User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

Friday Fishwrap
Why People Buy Expensive Wine

By Charles Olken

I know why. I have seen it in action. This is not rocket science. It is nothing more than a mix of high disposable income and a taste for quality. Whether it makes sense to the rest of us is debatable.

There I was at a table of wealthy “swells”, as a well-healed young gentlemen in the latest garments used to be called--and as these gents should also have been so called, and the topic turned to my choice of Pinot Noir. When it turned out that I chose to drink $40-70 Pinots, I was quickly identified by the swells as a piker. Not that they were directly insulting mind you. Just that the name-dropping of their visits to the makers of $100-plus Pinots was meant to inform me that they and I were of different classes socially.

It was not long before I reminded the swells that I could easily afford $100 wines, but that I was one of those people who mostly preferred to drink wines that cost less because they were plenty of highly enjoyable, special wines at lower price points—and moreover, I had the data to prove it. Whether Kosta Browne can hold a candle to the wines of Mark Aubert was not a point I chose to debate. I simply said “yes they can” and the conversation moved on.

In retrospect, however, I do have to give the swells their due. They do drink very good wine. And I got to thinking. How do triple-digit Cabernets compare to Cabs priced in the $50-75 price range? After all, we taste blind, and we don’t gave a hoot for what a wine costs. We only care about how it tastes. And we go through the exercise of tasting all highly recommended wines twice so, win or lose, those expensive Cabs, whether $50 or $150 or $250, are all the same to us.

Using the Connoisseurs’ Guide database of wine reviews, I did two searches—the first for all Cabs $100 and up and the second for Cabs in the $50 to $75 bracket. I was prepared to learn that the expensive wines fared better than the less expensive wines, and I was not disappointed.

In the recent past, CGCW has tasted 111 wines priced $100 and up and recommended all but seven of them. But over half failed to get high commendations—our two- and three-star rankings with point equivalents of 91 and up. If you are of the “glass half full” persuasion, then you will be happy to know that your triple-digit purchases stand a 50-50 chance of being outstanding. If you are of a different persuasion, then you will argue that at least half of all the Cabernets priced at the triple digit level are easily exceeded in quality by dozens of wines at half their price. No argument that the odds go up as the price goes up. The wineries have a pretty good idea about how good their wines are—at least half the time. But, you pretty much have to be a “swell” of one sort or another to focus your wine purchases on bottles at the top of the price scale.

Still, I will admit that I do have a few of those wines in my cellar. Great wine is great wine although I do pick and choose with some care. And I am lucky to have the luxury of a database with tens of thousands of wine reviews to help me choose. The “swells” don’t need CGCW or any other publication to help them decide what to drink. The rest of us choose to be informed.

Here then, just for the record and because they are damn good are top-ten recently reviewed Cabernets priced in the stratosphere.

97 CHAPPELLET Pritchard Hill Napa Valley 2007 $135.00
96 DAVID ARTHUR Elevation 1147 Napa Valley 2006 $135.00
97 JOSEPH PHELPS 97 Backus Napa Valley 2007 $250.00
96 JOSEPH PHELPS Insignia Napa Valley 2007 $225.00
96 MERRYVALE Profile Napa Valley 2008 $165.00
95 PAUL HOBBS Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Oakville 2006 $275.00
96 QUINTESSA Red Wine Rutherford 2007 $145.00
95 RUBICON ESTATE Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006 $145.00
95 SHAFER Hillside Select Stags Leap District 2006 $215.00
97 STAGLIN Rutherford 2006 $175.00


The CGCW Experience - Take the Tour

Meet the New CGCW

For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


No Subject
by Marlene Rossman
Posted on:10/21/2011 1:28:07 PM

Charlie, they are "well heeled" meaning expensively dressed, not well healed--unless of course, they were sick.

by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:10/22/2011 10:01:29 AM


Perhaps it's better to say: unless, of course, they had been sick.

If they are well-healed, the sickness is behind them.

Where did the wine go???

No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:10/24/2011 9:14:53 AM

Fortunately, I belong to the 99%, too, Charlie...

Heels, Well-Healed, Buying...
by Richard
Posted on:10/24/2011 9:38:54 AM

Mr. Olken, Given what you appear to describe as their behavior, perhaps the young gentlemen were simply heels?  Though it does sound like perhaps they could not have been "well-healed" as they still seem sick in their collective minds...  All grammar considerations aside, why can't people just buy a $100 plus bottle because it tastes good?  Though admittedly, I have not done so for some time...  I generally find that the less expensive bottles are just as good, but perhaps I am engaging in a tad of self-delusion...

Healed Heels
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/24/2011 10:06:30 AM


Please see the Monday blog, posted soon, which I think does agree with you that people will buy what they perceive as the best values for their palates and their wallets and that their is no simple equation to say where any of us will come out on the "that's my niche" scale.

As for $100 bottles, there are plenty of great ones, but like all luxuries, the cost rises faster than the marginal increase in critical quality. If I choose to put in $1000 worth of speakers, are they that much better than $500 or that much worse than $2000. Only the geeks will know--and frankly, I sometimes think the speakers that came with my big-screen plasma have better spatial separation than the fancy speakers. But I do love hearing crowd noises from behind me when watching NFL. Now if the 49eers will just keep winining. Oh, sorry, wrong topic.

by Jin Xiao
Posted on:9/23/2012 7:36:18 AM

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.