Great Wines for $20

Eric Asimov, writing for The New York Times, argues that a wine bottle that comes in at $20 hits the “sweet spot”:

I want wine that excites me, that feels so good to drink that one sip urges on the next and the next after that. I want a wine that tells a story of a place and a people and a culture, that is not the predictable equivalent of a franchise restaurant but more like a little mom-and-pop’s, where you’re not always sure what you’ll find but you know it can have the capacity to inspire.

You might be able to find a bottle like that for $10. But it’s rarer than you think. At $15 to $25, though, the odds swing decidedly in your favor. With a little experience, you can find dozens of joyous bottles, plucked carefully from the ranks of the routine.

To that end, he lists twenty bottles of wine that cost $20 (in Manhattan, so you may be able to find it cheaper in your area):

François Pinon Vouvray Brut NV

A richer sparkling wine that is nonetheless dry, snappy, pure and precise with an undertone of honey, the gorgeous signature of the chenin blanc grape. François Pinon, one of my favorite Vouvray producers, has a knack for coaxing the perfect combination of voluptuous body and laserlike focus from chenin blanc. 

Domaine de l’Octavin Arbois The Péteux NV

This frothy sparkling chardonnay from the Jura is exuberant and floral yet dry, steely and absolutely delicious, perfect for a lunch outdoors. Octavin is a small, rather new estate started by a young couple, Alice Bouvot and Charles Dagand. They are devoted to natural winemaking, and the Péteux is a pétillant naturel. Rather than bottling finished wine with yeast and sugar in the manner of Champagne, which induces a second fermentation to produce bubbles, a pétillant naturel is bottled before the first fermentation is complete, producing a softer fizz. 

La Clarine Farm Sierra Foothills Rosé 2011

This is not one of those onion-skin-colored rosés from Provence, which epitomize the Mediterranean style. It’s darker, a pale ruby blend of syrah and mourvèdre grown in the Sierra Foothills, most often the source of bold, powerful zinfandels. This wine is a lesson in balance and elegance, dry and mineral, light enough for an aperitif yet substantial enough to drink throughout a meal.

Dönnhoff Nahe Estate Riesling 2011

Dönnhoff is one of the great riesling producers. The estate riesling is a blend of grapes from several different sites and offers more than initially meets the eye. Poured directly from a chilled bottle, it seems gently pleasant and lightly sweet at first. But as the wine warms up, its elegant nature becomes apparent, and a richness and rocky minerality emerge. 

See the entire list here.

Any oenophiles among the readers here? What do you think of that $20 wine list?

A Vintage Crime

In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Steinberger writes a fascinating story about Rudy Kurniawan, a 31-year-old Indonesian transplant living in the United States and producing counterfeit wine. “A Vintage Crime” is a story of a man who sold $35 million worth of wine in 2006, yet just a few months later was begging for loans. A slow rise but a strong fall, as he now faces up to 80 years in jail.

A bit of background:

Beginning in the early 2000s, demand and prices for the rarest wines shot up rapidly, as did the potential payoff from selling fakes. In 2000, wine auctions worldwide grossed $92 million; by last year, that figure had quintupled, to $478 million. The buying frenzy was driven in large part by young collectors in the United States. In contrast to the more buttoned-down Thurston Howell types who had once dominated the auction scene, these new players were distinguished by their insatiable acquisitiveness and eagerness to flaunt their trophy bottles.

No one moved the market more than a twentysomething West Coast collector named Rudy Kurniawan. He first surfaced on the wine scene in the early 2000s. He was reportedly the scion of a wealthy ethnic-Chinese family from Indonesia. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, in 2006, he explained that Kurniawan was an Indonesian surname his late father had given him to protect his identity. He said that his family had business interests in Indonesia and China, but refused to elaborate.

How Kurwinian’s forgery binge began: by getting the empty bottles of the super-expensive wine bottles:

According to John Kapon, he and Kurniawan met at a wine dinner in Los Angeles. In October 2004, they and some acquaintances went on a four-day binge at Cru that became an emblematic moment for the brash new wine culture that had taken hold. By the end of the last evening, the group had consumed a murderers’ row of legendary wines—1945 Mouton Rothschild, 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, 1971 La Tâche, 1964 Romanée-Conti, 1978 Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Mouline—and racked up a total tab that one participant said was more than $250,000. Kurniawan paid for the whole thing with his American Express Black Card. He also made a curious request of Cru’s staff: he asked that the restaurant send him all of the empty bottles. He made the same request on subsequent visits to Cru, and between 2004 and 2006 the restaurant sent him box after box of empty bottles.

