An Oenophile and His Money

Is any bottle of wine worth $700?

1996 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne

This is a story about a bottle of wine. A very expensive but also very delicious bottle of wine—a wine that so captivated me when I first tasted it that I immediately resolved to taste it again. What followed was an almost two-year odyssey that tested the limits of my resourcefulness and perhaps also exposed the warping effect that wine has had on my brain. In mid-November, at a homey restaurant on the edge of Paris, my perseverance was finally rewarded: For several gently inebriating hours, I shared with my father, just off the plane from New York, a bottle of the hauntingly good 1996 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne, a grand cru white Burgundy. My second experience of the wine reaffirmed my initial judgment: Coche’s ‘96 Corton-Charlemagne is the greatest white wine that I’ve ever tasted and is destined to go down as one of the greatest white Burgundies ever produced. The cost of the bottle? $700. The pleasure? Why, priceless.

Admittedly, $700 is a lot to shell out on fermented grape juice. (And no, Slate didn’t cover the cost.) Although my wine collection is worth considerably more than $700, I’ve never paid anywhere near that much for a single bottle, and I won’t be making a habit of it. But that’s a decision dictated purely by financial considerations, not ethical qualms. Sure, it’s nuts to spend hundreds of dollars on something you consume and then piss out an hour later. On the other hand, I’m not aware of too many extravagances that can’t be challenged on moral grounds, and compared with, say, driving a Hummer or eating foie gras, drinking a $700 bottle of wine is hardly cause for hand-wringing.

That said, I was a bit surprised at how painless it was to hand over my credit card. I figured some postprandial misgivings were inevitable, but I didn’t feel even the slightest pang of imbiber’s remorse. To my (twisted) thinking, the wine was actually a bargain—a steal, even. The ‘96 Coche Corton-Charlemagne currently sells for between $1,500 and $3,500 per bottle at retail and auction. For me, the choice wasn’t between having the wine or not having it (for the wine obsessed, taking a pass is never an option); the choice was between spending $700 for it or double, triple, or even quadruple that. Thus, as I saw it, not only did I have one of the best wine experiences of my life, I got a hell of a deal in the process. I drove back into the center of Paris that afternoon feeling not just giddy, but savvy, too.

My quest began on a Saturday night in March 2005. I was attending La Paulée de New York, a biannual bacchanal modeled after the annual post-harvest celebration in the Burgundian village of Meursault. Several hundred people take part, and in addition to a handful of “official” wines, attendees are expected to bring their own Burgundies and to share them with their tablemates. This being New York, and Burgundy being a rich man’s game, the wines—and generosity—are incredible.

As I sat there sipping Romanée-Contis and Ramonets and silently suggesting to God that this would be a fine moment to take me if an early exit was the plan, I noticed, in front of a tuxedoed gentleman to my left, a bottle bearing a striking gold label: It was the 1996 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne. I’d never before seen a bottle of Coche-Dury’s Corton-Charlemagne, which was not altogether surprising; Jean-François Coche, who resides in Meursault, produces the wine only in minuscule quantities, and most of the bottles are squirreled away in restaurants and private cellars the moment they are released. Coche is considered by many aficionados to be the finest white-wine maker in Burgundy—some claim the finest white-wine maker period—and his wines are among the most sought-after in the world, none more so than his Corton-Charlemagne, which he has been producing since 1986.

Coche’s wines are not universally adored; some people find them too opulent and oaky. And some people find the man a little off-putting. That was my experience when I paid a call on him a few years ago. Although he’d agreed to the appointment, he made it clear that my visit was an imposition. While I got to sample various Meursaults, he didn’t offer me a taste of the Corton-Charlemagne, and I, feeling distinctly unwelcome, didn’t ask for one.

Now, just inches from my grasping fingers, sat a bottle of Coche’s 1996 Corton-Charlemagne, which was already being hailed as his greatest masterpiece. I wasn’t going to be shy this time. I gently tapped the tuxedoed gent on the shoulder and asked if I might taste the wine, whereupon he made two mistakes: He said yes, and he handed me the bottle. (I confess, I poured a bit more than the circumstances warranted; whoever you were, I apologize.)  Here’s the tasting note I wrote:

What a nose—hazelnut, oatmeal, sweet white fruit, smoke, spice, and a touch of nutmeg. Stirring nose. Ripe, spicy, sublime, succulent grapefruit, pear. Perfect balance. Holy shit.

It wasn’t a particularly incisive appraisal, but the table was crowded, paper was in short supply, and I already had a pretty nice buzz. Nevertheless, the note gives some indication of the delirium I experienced. The wine was amazing. I hardly tasted it for the first hour or so—I just wanted to smell it. Good as the aromas were, the wine was even better on the palate. I was in awe. Later that night, as the festivities wound down, I grabbed the empty bottle to bring home and add to my wine trophy case (don’t ask).

The next night, before going to bed, I picked up the bottle, brought it to my nose, took a whiff, and was thrilled to discover that the aromas were nearly as vibrant, and every bit as seductive, as they had been in the glass. Thus began a quotidian, quasi-pagan ritual: Each night, I would turn off the television, close the shades, pick up the bottle, inhale deeply for several moments, and head up to bed savoring the smell. At a certain point, I realized that the wine had assumed a very powerful hold on me; one thought led to another, and I was soon in front of the computer, Googling for locations and prices.

