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Tuesday Tributes
How To Drink Cult Wines For Less

By Charles Olken

There I was, sitting at a swank dinner party/fund raiser for which I had contributed a dozen older wines, and the fella next to me confided that he only drinks Aubert and Morlet Pinot Noirs. But, he was happy to try my Farrell and Dehlinger wines at one-half to one-third what he was paying for his Pinots.

Now, I have nothing against wines that cost an arm and a leg as long as they taste good. While price is always an object, if one can and is happy paying triple-digit prices for wine, that is none of my business. My dining companion then dropped the other shoe. “What do you pay for wine”, he asked, and I, having already been made to feel a bit like a piker by Mr. Triple Digit (a nice guy, so nothing personal intended) had to confess that I rarely pay triple digits for any wine.

That answer held him off for a while as we worked through what my business here at Connoisseurs’ Guide is all about. After all, I taste hundreds of wines every month, and, if I cannot find a great Pinot for $40-60, then I am not doing my job very well. It is those priceworthy wines of grandeur that fill my cellar. And about the only points I really scored with Mr. Triple Digit was that my cellar of several thousand bottles going back to the 1970s for multiple bottles from my early collecting days was more extensive and older than his.

But, he was not to be deterred and then spoke up about drinking DRC at the fabulous Gary Danko restaurant in San Francisco (number one in the just released 2012 Zagat Guide). One can eat at Danko for under $100 sans wine and get a fabulous meal. I still prefer The French Laundry, but at $250 sans wine, an overnight in the Napa Valley and an impossible to crack reservation system, I eat at Danko about once a year and The French Laundry about one every ten years.

That is how it is with cult wines for me. And I have never purchased a bottle of DRC or Chateau Petrus. The last first growth in my cellar was Ch. Margaux purchased as futures from the 1981 vintage at $27 per bottle. By the 1982 vintage, wines like that shot up well beyond my price threshold.

After dinner, on the way home, I commented to my wife, “Well, that is how the other half lives”, and she being wiser than me provided the real answer—“that is how the other one-tenth of one per cent lives”.

Now, this is no “class warfare” epistle. I live pretty far up the food chain myself, and my $50 and $100 dollars wines are not exactly what the every day guy has lying around. To be sure, I am more likely to drink $20-$25 wine on a regular basis, but I do accept that my limits are part of my economic reality and that Mr. Triple Digit, now on his third high-tech startup, bases his purchases on his economic reality.

So, the question remains. How does one drink cult wines for less? Maybe I should have phrased the question somewhat differently because the answer, in truth, is that one does not drink DRCs or Mark Auberts or Screaming Eagle for “less”.

What one does, and I have given the answer away above, is that one looks for great wines at less than cult wine prices. The new Kosta Browne Pinots are out. Some are already spoken for, but some can still be had at prices closer to my reality. In fact, I will look for the Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Pinot, to name one example, in restaurants because it will be great wine at a high but affordable price.

There are only a couple of ways to find wines like the Kosta Browne. Those are reading what folks like me write and tasting a lot of wine. I recommend both. Read Connoisseurs’ Guide—by all means. But read The Spectator, The Enthusiast, Parker, Tanzer, The California Grapevine. If you subscribed to them all, it would cost a couple of hundred dollars a year, and you would get ideas worth far more than that.

There are plenty of wines that cost less than cult wines but which offer great depth, complexity and, yes, relative value at $40 to $100. And there are real bargains, if rarely the absolute best wines, for $15 to $30. But with so many wines and so little time, it does pay to read and to allow trusted sources to help narrow down the choices. It is not about points entirely. It is as much about descriptions. But, in the end, the way to drink really well for less is to pay attention. I am lucky. I have to pay attention. It is what I do for a living—and thank you to all who allow me do it. Paying attention to trusted sources and then using both what you read and knowledge of your own palate are going to allow you to choose between the richness of Kosta Browne and Dehlinger and the tighter styles of Gary Farrell, Peay and Alysian.

You may not be able to drink cult wines for less, but you can certainly drink grand, ethereal, palate-exciting wines for far less than cult wine prices.


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by TomHill
Posted on:9/27/2011 8:59:43 AM

Yup,'re my kind of wine I, too, virtually never spend overr $100 for a btl of wine. Not when there's so much good stuff out there at $20-$50/btl that's often better..or at least, more interesting...than the cults.

   If I recall...I believe it was your first CGCW review of Barberas...where you characterized the market of Barbera-drinkers as "dominated by pinch-pennies".  Is that 30 old recollect correct??

   Sitting all night alongside MrTripleDigit could make for a very long evening.



you missed the point
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:9/28/2011 7:58:57 AM


Mr. Triple Digit does not drink wine--he drinks status.

My wife calls these people wine bores with phallic problems.

Reminds me of the time I hosted a surprsie birthday wine dinner in an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment that looked like a small house. I was given the menu beforehand by the hired chef and I put together the wines, which I was asked to speak about.

Unfortunately, I had been setaed next to the birthday girl's father, who was a rich doctor with a rich cultist taste. He name-dropped and then questioned my abilities, as I did not always agree with his assessment of the cult products that he named, at least the ones that I had the "good fortune" to taste somewhere along my travels.

I stopped talking to him and turned to my left to talk with another guest who was a beer drinker and a breath of fresh air.

No Subject
by Anonymous
Posted on:10/1/2011 10:06:22 AM

I find your format very unfriendly to me as a user -- to have to go onto each item separately is cumbersome -- much better is the format of the Wine Speculator and others where you sign on and can go through the whole issue without having to click on to each type of wine or article

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