Twenty-dollar-bill wines don’t really cost twenty dollars, so you can put your wallet away. The name comes from a joke that is popular among economists and therefore essentially unknown to the rest of the world. The joke goes like this.
A non-economist walks into a bar and says excitedly to the bartender (who is an economist). 'Wow, this is my lucky day! I just found a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk in front of your bar!' The bartender takes a long look at the fellow, who is waving the bill in the air. 'No, you didn’t,' he says. 'Yes, I did!' replies the customer. 'See, it’s right here!' 'Can’t be—you’re wrong,' the economist-bartender coolly replies. 'You’re ignoring rational economic theory. If there had been a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk, someone would have already picked it up. So it is logically impossible that you could have found one.'
'But look—here it is!' the customer exclaims. 'Look, buddy,' the bartender says, turning away, 'What do you think I’m going to believe—your bill or my theory?'
The joke of course (sorry, but economists always explain jokes, even the obvious ones) is that economists tend to believe their theories even when they can clearly see refuting evidence with their own eyes. You would think that this makes economists different from regular folks, but in the case of rare wines, we are all pretty much the same.
There are many 'cult' wines that are famous for being impossible to buy. They are so scarce, the story goes, that they are all invisibly absorbed by the lucky few folks who years ago gained access to the wine-club distribution list. No one else ever gets a shot. They are as rare as rare can be. I call these the twenty-dollar-bill wines because if you saw one (at a wine shop or on a restaurant wine list), you would probably rub your eyes. Impossible! How could that be? Must be a mistake (or maybe a fake!). If they really had that wine for sale, they would already have sold it.
Now the dirty little secret of these wines is that they are sometimes quite reasonably available, but the myth of impossible scarcity is maintained because that’s how myths work and because no one can believe their eyes. This was especially true during the Great Recession that began in 2008. Many impossible-to-find wines showed up in the marketplace as wine-club members resold their allocations and restaurants offloaded their new shipments, and some of their reserve wines were put on the market, too. You could pick up these wines on the sidewalk (well, not exactly . . .), yet the myth that they were impossible to find prevailed.
Opus One is an example that illustrates the twenty-dollar-bill concept at work, although I admit that it is not a perfect example. Opus One is a cult Napa Valley winery founded in 1979 as a partnership between California legend Robert Mondavi and Bordeaux legend Baroness Philippine de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild and of course Mouton Cadet. Opus One is a red Bordeaux blend made from grapes sourced from Mondavi’s (also legendary) To Kalon vineyard. The website offers the opportunity to purchase a single bottle of the 2008 vintage of Opus One (no more!) for $225. It’s not impossible to purchase, apparently, but it is very limited.
Objectively, however, Opus One and many other cult wines are relatively easy to find. I have read that Opus One produces thirty thousand cases (or 360,000 bottles) of its first wine, for example, which is a very considerable amount of wine given its selling price. It is rare, I admit, and I would be surprised to see it at a sidewalk sale, but its scarcity is as much the result of rational theory as concrete fact.
The real rarities, in my mind, are wines made in small quantities for local consumption from indigenous grapes – I call them the “invisible wines” because they are rarely seen outside their traditional homes. They have no large economic interests behind them and are frequently ignored or simply overlooked by wine media. Often they are produced in tiny quantities and can be found within a very small geographic neighborhood. They are wines to be savored if you are lucky enough to find them. Our last trip to Italy yielded three of these small treasures: Pignoletto, Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, and Ruché.
Pignoletto is a dry white wine grown only in the hills outside Bologna. “Lively, crisp, aromatic” is how Jancis Robinson describes it in her Guide to Wine Grapes. Pignoletto is distinctly Bolognese – grown there, made there, and I think that every last drop of it is consumed there, too, since it goes so well with the rich local cuisine (almost as if they evolved together . . . which I guess they did). It would be hard to beat the simple meal of salumi, cheese, and bread that we had with a bottle of pignoletto frizzante at Tamburini’s wine bar in the Bologna central market.
Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is a distinctive red wine from the Marche region. Robinson describes it as 'fast maturing, strangely scented.' Burton Anderson says that it is a 'purple-crimson wine with . . . foxy berry-like odor and ripe plum flavor.' Apparently it fades very quickly, but it is distinctive and intense while it lasts. It sure stood up to the very rich cuisine of Ferrara when we visited our friends in that city. We were fortunate that the restaurant owner guided us to this wine from the Mario Lucchetti estate.
Ruché comes from the Piemonte, and we stumbled upon it by accident (which I guess is how we usually stumble...). We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen 'pro loco' civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to a hungry luncheon crowd.
I had never heard of ruché and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with ruché, marinating fruit in ruché, and selling it by the glass—they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw ruché everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that night. 'Like nebbiolo,' Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.' An interesting wine and a memorable if unexpected discovery.
Wines like these are diamonds in the rough (sometimes they can taste a bit rough, too, but that’s another story). So much attention is focused on famous names and international wine-grape varieties that we overlook the really rare, sometimes fragile wines."
* "Extreme Wine: Searching the World For the Best, the Worst, the Outrageously Cheap, The Insanely Overpriced, and the Undiscovered," by Mike Veseth, is published by Rowan & Littlefield at $24.95. The ebook edition is priced $23.99.