Is Greatness Overrated?
Plus: Good Wines, Great Values
Everyone I know drinks good wine. When I made this observation to a friend of mine recently, he was unimpressed. "It's hard not to drink good wine," he replied. "There's so much of it around." And he's right. Thanks to a near-global wine glut and major improvements in viticulture and winemaking technology, good wine is suddenly extremely easy to find.
Great wine is something else altogether. Great wine is produced in small quantities and commands big prices, especially in the much-hyped vintages. Great wine can only be experienced once in a while. But, as great wine only gets more and more expensive and good wine gets cheaper and cheaper, I've been wondering lately if greatness is overrated. Could good wine be good enough?
I don't have the opportunity, or the budget, to drink a lot of great wine, but I do drink good wines nearly all the time. By good, I mean wines that are well-balanced, with fruit in the right proportion to tannins. They have character and personality and taste of a place (I would say terroir, but that's too pricey a word). They're made with care and generally sold without fanfare. They rarely cost more than $40 a bottle, and often much less than that. In fact, I've had good wines for under $15, although according to Dan Posner, a wine merchant in White Plains, New York, they couldn't have been good, not at that price. A good wine costs $20 to $100 a bottle, said Dan. And a great wine? "Over $100," he opined.
I had called Dan to talk about good and great wines, and he replied first in terms of price. So did my friend Kevin Zraly, the famous wine educator, who added "extraordinary" as a third category. Good wine, Kevin said, costs $10 to $25 a bottle. And great wine? "You can get great bottles for under $50, but there aren't very many," Kevin replied. Extraordinary? "They're wines you can't really afford," he replied before hanging up.
The price of a great wine is determined primarily by supply and demand and can fluctuate wildly, sometimes leading to buyer's remorseanother reason I wonder if great wine is really worth chasing. Take, for example, 2005 Bordeaux. After it was touted as the vintage of the century by all the critics, the futures prices of first-growth Bordeaux skyrocketed, a few rising as high as $700 or $800 a bottlethen later came back down to earth as the bottom of the economy dropped out. That's certainly one advantage of a good wine: Its price never rises and falls based on a good vintage or a favorable review.
Jordan Salcito on Burgundy:
And, unlike a great wine, a good one almost never intimidates prospective drinkers. I've had dinner companions refuse a great wine on the grounds that they weren't sufficiently deserving. "Don't serve me a great wine; I won't appreciate it," a friend once said to me. "I won't know how to describe it properly." And yet that same friend wouldn't choose to read an airport paperback over a Jane Austen novel, or opt to look at a poster of Monet's Water Lilies over the real painting at the Museum of Modern Art.
Yet while some people are humbled by great wine, othersgenerally collectorssee it as a symbol of their success. Often, that leads to pretentiousness. I was reminded of this recently during a tour of a cellar belonging to a socially prominent collector who'd invited me to dinner. He watched me intently as I looked at his bottles; if I failed to examine them closely enough, he brought certain labels to my attention. Had I seen his Haut-Brion? His Mouton? His California Cabs from the 1970s? His great wines, he had clearly decided, proved him to be a discerning fellow, though the exercise made me feel more like a claims adjustor than a dinner guest.
For my friend Scott Manlin, a Chicago-based wine collector, great wine is the centerpiece of his social life. For Scott, great wine is a sport, a pastime, a critical component to his happiness, the way that tennis or golf might be for someone else. Perhaps, I thought, in considering the necessity of great wine, I should talk to him.
Scott, who is as nonchalant about hosting impromptu dinner parties as he is about drinking jaw-dropping wines, said he wouldn't just chat with me about great wine, but that he would gather a group of Chicago wine collectors for a roundtable discussion on the topic. By the next day, Scott had planned the menu and lined up eight friends. The dinner would be in a few weeks at his friend Jim Clary's house. "Jim has a much bigger house than I do," he explained. But Scott would do the cooking. In addition to Jim and Jim's wife, Sheila, the group would include collector Wilfred Van Gorp; Phil Walters, the owner of one of Chicago's hottest restaurants, the Bristol; and Kevin Mohalley, the owner of Knightsbridge Wine Shoppe, a tony store in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook. Scott also invited his friend Chris Freemott, whom he called "an enthusiastic amateur."
