A Question of Value
Once You Order Expensive Wine, There's No Going Back.
People of a proletarian bent, such as myself, love hearing about the snob class being brought low. Having their pretensions punctured, and high standards shot down to where the rest of us have to live.
Wine is a classic example of a rich man's pleasure, one that inspires ever so much pontificating and posturing. To paraphrase the great chef Fred Morin, it's merely "urine in waiting," after all.
As a famous viticulturist once said, "Has there ever been a subject that inspired so much bullshit?"
And so, for many years, I would chortle at tales of wine experts deceived in blind taste tests. Label swaps between cheap n' cheerful and elegant and refined only reinforced my view:
Expensive wine is horseshit.
But maybe I didn't know what I was talking about. Like many people from the working class who enjoy wine, I started by drinking some less than stellar brands. I recall evenings spent with a college girlfriend, swilling a Riesling nicknamed "Slosh Bladder Slime" (can you guess it?). Until I hit my early thirties and started making decent money for the first time in my life, my experience with bottles worth more than ten bucks was exactly zero. I thought red wine always gave you a headache because the kind I could afford always did.
But, as I started to cook, I started to expand my horizons.
Cooking and drinking go together, to such an extent that it is no exaggeration to say most chefs are drunks. It's such a natural pairing. Music and wine are the fuel of the kitchen.
So, as I cooked, and drank more, and earned more, my price point started creeping up. Soon, my limit, before Anglo-Saxon guilt crept in, was twenty bucks a bottle. Then thirty. Eventually, I might even shell out for forty bucks, on a special occasion.
But I'd hit a plateau. The reason wasn't merely economics, although that was a big one. But it was also a question of value. Having tasted a great many decent, and a handful of incredible wines at the extreme edge of my price range, I could understand why sometimes, you want to splurge. It wasn't all snobbery, just as the ritual of swirling and sniffing had a point, too.
However, I also had many examples of wines at the lower end of the price scale that I found very enjoyable. And some at the top end that was, to be blunt, absolute crap.
But was it just an issue of taste? Or did I need to be schooled?
My eyes were opened, one day in Toronto.
I walked into a wine bar in the Distillery District (sadly, no longer there), and grabbed a stool.
"What can I get you?"
"Well, what do you like?"
"Pinot Noir. On the light side."
"Hmm. Some businessmen ordered a bottle of California Pinot last night for 250 bucks. They didn't finish it." ("More money than brains" as my mother would say... what a waste!) "I can pour you a glass for twenty bucks."
I didn't hesitate. When was I ever going to taste 250 dollar-a-bottle wine again? "Sure."
My first clue that it was going to be sublime was the nose. I'm not very good at describing these things, so I've come to rely on a personal rule of thumb. My favourite Pinots always have a slightly musty aroma, as a sleeping bag pulled out of a leaky tent.
This one was like that, only stronger. Like a person who'd slept in that sleeping bag would smell. Yes, it seems awful, but haven't you noticed that the best cheeses all smell unforgivable, too?
The wine was the colour of ruby and amber having a baby. The first touch to my lips was electric. I've never savoured anything like that before. It seemed to have fifteen or twenty layers to its taste, changing at every step in consumption, from lips to throat.
When I'd finished, I sat there and stared at the glass.
"Can I pour you the rest?"
I said something quite stupid at this point. "No. I'm above my station. I could get too used to this. Pour me something more middle class."
And so, the moment departed. But I was left feeling very conflicted. I knew now that expensive wine could, most definitely, justify its price tag. After all, this was five years ago, and I'm still savouring that glass. So much for my proletarian sensibilities.
But this sort of discovery is a frightening knowledge. Like splitting the atom, or making viruses, acquiring a taste for expensive wine carries with it an inherent potential for destruction. I felt I was safer under the forty buck bar, where my wallet could take the pressure.
But it's probably too late. We can't forget how to make atomic bombs. And I can't forget what 250 dollar California Pinot tastes like.