I have turned mining restaurant wine lists for ultra-expensive wines into a sport. As the years go by the lists keep upping the ante with new record prices. My first experience with this was about 10 years ago at The Sardine Factory, a Monterey restaurant near the famed Aquarium. There I spotted a 1945 First Growth Bordeaux (I no longer remember the label) for $10,000. About four years ago I wrote a blog about two different Las Vegas restaurants, across the Strip from each other charging $12,000 and $14,500 for the same bottle of wine, a 1982 Chateau Petrus. Yesterday, in yet another restaurant in Vegas, Le Cirque, I ran into the new record: $33,800. The wine was a Chateau Lafite Magnum. Even at a single bottle price (at $16,900) it tops the prior ones.
These crazy prices raise numerous questions, many of which I don’t have answers to. Foremost is, “who the hell buys this stuff?”. Another one is whether the overall tip is calculated with the bottle added. After all, that Lafite, at 15% would add $5070 to the tip. Is the act of uncorking this bottle so much more precious than, say a $ 50 bottle which adds $7.5 to the tip? Tough questions to answer.
There is one question however, for which I have indeed pursued answers with sommeliers. This has to do with the criteria for rejecting such wines. When I first saw that $10,000 bottle at the Sardine Factory, I discussed it with their sommelier, a friendly middle aged woman. She was well aware that most big spenders who would splurge on her 1945 bottle would not know how such aged wines taste. Therefore the restaurant’s rule was that it would be 100% up to the sommelier to decide whether the wine was acceptable; no rejection because it didn’t taste like a 10 year old Silver Oak!
Last night at Le Cirque I noticed another wine which blended in with the crowd, but was striking in its vintage. It was a 1929 Chambertain by Drouhin, a Burgundy from a reputable producer, but an 83 year old pinot noir nonetheless. It was priced at $8580. Believe it or not, there were so many wines in this list which were in similar 4-digit ranges that this remarkable label could be easily overlooked.
I called for the sommelier and asked him the same question. He was French, formal and terse. He curtly answered my question and walked away. His rule was more vague than the Sardine Factory. “It depends”, he said, “on who buys the wine”. He pointed out that while there are plenty of ignorant clients who strike-out with an expensive Bordeaux (and that was clearly not allowed), not everyone would take a gamble on such an old Burgundy. Whoever ordered it would likely be a Burgundy connoisseur. While he did not openly say it, I also sensed that exceptions would be made for regular customers who are known to be big spenders.
Therein lies the essence of the price insanity in Vegas. Impulsive big spenders are more common there than elsewhere, and, as the sommelier openly admitted, dishing out upwards of $ 8000 on an 82 year old pinot noir is yet another form of gamble, in this city founded on every form of it.