Splurging – Part II

Splurging in the booze world is often like splurging for a seat in business class: there's no doubt that it's better, it's just a matter of how much better for the money. If I could afford to sit in business class on every flight I took, I would do it without question. Even just premium economy, if it's an option. You just have to ask yourself: is it worth an extra thousand bucks or more to be super comfortable on this transatlantic ride? Maybe it is to you, and maybe it isn't. That amount of money could buy you a nicer hotel room or a week's worth of fancy dinners. Decisions, decisions.

Seeing that last night marked the end of my annual holiday push (this one being the hardest yet), I decided I was going to splurge on a fancy bottle for myself. Originally I had decided on Burgundy, but when I walked by the glass case in the Redwood City store yesterday and saw the smattering of first-growth Bordeaux offerings, the wheels in my head started turning; especially once I saw the price tag on the 2001 Haut Brion. It wasn't inexpensive, but it wasn't as outrageous as prices for Haut Brion can often be. At least it was sub-$500. "Wow, that's a great deal for that wine," I said out loud to myself. 2001 wasn't a heralded vintage (hence the price), but I've had plenty of great Bordeaux wines from that year. It's simply a classic harvest; nothing above average, but certainly nothing to shake a stick at. I've always loved the somewhat-gothic label of Haut Brion and I've always longed to try one of the Chateau's legendary wines. I've tasted samples from the five fabled first growths at industry events or company dinners, but never one with good maturity and never an entire bottle of it for myself. Did I have the stones to pull the trigger on this one?

The Burgundy I was looking at was about $150 cheaper, but ultimately there was one major issue: I'd never tasted it, and no one I worked with had tasted it either. That being said, no one at K&L had tasted the 2001 Haut Brion, but the great part about high-end Bordeaux is that it's dependable. Burgundy, on the other hand, is often a total crap shoot. The best way I can explain the difference is by looking at distillery edition bottles of single malt versus single barrel expressions from the independent market. If you buy a rare distillery edition of Springbank or Port Ellen, it's going to be good. It's going to be expensive and maybe more than you're comfortable paying, but it's not going to suck. They will have blended numerous casks together to cover up any flaws in flavor, so while there's no guarantee you'll like it, there's at least some certainty in the level of quality. That's directly comparable to Bordeaux and the Chateau game. However, if you see an independent version of Springbank or Port Ellen from someone like Douglas Laing, Signatory, or Chieftain's, then you have to be a bit more careful because it's likely from a single barrel. You then have to start digging a bit deeper. What type of barrel did it come from? Where was it aged? Has anyone tasted similar barrels from this bottler? Even then, the specs won't necessarily save you. It's still a gamble.

Burgundy is exactly that kind of a gamble. Just like with single cask selections of whisky, you'll never know for sure what you're getting until you taste it. You might know it's from a good village, a good vintage, and a premier cru vineyard site, but there are too many things you'll ultimately never know unless you're a bona fide Burgundy expert (as in someone who lives there and tastes year round). You'll never know exactly where the producer's plot in that vineyard actually sits. These properties have been divided and sub-divided into smaller holdings for centuries. Maybe the bottle you're drinking was made from grapes near the road where the ground always gets flooded, or maybe they came from the top of the hill where the vines are more prone to frost. Maybe Jacques the winemaker makes his cuvée in the same barn where his cows live, or maybe he dropped a cigarette in the vat that year when he fell asleep. When you're talking about such minute quantities of grapes, every little decision matters and will ultimately impact the final flavor; just like with a single barrel of Scotch. You can read all the books in the world about Burgundy's terrain, its terroir, and its many prestigious vineyard sites, but you will still never know anything for sure until you taste each wine. You can have fifty wines from the same vintage, made from grapes that were literally grown right next to each other, and they might all taste totally different (just like single barrels).

So what did I do? Like I said in the previous post about splurging, I don't have the coin to buy multiple bottles and protect myself against a bad beat. I need to go with the sure thing if I'm summoning Dionysius. I did the Haut Brion. And it was fucking aaaaaaawesome! Was it worth what I paid for it? Tough to say. But flying in business class is an incredible experience either way.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll