When I tell people I work in the Christie’s wine department, their first question is always, “What’s the most expensive bottle you’ve ever tried?” quickly followed by, “Was it worth it?” The answer is: It’s complicated. It depends on the wine, whom I drank it with, what condition it was in and, of course, who paid for it. Wines are worth different things to different people for different reasons. I’ve met people who wouldn’t give California Cabernet to their dog, and others who drink nothing else. I know one collector who poured one of the most expensive Burgundies in the world, from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, down the drain because he “didn’t like it.” (He happily opened a $50 bottle of Bordeaux with dinner that night instead.) I have colleagues who would pick a $15 Grüner Veltliner over a $150 cult California Chardonnay any day, and one client who drinks only Dom Pérignon. In some cases, these preferences are so strong there’s simply no changing them, and nothing—not even the price of the bottle—matters.
Knowing about my experiences with all kinds of wine collectors and industry insiders, Food & Wine thought I could use this knowledge to execute an ambitious wine-trading mission. The idea was to start low, with a three-liter, $43 box of wine (the equivalent of four standard bottles costing $10.75 each), and attempt to trade up for something far more expensive. Could I be drinking Cristal by the end of this experiment? Or should I aim even higher? Pétrus…on a boat…in St. Tropez?
I decided to rein in my imagination a bit and set just two goals, neither of which was yacht-oriented. First, I wanted to get a wine I had never tried before. Second, I wanted that wine to cost at least $500. That would be roughly 50 times my starting price per bottle, and more importantly, about 10 times what I’ve ever personally spent. Hopefully, by the end of this experience, I’d have learned something about the real-world value of wine—and I’d be drinking a mind-blowing bottle.
Trade One: A $43 Box of Wine
Who could I convince that a box of wine had value? Someone easygoing and trusting, like a Californian. I approached the only one I know, my friend Caleb Leisure. Until recently, he worked at the trendy Brooklyn wine store Thirst Wine Merchants, which is dedicated to “thirst-inspiring, natural, terroir-driven wines.” He’s also a zealous amateur cook, regularly hosting backyard feasts that revolve around things like whole suckling pig. This type of cooking involves all-day imbibing by numerous attendees, so it occurred to me that maybe Caleb would appreciate an unbreakable, eminently drinkable box of wine with mass appeal.
How do you convince a DIY foodie with a love of indie bottles to go for a lowbrow box of wine instead? First, you get a decent box of wine. This one was a Côtes du Rhône from Domaine Le Garrigon, sold by a company called Wineberry. One of the wine’s big selling points is that the carbon footprint of a three-liter box (both in terms of packaging and shipping weight) is considerably less than four standard 750-milliliter bottles. With this fact in my back pocket, I played to Caleb’s West Coast sensibilities, and also his desire to possess three liters of a wine that was more thirst-quenching than thirst-inspiring.
He finally agreed to trade me for three bottles he’d acquired at Thirst. All were imported by Bay Area legend Kermit Lynch, which in winespeak is code for French, slightly obscure and artisanally made. The white Corbières called “La Bégou” was unusual because Corbières is almost exclusively a red wine–producing region. The 2011 Domaine du Gros’ Noré Rosé from Bandol was intriguing because it’s made by a former boxer who used to sell grapes to famous rosé producers like Domaine Ott. And the 2010 Domaine Gramenon Côtes du Rhône called “La Sagesse” was noteworthy as a particularly concentrated old-vine Grenache. Combined retail value for the three bottles: $109.
Trade Two: Three Obscure French Wines Worth $109
I had three interesting wines now—bottles with charm, but zero brand recognition. I needed to find some sort of wine hipster, for whom the charming obscurity of these wines was valuable in and of itself.
Who would fit the bill? A sommelier, that’s who. From the outside, with their Zegna suits and fat-knotted ties, sommeliers look like champions of the status quo—but in reality, most are desperate for something new. They’ve already tried everything. Orange wine? So 2009. Cannabis-infused wine from Humboldt County in California? Old news. Canary Island wines from pre-phylloxera vines? Totally overrated. A sommelier, I thought, would welcome my off-the-beaten-path bottles, and have ready access to something with mainstream cachet in exchange.
