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Mark Squires' E-Zine on Wine

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Articles, March, 1999

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Trophies
The Wine Scene for those with too much money
and too little sense

    Trophies. You want them. You know you do.

    In saner moments, you may make fun of them. But you want them. You may not be able to afford them, but if you could, you would chase after them. That’s because you hunger for them. You lust for them. A bit of drool rolls slowly out of the corner of your mouth when you think about them. That case of 1994 Colgin “Herb Lamb Vineyard” Cabernet that you saw at auction? Yeah. You desire it.

    What’s worse, you are no different than any other wine geek. These days, you fit right in. We all seem to want trophies, wines that are sometimes euphemistically called “cult wines.” Invariably, they are made in tiny quantities. Usually, they have received rave reviews from one or more wine critics. And they sell for obscene amounts of money. These three factors taken together give us at least one guaranteed and unsurpassed thrill in return for the effort of finding them and the pain of paying for them: we’ll be opening a wine that our friends don’t have, can’t find and probably can’t afford.

    What does this all mean? Only that we have lost our collective minds. We have completely forgotten what the wine experience is all about. We have lost our way. Case in point: Marcassin. I like Marcassin wines a lot. I am certainly not one of their detractors. Further, in addition to making very well made wines, the proprietors do not gouge. They sell their wines for very reasonable prices relative to demand  (about $50 per bottle these days after years of production) to those lucky enough to have an allocation. What happens next is not their fault, but ours. The problem: there isn’t much Marcassin. It is virtually impossible to get. Invariably, on the auction market, the price soars as desperate collectors bid furiously for the right to sample these wines. Prices in excess of $200 a bottle are normal, and some places have it on the shelf for closer to $300 a bottle.

    This is as ridiculous as it appears. At these prices, Marcassin occupies the rarefied air of French wines like Le Montrachet from good producers. Of course, Le Montrachet has a head start of a couple of hundred years.  Obviously, the augmented price tag has obviously nothing to do with the quality of the wine or costs of production. The winemakers pegged the price at more like $50. So, what exactly are we paying for at auction? 

    One would hope that Marcassin is unique and irreplaceable at those auction market prices. But in fact is Marcassin significantly better than any number of other top quality California chardonnays? Well, this is a matter of taste, but the point is certainly a fair one to argue. It is certainly one of California's greatest white wines.  Still.... If you like the Marcassin style, I would submit that many easier-to-obtain Kistlers will pass your taste test and thrill you for a fraction of what Marcassin brings at auction. Some might prefer the very different style of wines from places like like Mt. Eden,  Pahlmeyer, Beringer, Shafer or Talbott. The point is simply that nothing other than hysteria results in these prices.

    My favorite chardonnay is probably Talbott’s Diamond “T.”  (I waver on this periodically, with Marcassin being the primary competition, but it's a good bet.)  At around $45, it is easier to find, actually shows up on retail shelves, and does not escalate wildly at auction. So, let’s see. Do some math. Sell two bottles of Marcassin. Get a case of Diamond “T.” No reduction in pleasure per bottle, at least for my palate,  plus 6 bottles for 1.  Seems simple?  But it isn't.  I'm guilty, too. I want that Marcassin experience, too.  Still, I haven't paid $300 a bottle yet, and won't.  It is one thing to buy from the winery and resist the temptation to resell, although an economist might be horrified.  It's another to lose all contact with reality. 

    One would think that a normal person would shy away from such huge price increases based on nothing but supply and demand. To the contrary, to many collectors the high price seems to be part of the thrill. It is almost as if the wine really is better because it costs more. Most of us, of course, can’t play in this rarefied air. $300 a bottle chardonnays won’t happen to us too often. Yet there is a segment of the buying public that is price insensitive. I call them the “too much money, too little sense” crowd. They make it possible for these inanities to occur, and they warp the marketplace.

