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What Price Grape Juice?


They perch on the edge of their seats in auction rooms, paddles at the ready, waiting for a chance to bid on a bottle that will make them an instant celebrity in their social set.

The target here is a collectible--a rare, difficult-to-obtain wine. Collectors will pay ridiculous sums for these wines--at auctions, in wine shops and from other collectors. And some will even fly hundreds of miles to buy a case or two of something prized. Regardless of price, wine collectors slaver for bottles they can display for friends.

The operative word here is "display," because frequently collectors buy these bottles not for consumption as much as for bragging rights.

Scarcity is what makes a good wine a collectible. When a wine is difficult to find, the price rises and a mystique develops. Often, the mystique surpasses the actual taste.

And, of course, what is considered collectible depends on where you're collecting. In some parts of Macedonia, a locally famed sweet red wine is in great demand, though it isn't even known elsewhere in Eastern Europe, let alone in France or California. Similarly, the hot, in-demand wines in California may not be familiar to those outside the state.

What follows is a list of collectibles that California wine fanatics would find on the local scene. The list below gives approximate price and a brief description of the wine.

Hard-to-Get Wines That People Do All Sorts of Crazy Things to Get

1. Le Montrachet, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, $500. One of the most sought-after wines in the world because the domaine's 1 1/2-acre block in the heart of the Le Montrachet vineyard yields only 200 cases a year. This powerful, richly textured Chardonnay has immense flavor and long staying power.

2. Romanee-Conti, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, $600. Even though there is four times as much Romanee-Conti (800 cases), demand for it is even greater than for the preceding wine. So the price is higher, in some vintages reaching close to $1,000 a bottle. This 4 1/2-acre single-owner appellation controlee is located in the heart of Vosne-Romanee, north of the vineyard of La Tache. Though La Tache may be more concentrated in many vintages, Romanee-Conti is more sublime and complex.

3. Grace Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $75. A great wine from a two-acre Napa Valley vineyard. The grapes are hand-sorted and the wine aged in new French oak barrels. It is concentrated but still elegant, with nuances of mint and cherry playing tag with toasty notes. Sold only to mailing-list customers (there's a long waiting list). I love this wine. It is annually one of the top Cabernets in California and always has finesse. Tasting older vintages is rewarding, and younger wines appear to be even better. Special bottlings--such as magnums--fetch considerably more, commonly retailing for more than $1,000.

4. Bollinger "Vieilles Vignes," $180. The greatest Champagne I ever tasted was the 1979 version of this Blanc de Noirs, and other vintages are always superb. Only 200 cases are produced, and then only in great vintages. No more than 50 cases of Vieilles Vignes are shipped to the United States. The current vintage is 1982.

5. Haut-Brion Blanc, $200. Chateau Haut-Brion makes a tiny quantity of this white wine based on Semillon grapes. It is one of the most sublime and complex wines I have ever tasted. Tasty when young, it ages handsomely for decades.

6. Cote-Rotie "La Turque," "La Landonne" and "La Mouline," E. Guigal, $200. In good vintages, Guigal's powerful Syrah-based single-vineyard Cote-Roties are packed with black fruit flavors, and they age for decades. I occasionally find the wines astringent, and once in a while a bit of a horsey aroma creeps in.

7. Williams & Selyem Winery Pinot Noir "Rochioli Vineyard," $45. Arguably the best Pinot Noir in America. Those on the winery's mailing list send back order forms the day they get them. This wine is always great, loaded with strawberry and cinnamon and smoke from new French oak barrels. All Williams & Selyem Pinot Noirs are excellent, but the Rochioli is usually tops.

8. Chateau d'Yquem, $200. The famed dessert wine of Sauternes retains its pre-eminent position among collectibles. The honeyed pear and melon aroma of the young wine turns into caramel and vanilla with age. In good vintages, this wine leaps in price soon after it's sold out in retail shops.

9. Echezeaux, Henri Jayer, $175, and Richebourg, Jean-Nicolas Meo-Camuzet, $200. These red wines from companion wineries are both exotically scented and lavishly flavored, making Burgundy lovers' hearts go pit-a-pat. They are made in very limited quantities and are two of the most exciting Burgundies I have ever tasted, though I taste them infrequently.

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