For years, I have been puzzled by a major philosophical—or economic, or political—rift in the way we value wine in the US. At the turn of the millennium, I was at a café on Union Street in San Francisco, sharing breakfast with a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. We were having a wide-ranging discussion about the wine business when he told me that what impressed him about Robert Parker was that he had monetized wine.
As our June issue went to press, the New York Times reported on the downfall of Premier Cru, a wine merchant in Berkeley, California, and the purported Ponzi scheme that brought it down, defrauding wine investors, including my one-time breakfast companion. It isn’t the first time fraud has made news in wine investment circles, and it made me wonder if, by obsessing over the monetary value of their prized bottles, some investors are missing out on the most important value of their liquid assets.
Consider the tale of the wealthy Chinese businessman, told to me by his wine mentor, who was trying to wean him o his daily bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. It is the end point of the wine investor’s game, to only drink DRC. But then, what value does he get out of that wine? The value inherent in the price of DRC resides in the numinous difference it offers from all other wine. Without drinking the wines of its close neighbors, or the wines of its distant cousins, there is no way to grasp the value in that glass.
For those of us who drink wine, rather than value it as an investment, there is an easy test for the value in a bottle: how much pleasure, whether sensual, gustatory or intellectual, a glass provides. While investors battle over a few bottles of esoteric pleasures, the rest of us are faced with more affordable deliciousness than we know what to do with. And it keeps bubbling up out of the remarkable diversity in vineyards not yet touched by the investment crowd. In Southern Italy, where grapes hiding in plain sight are suddenly being celebrated, Silvestro Silvestori has been fascinated by susumaniello, a variety in Puglia we knew nothing about until we read his article and tried his recipe.
There are, in fact, hundreds of these unknowns fast becoming knowns. David Schildknecht was thinking about this diversity when he proposed an essay on the true wealth in this industry, an inheritance we ignore at our own risk. His essay on the fetish for “noble” varieties provides a parallel and expanded look at the themes Silvestori raises.
Meanwhile, we sent 12 independent retailers in Los Angeles, the hub of the biggest wine market in the United States, to shop at each other’s stores for inexpensive wines that over-deliver. Then we held a taste-o to determine who was the best value-hunter. Together, all 12 wines create a mixed case packed with value—one of many you might assemble from the pages of this issue.
This story appears in the print issue of June 2016.
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