Dave McIntyre will return next week.