"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," perhaps H.L. Mencken.
"There's a sucker born every minute," perhaps P.T. Barnum.
These quotes are part of American folklore even though there is every reason to believe they were never uttered by the the two men who are given credit for them by popular culture. However, the basic truth they convey is not in dispute. There always is the fool and his money, a story which goes back to the Bible and before.
These phrases where brought to mind by the recent article in Wine-Searcher titled "The Most Expensive Wines in California." While it is no surprise to find the name Screaming Eagle at the top of the heap the real revelation is that it's not their Cabernet Sauvignon at the pinnacle, but their Sauvignon Blanc.
The Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc is selling on the open market at - wait for it - $3706 a bottle, which importantly at that price, does not include tax. Most people will be shocked that someone would spend that much money on a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. I am not shocked. I am offended.
I am not offended by the obvious stupidity of such a purchase, I just find such waste an insult to the human race. It is impossible to comprehend how an individual can be so hollow, so vacuous as to spend that much money on a bottle with no history. Perhaps I could understand such a price on a bottle that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, but, come to think of it, those also turned out to be frauds.
In our problem-filled world this kind of wasteful public comsupution is repugnant. You'd think someone could have enough self-discipline to suffer through a measly $700 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and then still have $3,000 left to do something meaningful for our planet and the beings that live upon it without experiencing undo hardship.
If you're going to to throw money in the trash at least be sure it ends up in a dumpster where someone who really needs it can dig it out of your garbage.
This report follows last weeks article by the always erudite Andrew Jefford in Decanter called "Beyond Best" Notes Jefford, "If a particularly commodity is high-status, sought-after and limited in supply, then ‘the best’ will always be disproportionately more expensive than other quality categories of that commodity, by virtue of nothing more than its rarity."
Indeed these "unicorn" bottles as they have become known are no longer wines, but commodity status symbols to be rolled out in situations that gain the owner the greatest visibility and status. It's no longer about the wine, but about who has the means required to possess the unicorn. Again Jefford gets to the heart of the matter, "In other words, tasting great wine can often be a pre-programmed, ritualised experience. It may be exquisite, but it isn’t necessarily interesting."
I will go along with Jefford in his quest to find the interesting, something which rarely applies to rituals. In its soul wine is a living agricultural product and the production of it is done by people close to the land. Wine is made by winemakers, vineyard workers and nature and the process is dirty, sweaty, exhausting and sometimes dangerous. All to often, especially in places like the Napa Valley the people that own the land are not the ones that work it and make the fruit into wine. The quest for ego gratification has twisted the wine business and the way we make wines. Wine is agriculture not religion.
Someone who spends $3000 on a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc should be the subject of ridicule not adulation. They are the proverbial "sucker born every minute" and their waste should be objects of our scorn.
In the early eighties corporate behemoth Heublein was gulping up wineries and had ingested Napa Valley icons Inglenook and Beaulieu. Each year they would have a national road tour to show off their international portfolio of famous wine names. An upscale hotel ballroom would be lined with tables laden with great bottles from around the world. At the head of the room was a stage where ancient Grand Cru Bordeaux would be offered to the crowds. The line for just a sip of old Lafite or Latour would wind out of the ballroom and down the hall and tasters would wait hours for a thimbleful. This would leave them no time to sample the other treasures in the room and wines from the greatest names in the Rhône, Alsace and the rest of France would go almost unnoticed. In the center of the room were two long tables featuring their new acquisitions Inglenook and Beaulieu. On each of those tables were twenty-year plus verticals of Inglenook Cask and BV Private Reserve going back to the 1950s. Much to my pleasure these tables were ignored by the throngs waiting to get a half ounce of old Bordeaux while I tasted and re-tasted these legends. I never got a sip of the old Claret, but I did get to spend an entire afternoon immersed in those sublime classic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. That was more than interesting.
It always appears that the great wines are the ones at that head table, in the spotlight, but like most sleight-of-hand that's an illusion. The most interesting wines are rarely the most expensive.
For some reason it almost always seems to be men who drop these outrageous sums on these extreme unicorn wines. I wonder what they are trying to buy? One thing for sure, it's certainly not wine.
Note: The price on the Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc is not what the winery charged, but the resale price set by people reselling the wine.