I decided to contribute two bottles I loved: the 2007 Pierre Usseglio & Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape (around $40) and the 2006 Domaine Huet Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu Sec ($30). Both were good, if not very good, wines. But when I brought them to Scott's house the day of the dinner, he just shook his head. "I'm not taking that," he said, gesturing to my Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He was packing up the wine and food, which included enormous steaks he'd had shipped from Brandt Beef in California. Why not? "I don't want you to embarrass yourself," Scott said. "But they're from excellent producers and very good vintages," I said. Scott still refused. But he did grab the Huet. "This will be good cooking wine," he said.
When I arrived at Jim's house that night, I found Scott in the kitchen stirring white wine into risotto. It wasn't my Huet but a white Burgundy1998 Domaine Leroy Chassagne Montrachet. Even the cooking wine at Jim's house was from a great producer. Phil handed me a glass of the wine he'd brought, the 2002 F.X. Pichler Smaragd Dürnsteiner Kellerberg Grüner Veltliner from Austria. It was bright and lively, with a penetrating minerality. "Pichler is a great producer," I offered. Phil agreed but added, "These guys don't drink Austrian wines. For them, it's Burgundy or Bordeaux." Phil had thought about bringing a Pinot Gris from Alois Kracher, the late, great Austrian winemaker, saying, "The wine screams terroir for $16 a bottle." Why didn't he bring it? Phil shrugged. "Not in this crowd."
A few minutes later, I saw what he meant. Every wine on the table was unquestionably great, by both pedigree and price tag. There was a rare white Rhône, the 2004 M. Chapoutier L'Ermite, and a bottle of 1978 Remoissenet Père & Fils Richebourg. There were grand cru Burgundies from two top producers (the 2001 Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier Musigny and the 2001 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue Bonnes-Mares), and even Chris, the amateur, had ponied up a 2003 Château Lafite. Plus, there was a 1989 Haut-Brion and a 1990 Cheval Blanc, two of the greatest modern Bordeaux. And then, having decided that we needed a non-French wine, Jim went down to his cellar and came up with a bottle of 2001 Screaming Eagle, the cultiest Napa Cabernet of them all.
Somehow, in the midst of all of this, my Huet appeared. "This wine is delicious," said Jim. "It has a refreshing minerality," offered Sheila. "It's very nice," said Wilfred. "I often recommend Huet to my customers for Thanksgiving," Kevin said. "It's a nice wine for a crowd." There wasn't much more to say about a wine that was appealing mainly because it's easy to drink in large quantities. A good wine, even a very good wine, I realized, was rendered inadequate in the company of greatness. I half-wished Scott had used it in the risotto instead.
But the group's attention had returned to the other wines, and a heated discussion of their respective merits was underway. The Mugnier was delicious but "a little too young," while the Bonnes-Mares was decried as a "California-style" Burgundy. The 1989 Haut-Brion, a legendary 100-point wine, was just a tad less glorious than the glorious Cheval Blanc. Ditto the too-young Lafite and the Screaming Eagle, which was very nice but "very Californian." Jim took umbrage at this: "There are great wines made in California. You read the wine discussion boards on the web, and it's like people want you to be ashamed of liking California wines," he said.
Looking at my discarded bottle of Huetthe cheapest wine on the table, and probably the cheapest that had ever been in Jim's houseI realized that my good wine wasn't good enough.
When I returned home from Chicago with my still-unopened Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I decided to hold my own dinner party and share the wine with a couple of friends, Louisa and Anne, who know a lot about wine, both great and good. Maybe in their company, the good wine would be good enough. We began with a Slovenian white, made from the obscure Sämling 88 grape. It had a nice floral nose and appealing minerality; although there wasn't much of a finish, it was very good, we agreed. Then it was time to open the Usseglio. I felt unaccountably nervous.
The wine was very good. Solidly made, with dense, ripe fruit, it was a bit young but thoroughly enjoyable. We drank it, commented on it and soon forgot about it. We didn't discuss it, we didn't debate it. It didn't intimidate us, and we didn't worry about the words we used to describe it, but it didn't give us much to talk about either. It didn't require much tasting experience or knowledge to appreciate, nor, for that matter, very much cash.
Did that mean it was good enough? I guess I'd say it was, but having just had so many extraordinary wines with Scott and his friends, I realized I would have no context for good wine were it not for great wine. As Monet famously said, "I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers." For me, good wine gives me pleasure, but great wine gives me...inspiration.