I approached Shawn C. Paul, a sommelier and former wine director at New York City’s Corton. Shawn is used to drinking expensive wines with names ending in “-Rothschild” out of glasses blown to ring to D sharp when clinked together in a toast. I knew that Shawn probably had some nice bottles in his cellar, some blue-chip wines that he’d picked up along the way but had, perhaps, lost interest in.
I told Shawn I wanted to trade my three charming, unique, quirky, not-widely-available bottles. He liked the idea and offered up one of two French bottles for my trio: either a 2004 Chambertin from Domaine Drouhin, or a 2000 Cornas from Alain Voge. My pick. Both would be a huge step up in quality.
At this point, I was thinking ahead about my moves, like Kasparov vs. Deep Blue. Which of these two bottles would place me in a better position for my next trade? The Chambertin had more wow factor. A red Burgundy from a grand cru vineyard, one of the most prestigious wines of the region, will always have value to someone. (Then again, it was from the below-average 2004 vintage.) The Cornas had more geek appeal, but I was aiming for high-rollers, not the chin-stroking, natural-wine crowd.
In the end I went for the Chambertin. Its retail value was $140, a $30 increase from the three bottles I traded for it. The Chambertin also had more rich-guy appeal: No one closes a deal on Wall Street and says, “Let’s open that bottle of Cornas.” Plus, no wine quite gets the blood—and money—flowing like grand cru red Burgundy. People are willing to shell out hundreds, and often thousands, of dollars for it, and why? This is an often-debated question with no clear answer. Something about red Burgundy just appeals directly to the pleasure center of the collector’s brain.
Trade Three: One Grand Cru Burgundy Worth $140
I’d started my experiment by trading a box of wine for three bottles, and then three bottles for one. But how could I close a one-to-one deal? The answer was, I couldn’t. It was like a fifth grader I once knew who tried to trade me the raisins in his lunchbox for my fruit roll-up, based on the premise that they’re both dried fruit. Not gonna happen. I sent out emails to every wine person I knew, and no nibbles. Then I realized I was going about it all wrong: To move ahead, I had to take a step back. (This is a celebrated tenet of Buddhism. Or perhaps a Shania Twain lyric.)
I finally hit upon a strategy: I had to find someone in possession of massive quantities of a single type of wine. In other words, a wine hoarder. Someone who’d eschewed all other wines and amassed a singularly focused collection. That’s how I thought of Lars Neubohn, owner of a retail store and wine storage facility in the Bronx called Wine Cellarage. (Calling him a wine hoarder, I admit, is not really fair at all. In fact, Lars runs probably the most fastidious wine warehouse in New York City.)
I knew that a few years ago, he’d bought wine from the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy, a famous charity wine auction. The thing about the Hospices de Beaune is that the minimum purchase is a 225-liter barrel, which means the buyer ends up with 25 cases, or 300 bottles, of the exact same wine.
Lars had bought a barrel of the 2007 Hospices de Beaune’s Beaune Premier Cru Cuvée Rousseau-Deslandes, and he still had lots of it left. He was more than ready to pony up five of those bottles (each priced at $49) for my $140 Chambertin. “The 2004 Chambertin is just more interesting to me at this point,” he said. Just like that, I had $245 worth of wine.
Trade Four: Five Premier Cru Burgundies Worth $245
As I strategized my next trade, I tried to answer this question: What about my Hospices de Beaune bottles made them more valuable than their price tags? The answer: a sense of history and exclusivity. These five wines had both. Since 1859, the Hospices de Beaune (a 15th-century hospital in Burgundy) has hosted a charity auction selling barrels from some of the best vineyards in Burgundy—that’s the history part. Plus, the only way to buy these wines is through the auction, so ownership is like being part of a special, private club—the exclusivity angle.
John B. Truax, a buyer and salesman at Chambers Street Wines in New York City’s Tribeca, has a soft spot for wines like these, as well as fond memories of participating in the Hospices auction years ago. Most importantly, his shop is a hub for New York City Burg-hounds who’d jump at the chance to acquire one of these prestigious, storied wines.
