Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The High Cost of Higher Education

Long ago I attended a winetasting at someone's house that was emceed by a local retailer. We were tasting Tuscan wines, always fun. But, I quickly became nervous when I found out we would be asked to confidentially score the wines and then reveal our scores and talk about them -- something I had not previously done.

Immediately, an instinctive drive to avoid outlier status took hold of me. But it didn't last long. I was an outlier, alright, consistently scoring the wines lower than all others but one. I found suddenly that I didn't mind not being part of the pack. I simply couldn't understand scores of 95 or 96 given by some others to simple Chiantis.

Only when we got to the last wine, a Brunello, did I give up a 90-plus score -- and discovered to my amazement that some others had given it an 82. It was puzzling at first, but I soon discovered the reason -- many of the others had never had a $30+ wine before.

I'm not denigrating these people, but I bring it up to make a point -- you can't really judge how good a wine is unless you have the context or framework of experience to do so. Of course, you can judge whether or not you like a wine, and for some people that's enough. But to understand and appreciate true quality and value, you've got to taste a wide range of stuff.

A post on Vinography the other day got me thinking about this. Alder was exploring whether mega-expensive cult cabernets, some of which top $400 a bottle, are worth the money. It seems that recent tastings by some of the so-called experts have found some expensive cult favorites a bit lacking. But in other cases, these expensive gems really rocked.

I'm a big advocate in indulging in the good stuff now and then. The idea is not to emulate the wealthy but to be privy to what the wealthy know, which is how great wine really can be. Otherwise, how do you know?

Of course, great wine does not always come in expensive packages. We all scour the wine mags looking for the next 1996 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages at $27 bottle. And, even if we're not buying the "wine of the year," there's a lot of great stuff out there for an affordable price.

But there are experiences that can be had only by splurging once in a great while, whether for a great Barolo or a first growth Lafite or a Mouton. Thank goodness I splurged on some of these before the 2000 vintage drove the price up around $300 to $400 a bottle. I have enjoyed Lafite once and Mouton several times, all close to $100 a bottle. Let me tell you -- they were truly worth it. The memory is always there when tasting other Bordeaux and cabs.

I have even paid a little over $200 a bottle twice in my life -- you can bet I sneaked those into the house. One was a 1989 Chateau d'Yquem. I haven't opened the '89 yet (I've had lesser vintages), but I enjoy every day knowing that one hell of a tasting party is waiting for me -- I just don't know exactly when yet.

The main point is most of us will never be able to afford or find a Screaming Eagle, but if you don't occasionally reach for the really great ones you'll always wonder. And, if like some tasters, you find expensive wines are not all they're cracked up to be, just consider it the high cost of higher education these days. You're guaranteed to have more fun than you did taking a college exam, and that cost a whole lot more.


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