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.