    Another case in point: Astralis (Clarendon Hills). This is the ultimate sucker wine. Oh, for sure, the 1997 Astralis is fine wine. But head and shoulders above any number of other shiraz wines selling for a fraction of the price? Absolutely not. Actually, forget the head and shoulders part. I would much rather have some things like Fox Creek and Greenock Creek. In fact, Clarendon Hills’ Old Vines single vineyard Grenaches at under $40 strike me as equally well made. What makes Astralis especially irritating is that it seems deliberately exploitative. Sure, we bemoan what happens to Marcassin prices. But at least you can say that the wine started slow, at reasonable prices, and the winemakers themselves were not gouging or taking advantage. They paid their dues and built up their brand name over some years. They still don't sell the wine for anything like what they could.  The current hysteria is something they do not even benefit from since they sell out all of their wine at lower prices, just like Guigal’s single vineyard Cote Roties, Colgin's Herb Lamb Cabernet, and a variety of others I could name.  It is we who are at fault for bidding those wines up to ridiculous price levels.

    Astralis, though, is different. It is a product that is not particularly unique. It is made for one key purpose: to be expensive--to give Clarendon Hills an ultra premium cult wine to market. Astralis is virtually brand new, and after a couple of vintages, it is already selling for around $200 a bottle in many places. It started high in the first place. Why in the world is this happening? One would think that people would look at this wine and call it the ultimate sucker ploy--a wine specifically designed to exploit the current tendency to pay big bucks for anything made in small quantities.  This was a wine that the winery was going to sell for huge sums whether good, bad or indifferent because that was the targeted market price. This, unlike Marcassin or Colgin, wasn’t going to be a wine that would be allowed to find its level over five to ten years, or whatever. Rather, the level was dictated at the outset.

    But no one seems annoyed. The “too much money, too little sense” crowd keeps on buying, without even a pause, and the price keeps escalating.

    To be sure, at a certain price point you get what you pay for. I can’t tell you that any $9 wines are making my list of “best ever.” But it is indisputably true that you don’t have to pay triple digits, or anything close,  to get good or even great wines. This $400 a bottle stuff is just hype and hysteria.

    The trickle down effect of all this is considerable. All too often these days it seems as if serious wine people assume that $50 a bottle for wine is reasonable. Really, in perspective, that, too, is outrageous for brand new wine. (Twenty year old Bordeaux is a different issue.)   Gosh. How much fun can you get from a bottle of wine? At $50, shouldn’t it come with a money back guarantee? At Astralis prices......well, I can see it now: “Buy Astralis! Guaranteed to get 98 points, or double your money back. Full refunds for poorly stored bottles, corked bottles, and any other defects. Double your money back if it doesn’t age gracefully for at least twenty years.” This, of course, doesn’t happen. But it should.

    Of course, there is a good reason why the producers and distributors don’t have to do this. Simply put, it does not really appear that anyone cares about the quality of these wines. After all, who actually drinks them? I believe that the majority of these wines sit unopened in cellars. When they do get opened, what happens? They usually get passed around at mass tastings where everyone gets a couple of ounces, if that. But they don’t get drunk. People seem not to sit with them through the evening and watch them expand and develop. Quite literally, they are simply trophies, not wines.  At best, someone hauls out a bottle once a decade for a special occasion.  That’s a shame, because many of them are in fact very good and deserve a better fate. To be sure, this is understandable. It has to be a pretty special event to open a wine you could sell for $450 a bottle.   Even those rich, price-insensitive types seem to fall into this trap. After all, when you buy a wine for what amounts to “prestige and wow” factors, there isn’t much advantage to opening it up at home at a quiet dinner. No point “wasting it.” Even the super rich think twice before popping the corks,  if not due to cost, due  to the waste of the "special experience."  The experience becomes special not because of  the quality of the wine, but because of its scarcity and price tag. But that doesn't change things.  These wines just don't get drunk normally or often, in my view.

    All of which points to the final insanity, and the final irony. So many of us waste incredible amounts of money chasing after the ultimate pleasurable experience–and then not experiencing it. If we do drink the wine, and if we have a modicum of wisdom, we find out sadly that just because it cost $400 it is not ten times better than any number of wines costing $40. If it is better at all. If it is as good. Mostly, we don’t drink the wine. It is too ‘special.’ It sits. It gets traded. It gets sampled. It gets tasted.    It doesn’t get enjoyed. All that money in pursuit of pleasure garners so little pleasure in the end. But the buying frenzy keeps on keepin’ on.  I guess there's nothing better than impressing your friends with your cellar full of trophies--even if they never get to drink any of them.     


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Copyright Mark Squires, 1999 all rights reserved.