On Kurniawan’s eccentricities:

He often slept until the afternoon and was maddeningly disorganized, habitually arriving late for engagements and seldom paying bills on time. He also had eccentricities: Wilfred Jaeger, a Bay Area wine collector, says that Kurniawan had a habit of falling asleep at tastings; he would suddenly nod off for 20 or 30 minutes before waking up and resuming drinking. Kurniawan’s mother lived with him in Arcadia, and he sometimes brought her to tastings.

Upon his capture:

In addition to thousands of fake labels for wines such as Romanée-Conti, there were dozens of rubber stamps marked with vintages and winery names; a gadget for inserting corks into bottles; California wines whose labels bore handwritten notes suggesting that they would be passed off as Bordeaux; and dozens of bottles in various stages of being converted to counterfeits.

A thoroughly engrossing read. If anything, this story reinforced my belief in how fickle the rare-wine market truly is.

The Assassin in the Vineyard and the Story of the La Romanée-Conti Vineyard

I’m not much an oenophile (or not at all). But I loved this story in the May 2011 edition of Vanity Fair, “The Assassin in the Vineyard.” Maximillian Potter does an astounding job of going behind the scenes to explain the history of the fabled vineyard, La Romanée-Conti.

The gist of the story: La Romanée-Conti is a small, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine. But when Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous and sophisticated note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his heritage, unless he paid a 1 million euro ransom, he did not treat it seriously at first. Who was the mastermind behind this crime? And did the criminal get caught? All is revealed in the article…

Previously, I had never even heard of La Romanée-Conti. But Potter describes it as a “mecca-Xanadu,” and explains the significance of the wine coming from this vineyard:

Indeed, whatever superlatives can be ascribed to a wine apply to the eponymous wine from the Romanée-Conti vineyard. It ranks among the very top of the most highly coveted, most expensive wines in the world. According to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s exclusive American distributor, Wilson Daniels, acquiring or purchasing a bottle is as simple as calling your local “fine-wine retailer.” However, because D.R.C. is produced in such limited quantities, and because the high-end wine market is such an intricate and virtually impenetrable web of advance orders—futures—and aftermarket wheeling and dealing, it’s not as simple as the distributor suggests. Wilson Daniels’s own Web site points would-be D.R.C. buyers to wine-searcher.com, which is a worldwide marketplace for wine sales and online auctions. There, the average price for a single bottle from 2007 (excluding tax and the buyers’ premium) is $6,455—and that’s the most recent vintage available.

On the storied history of the vineyard (or how the Conti name came to be):

The Benedictine monks of the medieval Catholic Church were the original obstinate ones who civilized Burgundy’s Côte. They were the défricheurs, or “ground clearers,” who married the fickle Pinot Noir grape to the ostensibly inhospitable terrain. They discovered that a narrow strip of land about halfway down the gently sloping hillside produces the very best wines—the grands crus. “The Slope of Gold,” it was called. While the monks first cultivated the vineyard that would become Romanée-Conti, it was the Prince de Conti, centuries later, who gave the wine its name and infused it with nobility and naughty.

The worthless forest and fallow land that the Duke of Burgundy had deeded to the monks in the 1100s were by the late 1500s profitable climats, and the monarchy wanted in. Taxation compelled the priory to sell a “perpetual lease” on their finest climat, the first incarnation of Romanée-Conti: Cros des Cloux. Between 1584 and 1631, Cros des Cloux had three owners, before it was transferred to the Croonembourg family. Under this owner, Cros des Cloux blossomed in the marketplace. As it did, for reasons historians can’t fully explain, the family changed the name to La Romanée. By 1733 the Croonembourgs’ La Romanée was going for prices as much as six times those of most other reputable growths of the Côte. Still, when the Croonembourg patriarch died, in 1745, the family over the next 15 years slipped into debt and La Romanée was sold to Louis-François de Bourbon—the Prince de Conti.

There’s so much more in the piece, but I leave with this quote, describing the ransom letter. You now know that the mastermind of this devious plan knew much about La Romanée-Conti:

It was not so much a note as it was a package, delivered to his private residence. (A similar package arrived at the home of Henry-Frédéric Roch, who holds the title of co-director of the D.R.C. and represents the Leroy family’s interest in the Domaine.) Inside the cylindrical container, the type an architect might use for blueprints, was a large parchment. Unrolled, the document was a detailed drawing of Romanée-Conti. While the 4.46-acre vineyard is essentially a rectangle, there are nuances to its shape. De Villaine noticed that whoever had sent this letter and sketched the vineyard knew its every contour, and what’s more, the author had noted every single one of its roughly 20,000 vine stocks. In the center of the vineyard sketch this person, or persons, had drawn a circle. There was a note, too, which conveyed that the vineyard would be destroyed unless certain demands were met…

Continue reading the entire thing to find out what happens next. You won’t regret setting aside half an hour for this riveting read.