Pay dirt: A restaurant in Boston was showing the ‘96 Coche Corton-Charlemagne on its wine list for what was—relatively speaking, of course—the astonishingly low price of $495. I quickly called the restaurant and spoke with the sommelier. He verified the price, told me the wine was still available, and cheerfully agreed to hold a bottle for me.

Alas, getting to Boston proved more difficult than I expected. Finally, in mid-August, I booked a table for Labor Day weekend. Then, about a week before I was due to drive up to Boston, the sommelier called with bad news: He had been off the night before, and a colleague had sold the bottle—the last one they had.

I wanted to ask why he hadn’t taken the wine off the list or put a note on the bottle advising his colleagues that it was not for sale, but I decided to let it go; the wine was gone. I briefly toyed with buying a bottle at retail. I could find only one store offering it, a California-based merchant whose Web site was advertising the wine for around $1,600, but when I called I was told the wine was sold out. At that point, I decided to abandon the hunt. Perhaps I’d gotten a bit carried away. Maybe I just needed to resign myself to the possibility that this had been a once-in-a-lifetime wine.

Or maybe not. One afternoon last winter, while killing time on a wine discussion board, I came across a reference to a restaurant in the Paris area that apparently had a nice stash of Coche. The poster didn’t give the name of the restaurant or its location. Nor did he say whether the cellar contained the ‘96 Corton-Charlemagne. It didn’t matter; I had a fresh lead, and the hunt was back on. This time, Google yielded a review of a restaurant on the outskirts of Paris that possessed, according to the article, an abundant supply of Coche. I immediately called the restaurant and popped the question: Did they, by chance, have the ‘96 Corton-Charlemagne? “Oui,” the owner swiftly replied. And the price? It was 550 euros per bottle, or about $700—eminently doable. He agreed to put one aside, and I agreed to get to Paris as fast as I could.

It took me until November, but I finally made it. Shortly after noon on a cold, rainy day, my father and I parked the car on a curb near the restaurant (I’d been in France for nearly two weeks and was now driving like a native) and were greeted at the door by the owner Alain François, who led us to a table in the back. He instructed a waiter to retrieve the Corton-Charlemagne and suggested we whet our palates with some Beaujolais Nouveau, which had just been released that morning. A waitress brought three glasses of Beaujolais to the table, along with some jambon persillé (parsleyed ham, a Burgundian specialty).

As we sipped and chatted, the waiter returned to the table clutching a bottle bearing that now-familiar gold label. Monsieur François presented me the bottle, then carefully uncorked it and placed it in an ice bucket on an adjacent serving table. Food, of course, would be a secondary consideration—just something to coat our stomachs. My father ordered sea bass, I opted for scallops, and we agreed to split a dozen raw oysters for the first course. A few minutes later, Monsieur Francois came back, pulled the Corton-Charlemagne out of the bucket, and poured a small amount in each of our glasses. For the first and only time that day, I felt a frisson of apprehension. What if the wine was corked or otherwise off? What if it turned out that I didn’t like it as much as I thought I did? I swiveled the glass a bit, then cautiously raised it to my nose; as soon as I caught the first whiff, my concerns melted away. My father took a sniff of his glass, and he immediately registered a look of shock that called to mind the expression on Michael Spinks’ face when Mike Tyson first landed a glove on him in their 1988 title fight. Unlike Spinks, however, my father managed to remain upright. I took a sip of the wine and quickly pronounced the same verdict I had rendered 20 months earlier: “Holy shit.”

It was stunning. The glass gave off the most decadent, gorgeous perfume imaginable. There was a kaleidoscopic quality to the nose, with each spin of the glass coaxing forth a new aroma. In no particular order, I smelled hazelnuts, lemons, apples, pears, marzipan, oatmeal, lanolin, petroleum, honey, flowers, toasted oak, and mint. All of these scents were perfectly delineated, yet they also somehow added up to a seamless whole. On the palate, the wine had a rich, oily texture and a Platonic balance of fruit and acidity, all backed by a steel rod of minerality. Think of your favorite painting, or favorite novel, or favorite piece of music—this was it in liquid form.

About an hour into lunch, with just over half the bottle emptied, Monsieur François came back to the table to claim the glass I’d offered him. He gave himself a reasonably modest pour (as if I had any right to raise an eyebrow), smelled the wine a few times, and took a sip. His face lit up. As he nursed the glass, he told us that he began buying Coche-Dury wines in 1975, when Coche was still unknown, and though the winemaker has since become a rock star, he continues to send a generous allocation each year—despite the fact that he has never actually visited the restaurant. Monsieur François told me that he receives between 500 and 700 bottles annually from Coche—a small number of Corton-Charlemagnes, an assortment of his various Meursaults, and a larger assortment of his less-exalted wines. I then told him that I might write a story about my pursuit of the ‘96 Corton-Charlemagne but that publishing the name of his restaurant would likely bring droves of Coche-heads to his door. He assured me it wouldn’t be a problem. So here it is: The restaurant is Le Coq de la Maison Blanche, it is located at 37 Boulevard Jean Jaurès in Saint-Ouen, just a few miles from central Paris, and the phone number is 01 40 11 01 23. Tell Monsieur François Slate sent you, and leave a bottle of Coche’s Bourgogne Blanc for me—now, it is about all I can afford.