The problem with people, as one eminent writer put it, is that we know the price of everything but the value of nothing. This fine observation is, perhaps, what separates the simply moneyed from the cultured with what the French call savoir-faire.
There is a reason people use price as a measure for value because it is easier to quantify and, unlike price, which is an absolute measure for a good’s worth, value is something variable and open to interpretation. If something can be measured, it is easier to compare to a similar other, which then sets the trend for defining superlatives. Sadly, this means that pure demand and supply will decide what is perceived to be better even though that may not necessarily be the truth.
Don’t be shocked; when Napoleon qualified the wines of Bordeaux (the famous 1855 classification) that is exactly how he did it. He established a directly proportionate link between price and quality and classified the wines in descending order, thereby defining the Grand Crus of Bordeaux, an act which changed the world of wines forever, elevating certain houses to immortality while relinquishing others to obscurity. Was it justified? Hard to comment. Was it correct? Well, if you are an economist who believes that the fine balance of demand and supply reigns supreme and therefore a wine which is in demand is capable of commanding a high price, then you’d probably side with Napoleon. But, the many houses that made great wines then but didn’t make the price cut by the slightest of margins, and the houses that today are much more widely lauded than the ones Napoleon consecrated (some of those ‘prestigious’ houses don’t even exist anymore), might not entirely agree.
Other critics resort to rating scales and charts, and organise competitions to define value as unambiguously as possible. If they could, they would define everything to five decimal places and still leave it open-ended thereon! And yet, a one true definition eludes them.
Is there an updated algorithm that is more sensitive to the tactile aspect and less crude than the price-based categorisation? The answer, very simply, is ‘no’.
But, don’t despair. We have another tool to tackle this problem. Luckily for all of us, we have access to perhaps the most sophisticated laboratory in history. So refined and so personalised is this exclusive lair that only we have individual access to it and only we ourselves understand its functioning. I am talking about the human palate (no specific organ as such, but a combination of our smell, taste and, sometimes, even touch) and the multitudes of unique tastes that can be assessed, documented, and subsequently, recalled by it, thereby creating a reputable repertoire to dip into and comment on anything that is presented to us. Hence, the adage ‘practice makes perfect’ holds exceptionally true in the case of food and wine, for the more one tries, the more formed one’s opinion becomes.
To taste and evaluate wine is the only way to approach this perplexity of quality. For your own self, the only method that holds unparalleled value is your perception of a product—how it tastes on your palate, how you react to the taste, and how the experience leaves you feeling. All else fades into that white noise called background as the truth emerges unhindered, undiluted, pristine. To throw in a bit of philosophy, people who believe that wine tasting teaches us something about the wine are missing the best part. Tasting wines helps us realise a lot about our own selves for what is our reaction to wine if not a measure of our sensitivity thresholds, our likes and dislikes, and our behavioural patterns to certain stimuli. Tasting wine can be likened to looking into a mirror—it may tell us something about the mirror, but it certainly isn’t the point of the exercise.
So, what is the value of a good wine? Priceless. It is at best encased in a memory that can be recalled and relived as often as one likes. Such a joy cannot be pegged to any parameters or price brackets. And that, my friends, is the greatest joy of a great wine. It lingers long after the last drop has been poured and, as time passes, the taste only grows fresher in memory.