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The $1,000 Wine Challenge

F&W’s Lettie Teague loves nothing more than a wine bargain. So when she gets $1,000 for a spending spree, she finds herself flummoxed—and searching for advice.

Although I don’t play the lottery very often, I do buy a ticket every now and again. For example, when the Mega Millions reached $17 million, I invested two dollars. But no one, including me, won anything that week, and maybe it was just as well. Bad luck often befalls lottery winners. In fact, their lives seem to head immediately downhill—like the New Jersey woman who won more than $5 million and ended up living in a trailer soon after that. So when I was recently given a gift of $1,000 to spend on wine, in any way that I chose, I wondered if this windfall might also prove my undoing. Would I lose all sense of proportion and discernment, end up squandering it all on a fake bottle of Pétrus?

When I voiced these fears to my ex-husband, Alan, he was quite skeptical. That sort of money wouldn’t change my life or, for that matter, my wine drinking habits, he said, adding, "One thousand dollars isn’t very much money. I’ve spent that kind of money on wine myself." As a matter of fact, so had I. Just over a year ago, I spent nearly $1,500 at a Sotheby’s auction. It was a special sale of my friend Park B. Smith’s collection, and knowing Park and his exceptional cellar, I wanted to own a few of his wines. So I bought a case of the 1997 M. Chapoutier La Mordorée Côte-Rôtie and one of 1998 Bosquet des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Chante Le Merle Vieilles Vignes.

But I don’t spend this sort of money very often; in fact, I don’t usually spend more than $200 at any one time, with most bottles that I buy costing between $15 and $30. And I usually buy wines to drink right away, not to cellar—like the 2006 Pieropan Soave, the 2005 Domaine Huet Vouvray and some reasonably priced 2005 California Pinot Noirs (Breggo in the Anderson Valley is a new favorite of mine). I also like the lesser wines of the Rhône, especially some 2004 and 2005 wines from Vacqueyras and Gigondas (the 2004 Domaine Saint-Damien Les Souteyrades, at $30 a bottle, is a particularly good buy).

But these wines didn’t seem right for a windfall, since they’re the bottles I would drink anyway. And however modest my "found" money was, I wanted to spend it as extravagantly as I possibly could.

Most of my friends also saw it that way. Indeed, they were anxious to offer advice. If the money were hers, my friend Kathy said, she would buy a bottle of great Champagne. "I like Champagne, but I never get to drink anything great," she lamented. "I’d love to have something really incredible. There must be a big difference between regular and really expensive Champagne."

There is a significant difference between a basic nonvintage Champagne and a tête de cuvée (besides the fancier packaging and much higher price, that is): Top Champagnes are made from grand cru vineyards and produced in only the very best vintages. They also require years to develop and mature, as opposed to nonvintage Champagnes, which are meant for immediate consumption—or, as the famed wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., once said to me, "They should be drunk within 30 minutes of leaving the place where they were made."

But even a great vintage of one of the world’s rarest Champagnes—the 1995 Salon Le Mesnil, a single- vineyard, grand cru, all-Chardonnay wine—costs only about $225 a bottle. If I were to follow Kathy’s advice, I would buy four bottles of Salon—or, because I prefer my Champagne in a magnum (that’s the two-bottle size), I would buy two magnums of Salon. Or maybe I’d buy multiple $150 magnums of the Billecart-Salmon Nonvintage Brut Rosé, my favorite rosé Champagne.

Only one of my friends didn’t believe in spending a windfall in an extravagant way. An intellectual-property attorney whose taste in wine runs to domestic Sauvignon Blanc, this friend said he would buy only cheap wine. But lots of it. "I’d buy as many bottles as possible and give them all to my friends," he said. It was a generous, albeit perplexing, idea; purchasing cases of cheap wine seemed like an odd and certainly an un-lawyer-like gesture. Didn’t lawyers always spend lots of money on wine? Maybe he had more limited funds—or many more friends?

What about the pros? What would they do with $1,000? I put the question to some wine retailers I knew. Nikos Antonakeas, at Morrell & Company in Manhattan, chose a combination of wines for drinking now and cellaring a few years, all made by small, traditional producers. They reflected his "tasting and drinking journey as a wine professional," he said. His picks included a wide range of wines—Champagne and white wine, red wine and dessert wine (Nikos was nothing if not comprehensive)—and they all came in pairs except the dessert wine.

There were two bottles of 1999 Pierre Peters Cuvée Spéciale Champagne at $70 apiece (a favorite small Champagne producer of mine, too), and two whites with the same "now or later" principle in mind. One was the 2004 Boyer-Martenot Meursault Perrières Premier Cru ($75), an excellent wine from a leading producer. The other was from Australia, the 2003 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay ($80), a top Margaret River estate. Both wines had a few years of age, as Nikos believed this gave them greater complexity.

