In Praise of the Unobtainable

Why rare wines are essential
Mar 4, 2014

Lately there's been a lot of hand-wringing and populist nonsense about limited-production wines from tiny vineyards or extremely small producers. The premise is always the same: Wine writers like me, and even more so the big wine-tasting mandarins who taste thousands of wines a year, panning for wine gold, are always praising wines that Average Joe or Jane can't obtain.

This praise for the seemingly unobtainable is perceived as inherently undemocratic. And that, in turn, makes it … wait for it … elitist. In American culture there's no word more damning than that. In this country, the whole idea, the very raison d'être, is that everybody, everywhere, who wants something and has the dough ought to be able to get it.

This is why we love today's most exciting products, which are consumer electronics. It's why Apple is the world's most valuable company. Steve Jobs hit on a financial and emotional treasure trove when he created a product line, epitomized by the iPhone, that conveyed an unmistakable elitist cachet yet you and I and billions of others could line up and get one—at a price, of course. It seems rare and valuable, yet it really isn't.

The baseline of populist belief today—"Whaddaya mean I can't get it?"—makes anything that's the least bit difficult to obtain downright un-American. And when it pertains to wine, this mentality rises up like a wrathful beast breathing fire.

Consequently, we've been reading and hearing scornful remarks about how those of us who love the finest, or at least most interesting, wines are elitists. "What good are such wines if we can't get them?" is the rallying cry. Recommending such wines is decried as elitism.

My response is simple: You're damn right we're elitists. How do you think greatness is achieved in wine? By spurning high achievement because it leaves others behind?

If that isn't blunt enough, allow me to be more direct yet. Nowhere in the world of wine—and I mean nowhere—does wine achieve the highest quality without a corresponding rejection of concern about availability.

If your primary concern as a wine producer is to ensure a sufficient supply, then you can pretty well forget about reaching the pinnacle of fine wine distinction. Not mere rarity, mind you, but originality.

Yes, you can still create a genuinely fine wine on a large scale. That was the ambition and achievement of Robert Mondavi, who showed us that it could be done. I, for one, have never forgotten his vision and achievement in this regard.

But to pursue the always-just-out-of-reach next step, well, that's something else again. That level of wine is not an iPhone. It cannot be replicated and scaled-up to fulfill expanding demand. That sort of wine is guaranteed to be fundamentally limited precisely because it cannot be manufactured. Instead, it can only be found.

There's always some joker who says that the likes of La Tâche or Ridge Monte Bello or any other pinnacle of "placeness" in wine is really in the hands of the maker. My response—my taunt, really—is always the same: "Fine, make me La Tâche. Do it anywhere else other than the site that actually creates La Tâche. Go ahead, do it." They never do. Because it can't be done.

Truly fine wine is inherently elitist. It's not merely that it must come from a tiny plot of land. There's no structural reason why a La Tâche couldn't be 5,000 acres in size. But in truth, such a level of wine distinction never comes from a place anywhere near that size, does it?

Actually, a surprising number of what pretty much everyone would agree are the world's finest wines arrive in what might be called plausible quantity. For its part, La Tâche is good for some 20,000 bottles a year. Granted, the price is exorbitant, but hey, that's supply and demand, buddy.

Ironically, it's in places like California and Oregon, smack in a country and culture that pursues and celebrates mass marketing, that some of the newest—and far from the most expensive—wines appear in the smallest quantities. Typically, these are single-vineyard wines from very small producers who are pursuing a vision that sometimes has them all alone—until the huzzahs start pouring in. Elsewhere in the world, I don't believe that we've ever seen quite so many such "visionary wines" from so many producers in France, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Greece and Portugal as we're witnessing today.

All of which brings me back to the nonsensical objection to the limited quantity, purportedly unobtainable "unicorn wines." Sure, it's irritating to read about a wine produced in such small quantity that you know you're unlikely to find it. Understood. I get it. Hell, sometimes I feel that way myself.

But make no mistake: It's these very wines that move the needle. More often than not, they are the wines that set a new standard. And surprisingly, they're often not even that expensive, especially when they first appear on the scene. (We all know what happens to the price after such wines get a score of, say, 98 points. But don't blame the messenger who delivered such a score. He or she did the required job, namely, finding the nugget.)

Sure, there's always artificial rarity, a matter of producers gaming the system to make something seem rare (and profitably expensive) that really isn't. But those sorts of wines are easily identified because, almost invariably, they're not tied to a specific site. That's the giveaway.

If you look at the truly great stuff that's genuinely rare, the supply is small because the source is fundamentally limited. There's only so much of a distinction of place to go around before, like a radio signal, the distinction begins to drift and the compelling sense of place wanes. Great wines lock-in the signal of place. They locate a source that delivers real originality and then refine how that originality is conveyed to us. This is where sensitive winemaking matters; this is where rigor in grapegrowing and harvesting counts. This is the true elitism.

And so, inevitably, it turns out that there's only so much of this true elitism to go around. Even what at first seems overall a generous supply turns out to be anything but, because in a seemingly sizable site, such as a large hillside with multiple owners (think Corton and Corton-Charlemagne), this true elitism gets magnified. We all know that some producers are superior because their vineyard yields are lower or their winemaking techniques tease out greater depth and detail. And a true elitism of site allied to a true elitism of competence is almost certain to result in a short supply.

Consequently, maybe you or I can't get it. Or can't afford it. But we should want it, all the same. Because it's these wines, if they stand the test of time, that move everything forward. They set a new standard for us, and for their competitors, a new goal.

Far from unicorns, these wines are very real. And they are essential to the ecosystem of wine. Without them, fine wine withers. Why? Because these so-called elitist wines are the ones that literally define "fine"—and constantly, restlessly, keep redefining it.

So if you've got a problem with "elitism" in wine, well, that's your problem. Far from a problem for fine wine, it's an essential, indispensable asset.


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