Can A Bottle Possibly Be Worth $3,000?

| August 11, 2011

When in college, most of the parties I attended had two mouthwatering drink choices:  Keystone Light or bum wine.  For most 21 year olds, those aren’t usually unappetizing options—but by my third year of college, I had traveled to Napa and was seriously addicted to fine wine.  Or, at least, I was addicted to wine far finer than Mad Dog 20-20, Night Train, and Boone’s Farm.  On the way to a party one night I decided to indulge myself and grabbed a $30 bottle of Turnbull cabernet sauvignon, a very lavish purchase at the time, given my meager budget.  Later, at the party, a drunken buddy of mine asked me, “How can that bottle of wine possibly be worth the $30 you paid for it?” 

The answer to that question was easy; the break from the monotony of bad beer, cheap acetone-like vodka, and hangover-inducing apple wine was, without question, worth the price.  But, when is a wine not worth the price?  That is obviously a very subjective question.  To most people on this planet, spending $30 on a bottle of wine is ludicrous.  Then again, to most people that traffic this website, $30 is probably a bargain.  But what about spending one hundred times that amount on a single bottle?  Can a wine that costs $3,000 possibly be worth the money?

Not long ago, I was invited to participate in a ten person BYO tasting focused on Bordeaux varietals and blends.  Let me re-classify the event.  I was invited to attend a massive pissing contest appropriately named “I’ll show you show mine if you show me yours.”  The price of participation was prohibitively steep, but by horse trading a few of my best wines for a singular prize bottle, I was able to ante up. 

The tasting was blinder than Stevie Wonder, but even more entertaining.   The only thing we knew was that we were drinking epic bottles, each of which was either a Bordeaux blend or cabernet sauvignon.  We put our beaks in our glasses, sniffed, swallowed, and moved on to the next glass.  You could feel the excitement building in the room as we moved from one other-worldly wine to the next.  After scoring our wines and entering our votes, the ringmaster yanked the curtain aside to reveal the following wines (in order of tasting):

(1) 1966 Latour; (2) 1983 Lafite; (3) 1982 Pichon Lalande; (4) 1986 Margaux; (5) 1997 Abreu Madrona Ranch; (6) 1996 Margaux; (7) 1986 Lafite; (8) 1990  Beasejour; (9) 1976 Petrus; (10) 1997 Harlan Estate.

I was speechless.  Five wines rated 100 points by Robert Parker (for what that’s worth), two bottles of Lafite, a bottle of Petrus, and the legendary 1997 Harlan and 1990 Beausejour!  Two wines, the 1997 Harlan and the 1982 Pichon Lalande, were easily the best wines I have ever had.  They were monumental.  They can only be described as the James Bond and Indiana Jones of wine.  Clearly different, but so incredible in every way that one can never really be better than the other—but both are otherwise peerless.  They were wines that haunt your dreams and creep into your thoughts when you get that Christmas bonus.  Even at $1,000 and $500 respectively, they were undoubtedly “worth it.” 

That might sound preposterous, but stop for a moment and think about it.  You might not hesitate to spend that much on dinner at Le Bernardin for your anniversary.  Both wine and dinner are immediately consumed.  Once you are finished, they are gone forever.  How about a round of golf at Pebble Beach, complete with caddie and tip?  The experience is over after the last putt.  Think about how much you spent on your last weekend getaway (how much was the airfare alone)?  How much was your night on the town in Manhattan?  Dinner and great seats for a show will get you close to, or well over, $500.  In every example you are buying a memory.  When the experience ends, you have nothing tangible to show for it.  But, that doesn’t mean that any of those experiences aren’t worth it.  After all, we cherish memories as much or more than tangible goods.    

At some point, though, you get diminishing returns.  The 1986 Lafite I drank had 100 points to its name, a $3,000 price tag, and a lousy 8th place finish out of 10 wines.  The experience was worth about one fifteenth of the price, at best.  In fact, my $3,000 bottle experience reminded me of seeing a movie star in person.  You know she is supposed to take your breath away, but up close you realize that mostly it’s just makeup, air brushing, a push-up bra, and a bunch of hype.  She still does it for you, but the naïve teenager-like lust is gone forever. 

Don’t get me wrong, the Lafite was a very good bottle of wine.  But, I don’t know how you rationalize “very good” and “lost in the crowd” when you put Geo Metro money on the table for a single bottle.  It simply didn’t have “it.”  It didn’t explode from the glass.  It wasn’t showing pure brilliance and incomprehensible complexity.  It simply wasn’t perfect.  If you can have perfection for one sixth the price of disappointment, the disappointment isn’t worth the price.  Plus, it’s tough to rationalize 100 bottles of that good ole’ Turnbull for one bottle of Lafite!


1966 Chateau Latour – Deep, nearly black with slight bricking at edges.  Serious concentration and expressive nose, but not really to my taste.  Aromas of sweet pipe tobacco, wet earth, black cherries, cedar, and a cloying, sickly-sweet smell of deer blood that I find off-putting, and a bit disturbing.  Palate laden with dusty macerated black cherries, wet pipe tobacco and that unshakeable deer blood note.  Impressive for its concentration, and holding together extremely well.  Some will love this, and I respect its quality, but this is not my cup of tea.  WA Auction Index $595 – $2,000.  91.

1983 Chateau Lafite – Well constructed and concentrated wine.  Color had me guessing 1989.  Good concentration, with notes of cedar, lead pencil, tobacco and a faint mineral aroma.  Tastes like it smells, with currant integrating nicely into the graphite and cedar notes.  Reminded me of any number of left bank Bordeaux from the late 80s.  WA Auction Index $749 – $1,648.  94.

