High & Low

I drove to Modesto yesterday with three New York steaks and a bottle of 1995 Calon Segur. Whenever I visit my parents these days I always bring something fancy, just so we can make a day of it. Plus, there's nothing more fun than drinking expensive Bordeaux with folks who aren't as experienced in the ways of the Medoc. I know many people feel the opposite as I do; I hear things all the time like, "I have to save my good bottles for the people who understand them." However, the great thing about opening a canon like that in a more casual crowd is how the reaction tempers your attitude. High-end French wine is not at all like high-end Scotch whisky. No matter your experience with single malt, anyone who takes a sip of Macallan 25 or our 1974 Ladyburn cask from Signatory is instantly stunned. "WOW!" they ultimately exude. The initial sips of the 1995 Calon Segur, however, were more like, "That's nice." Nothing more than that though.

There are many of us out there (I'm including myself in this group) who like to host, and to give, and to watch the reaction of others when they enjoy something you provide them. I'm not sure if it's actual generosity, or just another form of egotistical delight, but I do like to see people enjoy a bottle of wine when I open it. Each time I bring an expensive bottle to my parents we absolutely enjoy it (every drop of it), but I always head back home the next day with a more humbled mindset. I start thinking about the other trophies in my collection and whether they're even worth having. "Does expensive wine really deliver that much pleasure for the money I'm spending?" I think. Having that internal discussion is always a healthy thing though. Ultimately, you don't have to choose one or the other. You can enjoy both the high and the low end of the spectrum, but it's always better to come to this conclusion via your own personal experience. I always wish I had fake admission cards to the Chip On The Shoulder Club for those pissing vitriol towards "overpriced and overrated" booze they've never actually tasted.

Interestingly enough, we see much more buyer's remorse at K&L when it comes to an expensive bottle of whisky rather than a costly bottle wine. Most people who are underwhelmed by their $200 bottle of Opus One just chalk it up to an educational experience and move on. They drink the bottle, form their conclusion, and that's the end of it. It's the whisky drinkers who generally return to voice their disappointment with their purchase. I was talking to one of our best customers the other day about this phenomenon and he said the most thought-provoking thing: "I think it's likely because a disappointing bottle of whisky just sits there in your liquor cabinet for the next five years, reminding you of how much you didn't like it. The bottle of wine just gets emptied and tossed in the recycling bin. You can move on much more easily." I thought that was absolutely genius.

It's interesting to watch this dynamic play out in the store because, ultimately, the wine drinkers have it much worse. The only setback whisky drinkers face is that, due to state laws, it's much more difficult to get a taste of the liquid before purchasing a bottle; whereas there are wine tastings practically every day. With expensive wine, however, you're only tasting for potential, so it's not like you're getting a guarantee even when you do get to preview it. Most $200 bottles will eventually go into your cellar where they will sit for ten to fifteen years until they're ready to open. At that point there's no guarantee it will taste how you expect it to, which is why collectors usually buy a case of everything. That way you can try a bottle every few months to see where it's at.

Of course, buying a case of $200 wine means you have to pay $2400 to secure your investment against corked bottles and pre-mature probings. The idea of having to do that is part of why I always leave Modesto with a much clearer sense of where I'm at with my drinking. I don't have the money, the time, or the desire to build that type of wine cellar. As much as I enjoy discovering what makes the great wines of France tick, it's not an endeavor I'm equipped to handle. It's like owning a sports car or purchasing a house: you think you're just plopping down one big lump sum for the payment, but then you realize there's all kinds of maintenance that needs to be done and the money just keeps on flowing from there. Expensive whisky is so much easier to handle. It's almost always going to taste how it should, you don't have to worry about weather and storage temperatures, the distillery does the maturation before you buy the bottle, and the odds that something has spoiled inside the cork is incredibly rare. Plus, you're in no hurry to finish it as whisky keeps for years and years.

But as my buddy said, if you end up hating the bottle you purchased it will sit there on your bar, reminding you constantly of the fact that you blew $200 on that wretched thing. That might make it more difficult to put the bad experience behind you.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll