In many cases the answer is "no one," because if it's a famous brand like Screaming Eagle the wine might enter the auction/investment market, where it will be tossed around every few years like a Gucci football, too valuable to drink.
But some of these wines make it to restaurants, where eventually they find a high roller. Who are these drinkers?
One is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who loves to eat, according to this fine New York Times article.
The end of the article describes Bloomberg's wine-buying process:
One dinner companion recalled that after Mr. Bloomberg asked for the best bottle of red wine in the house, the restaurant’s manager wanted to describe the wine to the mayor, have him taste it and smell the cork.I hope something was lost in the translation about making the Mayor check for bacterial contaminants by breathing them in. "Smell the Cork" reminds me of the Spinal Tap album "Smell the Glove."
The mayor politely interrupted. “Is this your best bottle?” he asked. The manager said yes. “O.K., then pour it,” he said.
What this anecdote really tells me is how much attention the Mayor pays to wine. This is a New York restaurant; its "best" red wine could be anything at all, from a first-growth Bordeaux to one of Manfred Krankl's creations at Sine Qua Non.
And he drank it without even knowing what it was.
I don't mean to pick on Mayor Bloomberg, who seems from afar to be doing a reasonable job. He's not unusual in the ratio of spending to knowledge. It's like baseball-fan seating: People in the luxury suites usually don't know anything about the game.
I remember going to a Baltimore seafood house once that had seven wines: a half-dozen under $60, and one at $300, a Cab that wouldn't go with the food at all. The waitress told me they sold at least a couple bottles every week.
Wineries that have been successful in the very-high-end cult market know this, and market accordingly: their wine is a must-have lifestyle accessory. A lot of the schadenfreude we're hearing lately about the collapse of the expensive wine market comes from the fact that wine lovers don't buy or get to try these wines. As a critic, I've tasted Screaming Eagle, but I've never had a whole bottle, nor has anyone I know, and I know a lot of people who drink a lot of wine.
I may be alone in this, but I think the high-end wine market will recover with the rest of the economy, and drinkers like Mayor Bloomberg are the reason. The brand names may change, but there will always be people who simply ask for "the best wine," which the server is free to translate as "the most expensive."
Advice to Mayor Bloomberg: Stay away from Bern's Steak House.