What Is A Good Wine?

imagesAt Dragonfest this year, I got to taste a $250-per-bottle wine. And there was a fascinating story behind it.

Phil, one of our camp mates up on Druid Hill, is a retired aerospace engineer, and he’s worked with a lot of people from all over the world. One of the chaps he worked with was from Ireland, and over the months he came to understand that this particular fellow was a master wine-taster, whose name appears in numerous books on wine as an international authority on wines.

They were all at dinner one evening, and the wine they ordered seemed exceptionally good, so this wine-expert asked the waitress to bring out the bottle. When he saw it, he smiled to himself, and then under prodding, explained his smile.

He said that in France, they have very strict production laws on wine, primarily to protect the exclusiveness and prices. Each vineyard is allowed to produce only so much wine per year, and the quotas are set by law, with fierce penalties for exceeding the quotas.

Not infrequently, the vineyard will have a bumper crop, or several years of bumper crops, and then they have the problem of what to do with the extra wine they produce. They’ve worked out a simple scheme, which all of the wine experts know about, but few others. They create a “off” label — a label no one has ever heard of.

Now it is important for the overall pricing structure that this “off” label not be traced back to the original winery, because these wineries will typically produce wines where the cheapest bottle is over $200, and can go up to several thousand dollars. So they make no effort at all to promote the “off” label as a great wine. They put it in a 1.5 litre bottle with a screw cap, and sell it for cheap.  Their legal alternative, after all, is to pour it out. And if word ever got out, their cheap label would be in direct competition with their expensive label, which would hurt overall profits — after all, these are just bumper yields they’re trying to get rid of, not whole harvests.

So in this particular case, the Irish wine authority happened to know both the vineyard and the off-label they were using that year, and the wine served in this restaurant was, in fact, the off-label brand of a French wine that normally sells for $250 per bottle. The off-label brand sold for $9 per 1.5 litre bottle.

Now, Phil has given workshops at Dragonfest on conspiracy theories of every stripe for many years, and this is third-hand information from an Irishman who, though he may have been a wine authority, might well have been pulling everyone’s leg. But it does make a perfect (if twisted) kind of sense, and it underlines the one unquestionably true thing that Phil passed on from this international expert on wines.

If you like a wine, it is a good wine.

If this story is true, that $9 bottle of wine you really, really liked, might very well be exactly the same wine that other people are paying over $200 for. Even if it isn’t, how much does it really matter?

If you like a wine, it is a good wine.

It’s really that simple.

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