Within minutes, John agreed to trade me a magnum of 2006 Clos de la Roche from Lucie et Auguste Lignier for the five Hospices de Beaune bottles. This grand cru magnum had been languishing on the shelves at Chambers Street for some time, perhaps for the opposite reason the Hospices wines were so appealing: There’s no history to the winery. It was founded only in 2005, which, in Burgundy, is like saying it was founded four minutes ago. He was selling the magnum for $290 in the shop, so I’d jumped another $40 in price.
I was feeling smug about my latest trade. Later, however, John told me he had priced the Hospices de Beaune bottles at $69 each, $20 more than my estimate, and that he’d sold out of them in a day.
Trade Five: One Burgundy Magnum Worth $290
My next mark was easy to find: someone crazy about Burgundy. Tucked somewhere in the back of my brain, next to a listing of the indigenous grapes of Romania and the six synonyms for Cabernet Franc, lies a quote from a section of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It goes something like this, “Imagine a mountain of sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space.” That’s about how much wine a Connecticut collector whom I’ll just call Glenn has, and much of it is Burgundy.
“There’s a saying about knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing,” Glenn told me as we descended into the cellar of his Greenwich home. “And I think this is especially poignant when it comes to wine.” Glenn was happy to have a magnum of young Burgundy to add to his cellar—large-format bottles age particularly well—and he offered up four excellent Rhône reds in exchange: three bottles of 1998 M. Chapoutier Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage and one bottle of 1999 Delas Frères Hermitage “Les Bessards.” Top Syrahs from the tiny appellation of Hermitage need time to mature, and Glenn had cellared his for over a decade, so I knew it would have good trading potential.
The retail value of the four wines was around $520, a significant jump, so why did Glenn take a loss on the transaction? His were all very big, alcoholic, Syrah-based wines, and he decided he’d just derive more pleasure from a more delicate wine like the Burgundy, as a matter of personal taste. In the high-end wine market, collectors are often chasing the most expensive, most famous or highest-rated wines, but every once in a while, a person like Glenn follows his own palate—prices be damned.
Trade Six: Four Big Rhônes Worth $520
As I left Greenwich, Glenn mentioned that Robert Parker, Jr., had given the Rhône wines big scores. I confirmed this on Parker’s website: He’d given the ’98 bottles more than 90 points, and the ’99 a formidable 95 points. What does this mean in terms of drinkability? It depends who you ask. One thing is certain: Parker’s scores add immediate value to wine for some people, especially retailers.
Armed with these numbers, I went to see Daniel Posner, the owner of Grapes the Wine Company in White Plains, New York. I told Daniel what I had to offer, and we quickly decided to trade the four Rhônes for one of his white Burgundies. For him, white Burgundies can be a tough sell.
Over the years, high-end white wines have gotten a bad rap. People associate white wine with easy summer drinking, not ageability and expense. Also, some white Burgundies in the past decade-and-a-half have suffered from premature oxidization, meaning they turn dark in color and become unpleasant to drink. I wasn’t worried about it. The best white wines in the world are just as age-worthy as the reds, and many, like the 2005 Chevalier-Montrachet from Michel Niellon that we finally settled on, are extremely rare. I held the bottle up to the light and there was no sign of any premature oxidization. “Rhône wines from the late 1990s are much easier sells for a store like mine than an expensive white Burgundy from 2005,” Posner said. “Great producer, but just not worth rolling the dice for us.”
The Chevalier-Montrachet was $600 on his shelf, and it hit all my goals. Niellon is one of the top white wine producers of Burgundy, making such small quantities of grands crus that I’d never had the opportunity to taste one. And at $600, it’s one of the most expensive white wines in the world. Even better, my out-of-pocket cost for it was just $43.
Success: One Grand Cru Burgundy Worth $600
I ended up in my apartment, late one afternoon, by myself, with a $600 bottle of wine, a corkscrew and a glass. I poured the wine, and with relief, settled into the couch. Expansive on the palate with perfect balance, excellent concentration and a minute-long finish, the Chevalier-Montrachet was everything you would expect from such a rare and expensive bottle. I started to feel a bit guilty about the wines I had pawned off on my friends and colleagues—Caleb Leisure, for one, had a simple, drinkable boxed red while I was enjoying this ethereal, sublime wine. I reminded myself that everyone was happy with the trades they had made. But, really, how could they be this happy?
Charles Antin’s essays and fiction have appeared in the New York Times and the Virginia Quarterly Review.