Is it really worth it?

Her question took me by surprise, an indication there was something to it. It’s a question I have flirted with for some time but hadn’t yet articulated an answer to it.

I was in the middle of a wine pairing on a recent Saturday night and was explaining a thing or two about an older, old-vine white Burgundy. When I mentioned that white Burgundy are among the most expensive white wines in the world, she stopped me.

“Is it really worth it?” she asked.

My response tumbled out without my thinking about it: “It really depends upon the kind of person you are.” Her face scrunched up, indicating she’d found my comment more vexing than it was clarifying. I riffed my way through the best answer I could give in the moment, but it’s a question that is so frequently asked I think it warrants a full explanation not just to her, but to all wine drinkers.

Here are the kinds of things to consider before you commit a substantial portion of your paycheck to a bottle of fermented grape juice.

When people ask, “Is it really worth it?” what they really mean is, “Am I going to enjoy this bottle of the expensive stuff?” The answer is twofold: First, understand the reasons this wine is expensive. And, second, figure out if you care about those reasons enough to buy it.

Some wines are expensive because they are rare. Some wines are expensive because a celebrity owns the vineyard where the wine is made. Some wines are expensive because the winemaker just spent millions of dollars on a state-of-the-art facility where she’ll be making her wine, and she needs to pay down some of the loans. Some wines are expensive because the winery has an impeccable, centuries-old reputation for making great wine. Suffice it to say, wine may be expensive for any number of reasons, some of which may seem more worthy to you than others.

It is certainly true that a wine can be expensive because the price reflects the care and fastidiousness of the winemaker as well as the complexity level of the wine. For most of us, this combination of factors might seem the most justifiable reason to spend on a special bottle. Yet even if you were holding this very bottle in your hands and deliberating over a purchase, it still doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy drinking it. This is because, in all honesty, most people cannot, and do not want to, develop the skills to detect subtle nuances in wine. The extra expense, which is reflected in the extra care, will be lost on these drinkers.

Let’s say one evening you find yourself poised in front of an expensive bottle of wine at the shelf at your local wine shop. A substantially less expensive bottle of wine, one you’ve had before and liked, is right next to it. Torn, you find yourself asking the same question the diner asked me about white Burgundy, “Is this really going to be worth the extra $50?” That’s the logical question. You want to know if that extra 50 bucks is going to mean that you’ll enjoy the expensive bottle that much more.

But it’s the wrong question. The question you should ask the person who runs the shop is, “Why is this bottle of wine so much more expensive than the one right next to it?” If that person knows the answer, then you decide if you think those reasons are important enough to you to justify the expense. If that person doesn’t know the answer, my recommendation is that you don’t buy the more expensive wine simply because it’s more expensive and you want something special. It’s too much of a gamble to throw up a Hail Mary and hope you score. If the owner doesn’t know, stick to what you know.

So, yeah, it’s an individual decision. That said, here are a few bottles to which I’d give a resounding “yes!” if asked whether or not they are worth it.

I’ve written about Sean Thackrey wines several times before in this column. His red blend, Orion, has delivered ample complexity and enjoyment every time I’ve had the good fortune to drink it. It comes from the Rossi Vineyard in Napa, California, which was planted with multiple red varieties in 1905. As Thackrey himself notes, “No one knows what’s in it.” Some years it is composed of Syrah and Petit Sirah. I’ve smelled black and blue fruit, menthol, black pepper, tar and something reminiscent of steak sauce. It is both fascinating and delicious. South Portland Wine Company distributes all of Thackrey’s wines.

Liquid Farms, a small winery located near the Santa Ynez Valley in the Santa Rita Hills AVA, produces many stunning Chardonnays that are well worth their cost. The winemakers have worked in some top-notch Burgundy wineries and are trying to channel the Old World-style Chardonnay in the cooler California climate of the Santa Rita Hills. Of their two Chardonnays, the Golden Slope – named in homage to the wines of the Cote d’Or – calls to my mind the great white Burgundies of Chassagne-Montrachet and St. Aubin. Hints of baking spices and cooked apples with dashes of nuttiness make it seem more like a dessert than a drink. It is, consistently, one of the sexiest and most alluring Chardonnays from California. Crush Distributors brings this beauty to Maine.

I would remiss if I didn’t mention a Champagne. One I have never regretted buying is René Geoffroy’s Rosé de Saignée, Premier Cru. It is one of the rare rosé Champagnes made in the Saignée method, a process that leeches more color from the Pinot Noir grape skins during maceration. It smells like a field planted with roses, raspberries and strawberries and is seductive in the extreme. That extended maceration period ensures that its texture isn’t flimsy. Rosé de Saignée has the structure of Pinot combined the with the raciness of Champagne. It’s haunting in the best way and is, most definitely, a hallmark wine.

Bryan Flewelling is the wine director for Big Tree Hospitality, which owns three restaurants in Portland: Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw.

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