The two reds Nikos chose came from Burgundy and Bordeaux; although born in Greece, Nikos once lived in France and tends to favor French wines. Both were from top vintages and first-rate producers: the 2005 Hospices de Beaune Lucien Le Moine Cuvée Cyrot Pommard ($80) and the 2000 Gracia Saint-Émilion Grand Cru ($150). Nikos was particularly keen on the latter: "It’s a well-balanced, powerful wine that delivers an amazing array of flavors," he said.

His last pick (French, of course) was a dessert wine, 2002 Domaine Huet Cuvée Constance, a sweet Vouvray from my favorite producer in the Loire. "It’s capable of aging as long as a great Sauternes, and is a bargain by comparison at about $180 a bottle," Nikos said.

My local wine retailer, Peter Rockwood of Rockwood & Perry in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, thought I should blow all my money on only one wine—specifically, the 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion. It was a Parker 100-point wine. But that wasn’t the only reason Peter chose it, as he explained in an e-mail: "There are few events that can be arranged for $1,000 that will thrill wine drinkers to the very core… It’s an event that will form an indelible, hedonistic memory that wine drinkers will carry, revisit and enjoy for the rest of their lives." The rest of their lives? That was certainly a big promise. But perhaps Peter was right. Maybe the most memorable way to spend my money would be with one spectacular $1,000 bottle of wine.

A wine auction is not only one of the best places to find such a bottle, it’s also an easy way to spend lots of money in a very short period of time. And as it turned out, there were two promising wine auctions coming up very soon: One was being held by Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. in Chicago, the other by Zachys in New York.

Both auction catalogs would feature many of the same big-money names and many of the same top vintages of Burgundy and Bordeaux (accompanied, as often as not, by similarly gorgeous full-color photographs). I looked for star single bottles and found quite a few, though none, alas, in my price range. There were two magnums of 1975 Dom Pérignon Rosé (estimated price: $1,100 to $1,700) and a magnum of the great (100-point) 1985 Sassicaia, one of the best Super-Tuscans I’ve ever tasted, thanks to my friend The Collector. But the estimate on that bottle was $2,400 to $3,500.

I did find a few affordable options in the Zachys catalog: a case of 1978 Léoville Las Cases (estimate: $700 to $1,000) and nine bottles of 1998 and 2000 Bordeaux from some lesser châteaus (estimate: $550 to $800). But the lot that excited me the most was the one containing six bottles of 2002 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles. This first-rate white Burgundy normally costs about $200 a bottle, and yet the estimate was only $800 to $1,200. Was it a mistake? An oversight? Or possibly a piece of very good luck?

I kept marking catalog pages but began to feel more and more undecided. What was the best wine for my money? What would give me the greatest "hedonistic memory"? Should I bid on the lot that I wanted (Puligny-Montra­chet) or the one that simply seemed like a good buy (Bordeaux)? I decided to seek the advice of two men who buy four-figure bottles the way other men purchase six-packs of beer: my old pal The Collector and Scott Manlin, my Chicago-based friend and frequent traveling companion.

Although I’d known them both for some time (The Collector for nearly two decades, in fact), the two men had never actually met. But with the auctions at hand and my indecisiveness growing, I was anxious to introduce them. Could we all meet in New York for dinner sometime soon, during which time they could give me some wine-auction advice? (Although he lives in Chicago, I knew that Scott would agree: Chicago, to Scott, is like the sixth borough of New York.) Sure enough, I’d barely posed the question before Scott was booking his flight. And of course, he volunteered to bring some wine. The Collector, who lives in suburban New York, offered to bring a few bottles, too.

What wine was Scott bringing? The Collector wanted to know. But I couldn’t tell him; Scott had pledged me to secrecy. "Is he going to bring some Estonian rosé?" The Collector replied rather sarcastically. Scott, meanwhile, had said something quite similar: "Tell The Collector he should bring some bottles of 1947 Cheval Blanc—since he probably bought that wine on release." They were making me nervous. Was this dinner perhaps a bad idea, or was this just some sort of collector trash talk? I made a restaurant reservation for three; I’d find out soon enough.

"You didn’t tell me he was bald, too," were The Collector’s first words, directed toward Scott when we met three weeks later at Eleven Madison Park. Both men were dressed completely in black, which lent their meeting a martial-arts air. Scott just smiled at The Collector’s remark, and I quickly pulled my catalogs out. "I thought we could talk about the wines I might buy," I reminded them. The Collector glanced in my direction and coolly replied, "Why don’t we start by opening some wine?"

