Seattle Wine Blog

This blog is dedicated to commentary on all aspects of wine, especially short entries to help you find the best wines without the usual hype and spin. These are my frank, independent opinions, usually based on tasting wine at a public event, off the shelf or at the winery. "All creative acts must arise out of a specific soil and flicker with a spirit of place" -D.H. Lawrence

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Two Thousand Buck Chuck by The Wine Psychologist

A couple of years ago, a fellow wine lover suggested that I call myself the wine psychologist since I practiced psychology as my day job for thirty years. So from now on when I write about the psychology of wine, I will call myself the wine psychologist. So what's psychological about a two thousand dollar bottle of wine? Virtually everything! Alder Yarrow over at Vinography recently wrote about "cult" wine. He asked, "are they worth it? a $100 dollar bottle of wine ten times better than a $10 bottle?" Alder linked to three recent articles on cult wines. The first was a Wall Street Journal column by Dorothea Gaiter and John Brecher in which they reported on their tasting of ten cult wines such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. They bought these wines off the shelf and paid close to $2000 for some of them. The wines were not necessarily the best from each winery and the pair didn't rate most of them that highly. The second is an article in Salon, entitled "Two Hundred Buck Chuck", by Stephan Yafa, in which among other things he compared Harlan Estate and and Chalk Hill, and pretty much decided that much of the time the expensive cult wines ain't worth the money. The third is a post at Free Run Juice, Doug Wilder's California Wine Blog in which he points out where you can get "Cult Wine Alternatives" by superstar winemaker's for significantly less than you would pay for wines with cult wine status.

Okay, so is a hundred dollar bottle ten times better than a ten dollar bottle? First of all "better" is a subjective term. One man's garbage is another man's treasure. Wine rankings are only "ordinal" numbers, that is, they only say, "greater than " or "less than", but not by how much. So mathematically speaking it is impossible to say one wine is twice as good or ten times better than another. Nevertheless I have the subjective impression that wine quality does not increase in direct proportion to the price. Generally speaking, quality , on average, seems to improve with the price , but by how much? My impression is that for Washington state wines the best quality to price ratio occurs somewhere between thirty dollars and fifty dollars. My subjective impression is that many thirty dollar wines are "twice" as good as many fifteen dollar wines, but that sixty dollar wines are not necessarily twice as good as the thirties. In other words, it is a case of diminishing returns. Each time you roll the doubling cube, the quality increases less and less. So maybe a $400 wine is 20% better than a $200 bottle, but a $2000 bottle is only 5% better than a $1000 bottle. By the way, $50 to $75 seems to be the inflection point for Napa wines. But is this really what it's all about?

Cult wines do not command extreme prices because they are so much better than non-cult wines. A traditional economist might say that scarcity is the source of high prices. The two cent inverted Jenny stamp, of which there are supposedly one hundred, is worth large sums, as are rare Van Goghs, but it is desire that creates value not scarcity. There are lots of unique paintings that are essentially worthless. Desire creates cult status, more accurately, the desire to have what others have and you don't. The French post-modern philosophes emphasis "manque or "lack" as creating desire. Once you get on the mailing list at Harlan, you will try to get on some other list that you are not on. People want what they don't have and they want what others have. Rene Girard called this mimetic desire. I've got "it" and you don't! Neener, neener! You can envy me and that makes me feel like somebody. None of this of course has to do with what's in the bottle.

So if you really want great wine by great winemakers, maybe you should check out Doug's list of Cult Wine Alternatives. Fifty to a hundred dollars a bottle isn't exactly chump change, but it's not Two Thousand Buck Chuck either. Why do people buy Two Thousand Buck Chuck? Perhaps, primarily to impress themselves and their friends. On the other hand if you are a multimillionaire and a real connoisseur why not go for that last one percent increase in beauty and perfection. Of course, you really have to know what you are doing to get the very best wine. Only buying "100s" is not enough. It may be enough to impress, but not enough to choose the most beautiful wines.

Ah, well, so do the rest of us really have to drink Two Buck Chuck instead. Not really! In addition to Doug's California Cult Wine Alternatives, there at least fifty wineries in Washington state with truly great winemakers making fabulous wine at half the price of even Doug's alternatives. Of course, we have cult wines in Washington, too - Quilceda Creek, Leonetti and Cayuse in particular. If you are lucky enough to already be on their closed mailing lists you will have the opportunity to buy these Washington cults at significantly less than the asking price for California cults. There are so many great wines and winemakers in Washington it is impossible to list them all. Just for starters Mike Januik, Bob Betz, Chris Upchurch, Chris Carmada, Ben Smith, Ben Carter, Jean Francois Pellet, Marty Clubb, George Kirkish and Tim Sorensen immediately come to mind. For $30 to $50 dollars you can get great wines from Washington State. DeLille, Januik, Andrew Will, Sheridan Vineyards, Cadence, Baer, Palouse, Dunham, Walla Walla Vintners, Pepperbridge, Northstar, Reininger, Terra Blanca Onyx, and Fall Line are just a few of the many wineries in Washington making great wine. Oh yeah, and you can always buy outstandingly good Bordeaux for $20 to $40 a bottle. The list of good Bordeaux at less than two thousand a bottle is very long. A few names are Labegorce Zede, Fourcas Dupre, Fombrauge, Lannesan, and Malescasse. So don't fret, if you can't afford Two Thousand Buck Chuck, you don't have to limit yourself to Two Buck Chuck.


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