Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Give me your most expensive bottle"

I was working on two magazine stories last month, about Bourbon and sake, and heard the same comment about both: people often walk into a store or restaurant and say, "Give me your most expensive bottle."

For these drinks, the popularity of the very high end is a recent development. Bourbon was out of fashion until about a decade ago. Japanese sake producers worked for generations, centuries, with humility. Twenty years ago it was hard to find a sake that cost more than $25.

This trend doesn't have all that much to do with Bourbon or sake. The "most expensive bottle" customer" originated in the wine world and has spread to all alcoholic beverages: Tequila, beer, you name it.

Mainly it's the return of conspicuous consumption, combined with an absence of connoisseurship. But I don't want to indulge in reverse snobbery here.

Most people simply don't have the time to study wine or sake or Scotch, much less all of the above. Sure, there's some wealth flaunting. But if you want to be assured of a good drink, it's not a terrible buying strategy. I remember going to a crab shack in Baltimore with a short wine list: five supermarket wines under $40 a bottle, and Dom Perignon at $300. That's an awful markup, but it was also easily the best wine on the list.

Those of us who spend too many hours thinking and talking about spirits will argue that, with the exception of Cognac, where the producers blend multiple vintages specifically to reward the biggest spenders, the most expensive drink is rarely the best. Whiskey gets better for years in barrels, but after a certain point, about 18 years, it starts to get worse, painfully woody. But the price just keeps going up.

DRC might be the Cognac of wine: if you're willing to spring for it, you might be rewarded. France in general, still a hierarchical society, tries to reward the biggest spenders for wine. That's no longer the case in the rest of the world. Sometimes when I taste a California winery's most expensive bottle, I taste something cynically made to separate the unthinking spender from his cash. This isn't universal of course: often it's the best grapes from the best vineyard. But sometimes it's a heavy bottle and a luxury marketing pitch, because really, forget about calcareous soil and microclimates: does the "most expensive bottle" customer even care which grape and which vineyard?

And not just in California. I have had vintners in Europe and elsewhere frankly dismiss their most expensive wine as "something for the Americans." Sigh.

Restaurant wine directors also vary in their responses to "most expensive bottle" customers. Sometimes the highest-priced wine is a well-aged first-growth Bordeaux. But in San Francisco, I have been to restaurants where the wine buyer stocks a pricey Napa Cab he disparages just to have something to occupy customers he doesn't want to talk with.

Sometimes this is understandable. The second-most annoying kind of drinker to talk with is the braggart. But let's put this in perspective. The most annoying kind of drinker to talk with is at the opposite end of the spectrum: the "Two Buck Chuck is better than all those fancy expensive wines, and there's no reason to spend any more" people who leave that exact comment on newspaper wine articles all the time. I'd much rather be trapped in an elevator with a "most expensive bottle" customer; at least we could share info on which producers are now making a super ultra premium bottling with a bit of actual unicorn hair sewn into each label.

"Most expensive bottle" customers seem to be proliferating. If you don't have something for them, the big spenders will go elsewhere. Wineries, distilleries, retail stores and restaurants have to have a strategy.

As for consumers, the best strategy is one I didn't want to indulge in earlier, but will now: reverse snobbery. Enjoy that 21-year-old, 142-proof, $500 a bottle Bourbon! Sometimes we really do get what we deserve.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

Love "reverse-snobbery!" I'm always overjoyed when I visit a winery and end up liking their under-$20 picnic wine more than the heavy-bottle, over-oaked Reserve Whatever that's $60+.

Unknown said...

I had a friend blind taste test their friends with a bottle I made with a kit and a $60 bottle. They had no idea which one was better. Worst thing is when you find something you like and you forgot to buy a case of it.