If you're like most casual wine sippers, the answer to the question "How much should I spend on a bottle?" seems to change with every trip to the store. A gift for a good friend, that's one price. A "Christmas party host bottle" probably costs less. Then there's the bottle you'll cook with, but may also want to drink a glass of. How much for that? Of course no one wants to caught looking cheap, either.
Who better to ask these pricing questions no neophyte wants to utter other than Bianca Bosker a.k.a. the "Cork Dork"? She left behind her job as technology journalist for Huffington Post to evaluate the heady bouquet of the wine sommelier world. For anyone fascinated by wine culture, her book "Cork Dork" is a clear-eyed view on a secretive society of grape experts. And if you really want to understand why a bottle of wine costs what it does, you'll know by the end of her memoir.
I used to work for a French chef who said anyone who spent more than $200 on a bottle of wine was just showing off. What's a reasonable price to pay for wine and when is it showing off?
While I was training as a sommelier (and getting hungover on weekday mornings tasting dozens of wines), I realized there was a gap in my palate education: I was learning to distinguish differences in kind — think an Oregon Pinot Noir versus one from California — but differences in wine quality remained more elusive. This sent me on a hunt to define what made a wine “good.”
I studied this question from the perspective of sommeliers, economists, oenologists, chemists, winemakers, wine critics, you name it—and found essentially no consensus. One wine economist (yes, they exist) made an observation that I’ve found true in my own tasting: wine quality steadily creeps up with price until around $60 per bottle (meaning the price you’d pay at a wine store, not a restaurant). But once you venture into three-figures, you’re usually paying for a wine’s scarcity and its fame—not because a, say, $300 bottle is necessarily 10 times more delicious than a $30 one. Yet I also think drinkers too often see all wine as interchangeable. They walk into a store and see hundreds of nearly-identical glass bottles affixed with paper labels trumpeting grapes, regions, or vineyards the average person can’t begin to place.
In my hunt for quality, I got a rare, firsthand look at how the wines that most of us drink most of the time are “engineered,” rather than made. Like flavor scientists designing new potato chip flavors, sensory scientists use focus groups to decide wines’ flavors, which can be manipulated and massaged using dozens of different additives. These tools can cover a multitude of sins, or replicate the effects of more expensive equipment. (Instead of aging wine in a $1,000 oak barrel—which immediately tacks about $3 onto a bottle’s price—substitute cheaper oak chips, oak staves, tank planks, powdered tannin, or liquid oak tannin.) A wine’s price also reflects the quality—and cost—of the materials used to make it, from the land to the barrels.
On the other hand, are there any thousand dollar wines that are worth the price?
When I quit my job as the executive tech editor at The Huffington Post and started over as a “cellar rat”—the lowest of the low in the wine world—I was inspired, in part, by the realization that while most of us ignore our senses of taste and smell, these “cork dorks” live for them. As I traded my life of sensory deprivation for one of sensory cultivation—giving up coffee, mouthwash, daytime sobriety, and more—I became aware of a paradox in our foodie culture: We focus on finding food that tastes better, but never teach ourselves to taste well.
Studies have shown a lot of people don’t even really know the difference between taste and smell.
With help from my scientist and sommelier mentors, I came to appreciate how our perception of the flavor of a wine is not only shaped by taste and smell, but also the price of the bottle, the color of the room, the background music, our expectation of how delicious it’ll be, who we’re drinking it with, and more.
You have to consider that the experience of these hyper-expensive bottles (and really any wine) isn’t just determined by the fermented grape juice in the bottle. Thousand-dollar wine may make us 10 times happier than a $100 bottle for reasons that have everything to do with its price, rather than the liquid in the glass. Price is the most potent spice of all. And one of the rewards that comes from training our senses is that we can better learn to stay honest to our own felt experience. Many of us settle for second hand sensing—we taste what menus, or labels tell us to.
I came away from my journey in wine believing in what I call “sensefulness”: we can better make sense of the world by learning to tune into our senses.
Did you learn any tips about shopping for bargain wines from sommeliers?
While juggling bottles as a “cellar rat,” I learned to decode the hidden language of wine lists. Many “by the glass” lists have what sommeliers refer to as “gimme wines”—short for, “Give it to me, I don’t care how much it costs.” These “gimmes” are wines that come from extremely well-known regions or grapes—California Chardonnay, say—and if you order a “gimme wine,” you will likely pay a “gimme tax”: restaurants know they can charge a bit more because lots of drinkers go on autopilot and order the brand-name wine, regardless of its price.
For a better shot at drinking great wine for good value, try something offbeat from the grape you’ve never heard of, or the region you can’t pronounce. Those bottles don’t usually sell as easily, but they’re there because someone loves them.