1982 Pichon Lalande – Deep garnet showing amber on the edges.  The aromatic attack is so profound and intoxicating that I start getting light headed.  Luckily, I realize just in time that my faint state is from taking one enormously deep breath after another.  I feel like an addict and do not want to stop huffing this.  Unimaginably complex nose of blackberry, bramble, coffee, new suede jacket, forest floor, cigar box, and on and on.  Literally too complex to detail.  The palate is savory, perfectly balanced, with integrated tannins, pure earthy black fruit, and layer upon layer of spice and complexity.  In a word, perfect.  When tasted, the best wine I have ever had, by a large margin.  WA Auction Index $500 – $1,195.  100.

1986 Chateau Margaux – Garnet/Ruby.  Looks fairly youthful.  Smells very nicely of pure red fruits mixed with cassis, lavender and liquid minerals.  Tastes the same with a very pronounced mineral finish and drying tannins.  A very good wine that was sadly overshadowed by its bookends.  There is a youthfulness and purity of fruit to this wine that shouldn’t be overlooked.  But, it is about the same price as the Lalande.  Easy call if you can only buy one.  Stick with the Lalande.  WA Auction Index $575 – $1,334.  93.

1997 Abreu Madrona Ranch – Like smoke on the water, this is deep purple.  Coloring reminds me of 1997 Montelena Estate, but the nose is far more explosive and complex.  Chocolate covered black fruit, pure currant, smoke, appealing burnt vanilla and integrated oak notes jump out of the glass screaming NAPA!  Palate is heavenly, and laden with black fruit that is, at this stage, perfectly counterbalanced by evolved oak, smoke, vanilla and chocolate notes.  The remaining tannins are sweet, and the acid just present enough to balance the wine.  This is a very profound example of 14 year old Napa cab, and is exceptionally pleasurable to drink.  This is a tier 1(a) wine.  WA Auction Index $625 – $999.  99.

1996 Chateau Margaux – Deep garnet with no bricking.  Pure blackberry and violet nose with obvious mineral notes underlying the fruit aromas.  The palate is more expansive, but youthful and tight.  Blackberry and red currant laced with floral notes and intense mineral/crushed limestone notes also present in the 1986.  Clearly has the stuffing to be something special, but still a bit young and tannic.  Very nice acid balances out the beautiful and very clean fruit.  This will please finesse fans and power fans alike.  WA Auction Index $659 – $1,466.  96.

1986 Chateau Lafite – Dark, with brick edges.  Blackberry, fig, currant, and cedar present on the nose.  Palate is filled with currant and hints of fig, cedar, whiffs of pipe tobacco and faint earth notes.  Tannins are melding into the wine, and acid is present but not particularly lively.  A touch heavy.  Wonderful wine, but a bit lost in the crowd.  Not as complex as the 1996 Margaux, and not as balanced as the 1990 Beasejour.  Very good, but far from perfect.  WA Auction Index $962 – $3,461.  95.

1990 Beausejour – Dark near-purple, with little to no bricking.  Limestone quarry on the nose, followed by big ripe cherry and hints of smoke.  Beautiful.  Palate is laden with rich black currant and black cherry, smoke, a touch of tobacco, sage, and pow…loads of mineral.  The tannins are integrated nicely.  Drinking wonderfully.  Very balanced and complex.  Has the stuff to age for another 20 years, but so good right now.  WA Auction Index $775 – $1,207.  97.

1976 Chateau Petrus – Ruby, with brick edges.  Immediate notes of funk, tomatoes, and stewed vegetables.  Unpleasant palate with stewed tomato notes and a very prominent iron tinged rusty-nail like finish.  Slightly medicinal.  Blind, this was easily the worst of the ten wines.  Leafy and metallic aftertaste.  Not sure if this is a faulty bottle.  Got some love during the tasting, and more once the label was revealed.  I just didn’t get it.  WA Auction Index $899 – $1,495.  86.

1997 Harlan Estate – A very deep purple nearing black.  Rich currant, blackberry, and plum pour out of the glass with beautiful coffee, licorice, sage, and a nice – but reserved – dose of vanilla.  Napa.  A truly singular nose.  The palate mirrors the nose, with, if possible, even more complexity.  I cannot begin to do justice to the complexity of this wine.  I called it 1997 Harlan double blind, and this was my first time to have the wine.  (Is that blind luck, or double blind luck?  Either way, it was total luck since my guess was based on reputation and reading critics’ notes here and there.)   No VA, perfect balance, and insane complexity.  Drinking at its peak.  WA Auction Index $950 – $2,296.  100.

Category: Adventures in Life and Wine, Bordeaux Wine, California Wine, French Wine, North American Wine, Philosophy of Wine, Wine Humor

About the Author ()

John Kane is a father of two, a husband to one, and quite a sot to be seen, according to his wife. He first fell in love with wine before he could legally drink, after breaking into the fruits of his parents' first trip to Napa Valley. John quickly realized that 1995 Pride Mountain Reserve Cab was superior to the Ice House tallboys he was illegally obtaining from the local convenience store. In order to hunt down new sources of vinous pleasure, John began visiting Napa and Sonoma during his time at the University of Texas. Needing a source of revenue to fund his ever-increasing addiction to fine wine, John decided to become a lawyer. During law school summers, John worked as a clerk at a firm or government agency; and (more importantly!) at Lake Travis Wine Trader, where John was a sales rep and helped manage tasting events. In two years of wine retail, John netted a total of $0.00 of income, after spending literally every penny he earned on wine. John also acted as a wine consultant during law school, and directed the Wine Spectator award winning wine program at the Reluctant Panther Inn and Restaurant in Manchester, Vermont. John and his wife and children live in Dallas, and frequently travel to Napa, Sonoma, and Oregon in search of great wine and great memories. John is an avid taster and collector, and in a feat of unimaginable discipline, still manages to practice law.

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