What Makes Some Wine So Expensive

During his Wines for Zillionaires Seminar at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Mark Oldman let us in on what can make a bottle so pricey.

This is one of our dispatches from a busy weekend at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

Look over almost any wine list in a restaurant—whether the food is coming out family-style to undressed communal tables or being uncovered in a show of well-rehearsed choreography by an army of tuxedoed servers—and you’ll notice prices that range wildly. I ate a meal recently at a restaurant boasting bottles between $60 and $24,000. But what are the reasons for that disparity? At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen I sat in with Mark Oldman, wine writer and author of several books, most recently How to Drink Like a Billionaire. Oldman was running the seminar Wine for Zillionaires, where he was guiding people through a tasting of some of the most expensive wines on the planet, and explaining how they got that way.

Here's the rundown:

Size does matter

Usually buying in bulk saves you money. Not always so with wine. If you’ve ever noticed a magnum (the equivalent of two standard 750 ml bottles) costs more than two 750 ml bottles of the same wine, it’s not because there is something magic that makes the wine better when it’s in a large format bottle. It’s because bigger bottles are more rare. And if you thought magnums of some wines might be trickier to come by, consider some of the other extravagantly named sizes. Oldman says he keeps a Balthazar (the equivalent of 16 bottles) on his kitchen counter as “kitchen bling.” And during his seminar we drank from a melchoir (18 liters—the equivalent of 24 bottles) of Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir. It was so big it literally needed a tap.

The weather matters too

It seems straightforward that the weather in some years produce better wines than others. But there are some many wines out there (we happened to be drinking the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne during Oldman’s seminar) that aren’t even made if the winemakers don’t believe they’ll produce an excellent bottle. These wines are only made in vintage years, which can occur as infrequently as four times a decade, again making for more scarcity.

Consider history and prestige

You do pay a premium for reputation. As Oldman pointed out while he was showing off a Stag’s Leap ‘Cask 23’ Cabernet Sauvignon, the bottle commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris. During that tasting in 1976, Stag’s Leap shocked the wine world and beat out a number of Bordeaux giving American wine some real credibility on the international stage for the first time.

It may also be in the grape

Oldman says that as far as he's concerned Sauternes are the world’s best dessert wines. He likes them so much he says that when he was going in for surgery he snuck a bottle into his room and rubbed some on his gums before he went under because “that’s the taste I’d want to go down with.” But he says a strong second is a good Picolit. Picolit grapes, from the Northeast of Italy are typically grown in rocky, sometimes infertile areas, that are tough to harvest much from. And if the grapes are tough to come by that’s only going to push the price in one direction.

Here's the full rundown of what we drank

2006 Tattinger 'Comtes de Champagne' Blanc de Blanc Brut, Champagne, France
2014 Benovia Winery Bella Una Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
2014 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Estate 'Cask 23' Cabernet Sauvignon "40th Anniversary," Napa Valley
NV Armand De Brignac ' Ace of Spades' Brut Rosé, Champagne, France
2009 Penfeolds 'Grange' Bin 95, Australia
2011 Livio Felluga Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

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