The first bottle, a 1995 Raveneau Les Clos, came from The Collector: a grand cru Chablis from the greatest producer and a great vintage. Scott offered his compliments and mentioned that on a recent trip to France, he’d had several bottles of the 2002. "My favorite restaurant in France is Troisgros," replied The Collector. "Mine too," said Scott. "I go there every time I’m in France." And I realized then that they were going to be friends.

The second wine, the 1989 Haut-Brion Blanc, also came from The Collector and was even better than the Raveneau. "I don’t want to praise the wine that I brought, but this is fantastic," exclaimed The Collector. Scott and I agreed. Scott produced the next wines: the 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion and the 1989 Haut-Brion, each 100-point bottlings, together worth more than twice my $1,000 windfall. Scott gave a triumphant smile.

But neither wine was exactly a triumph. In fact, they were both a bit off. Scott was clearly disappointed. Meanwhile, The Collector produced the last wine of the evening: the 1978 E. Guigal La Mouline. This cult Côte-Rôtie was the wine that Parker had once said he wanted to drink on his deathbed. (Approximate value: about $2,500. "If you can find it," said Scott.) "Or was this Parker’s ’desert island’ wine?" The Collector wanted to know. "Death­bed," replied Scott decisively. The two debated the topic. (It was the latter, by the way, which I confirmed with the very-much-alive critic the following day.)

It was clear why Parker wanted this to be his last taste of the world: Superdense, fleshy and opulent, this was a thoroughly decadent, sensuous wine. Scott and I both thanked The Collector, whom Scott acknowledged had brought the best wines. Or, as he put it, "My wines got the sh*t kicked out of them by The Collector’s." The Collector was gracious. "Home-court advantage," he said.

Finally, they were ready to look at my catalogs. Scott flipped through the pages rapidly and scoffed at the notion of buying a single bottle. Scott believed in buying in bulk. "I’m an accumulator," he said. Scott was also skeptical of some of the estimates, particularly the one on the six bottles of Puligny-Montrachet I wanted. "That’s a great deal if you can get it for under $1,000, but I wouldn’t expect it," he said, "Some auction houses like Zachys make their estimates deceptively low." Still, both Scott and The Collector thought I should place a bid.

Then the dinner check came: $750, including corkage on the five bottles. Of course I would pick up the tab. It had been a remarkable meal and an incredible experience, and the wines had been worth six times my windfall. But now my $1,000 was down by three-quarters.

And yet, in some ways, I was relieved: At least $250 was an amount I knew how to spend. Maybe I’d just buy a great magnum of Champagne with the money remaining. At least that was an extravagance that I could share.

But what if I still had the full $1,000? What might I have bought with it instead? Not the six bottles of Domaine Leflaive. When I contacted Edgar Barbosa at Zachys for results of the auction, he reported that most of the lots had sold for well over their estimates, including the Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet. The final price for the six bottles was $1,500.

I suppose that if I still had my full windfall, I would have bought several wines, some to drink now and some to hold on to. (Nikos had the right idea about that.) And they would certainly all cost more than what I’d normally spend.

I would probably start by buying a few bottles of a really good white Burgundy, such as the 2004 Joseph Drouhin Chassagne- Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche ($85) that The Collector had recently served me at his home. I would drink one now and save two for later.

And I would buy more Châteauneuf-du-Pape, specifically three bottles of the sumptuously rich 2003 Clos Saint Jean Deus Ex Machina ($90). I’d keep one and give one each to The Collector and Scott. This was the Châteauneuf-du-Pape that Parker had told me was his "new death­bed wine." (He’d been "reborn" after tasting it, Parker said.) I would add two bottles of my favorite wine from Alsace, the 2001 Trimbach Clos Ste. Hune ($150), a grand cru Riesling that is one of the most intense and one of the longest-lived wines in the world. And I’d try to hang on to them for a decade or two.

Same with the one bottle of great Barolo that I’d buy, the 2001 Sandrone Cannubi Boschis ($135). While it’s seemingly accessible now, it’s a wine that will only get better with time. And finally, with the little bit of money that was left, I’d buy a magnum of Champagne, one that I could drink with my friends right away, like the Billecart-Salmon Nonvintage Brut Rosé ($150).

Of course, I couldn’t buy all of these wines anymore. With my reduced funds, I could only afford one or two. And it seemed only right to choose the Châteauneuf-du-Pape and give the bottles to The Collector and Scott.

But when I mentioned my idea to Scott, he told me he already owned the Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A case of it, in fact. So maybe I would just buy a bottle for The Collector and a magnum of Champagne myself. I’d serve it at a party and invite all my friends—including, of course, The Collector and Scott. After all, it was thanks to them that I had won the lottery—without worrying about the bad times ahead.

Published December 2007
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