Three years ago, W.A.G (Wine Allergic Girlfriend) and I sold the café we owned in Western MA. We owned this café for the three years before that. In terms of the café-ownership’s (now diminishing) importance on our identity, this is a milestone. It’s like when certain 25-year-olds stop measuring time according to their college years. You reach a point where benchmarks change.
To celebrate this milestone, we invite our friends Janke and Emily (a Real-Life Lexicographer for the Real-Life Merriam-Webster Dictionary) to a French restaurant in Northampton, MA. While “going out to dinner” lacks creativity in the celebration space, dining is one of the few things for which I have considerable talent. Not eating mind you—I have no passion for food and find people who do a little weird—but the act of eating and drinking with others in both public and private. I enjoy the excuse that dining creates for long, involved, inebriated conversation and I am good at it. For the record, I am also really good at going out to coffee.
Luckily for me, W.A.G. also excels at dining; and, if anything, Janke and the Lexicographer are even better. I don’t say this without reason. Our two friends dine more intensely than W.A.G and me; were there ever to be high-level competitive dining, their commitment would be the dividing line between the old wheat and chaff. Partly this is a food thing—both Janke and Emily enjoy food at, to me, a confounding level—but also—and this is the real thing I think—there is a willingness to Go Big.
“What is the best meal you’ve ever had?” Emily asks. We have gone through a bottle of champagne; after some deliberation about price and whether it makes any sense at all to order a non-French wine in a French restaurant, we ask for a wine from Bordeaux. The wine is a few dollars more than their least expensive bottle. Because this is a celebration, W.A.G. and I told each other before heading out that “Money was no object.” This of course does not mean that Money is literally No Object. It just means we’ll allow ourselves to get dessert.
“I don’t have one,” I say, meaning no Best Meal. This is true for W.A.G. as well. We cap out enjoyment-wise when it comes to things like food and vacations. I might enjoy the $20 entrees at this French Restaurant more than the $6 food at our local sandwich shop; and I might enjoy the street-stand tacos better than all of it or whatever, but ultimately, I don’t rank my dining experiences. I enjoy dining; but within that, my enjoyment doesn’t vary all that much.
Janke and Emily do have a Best Meal story, however. While traveling in Spain a few years ago, the two of them planned to visit a restaurant in Barcelona on the recommendation of a friend (who happens to be a sommelier in Boston). This restaurant had two Michelin stars, some type of rating I don’t really understand, though I know the stars’ weight and significance is more Army-general-lapel than local-film-critic.
The couple called to arrange a dinner reservation, but were told the place had no dinner seats available for their entire stay in Barcelona. The restaurant could accommodate them at midday however, if Janke and Emily could come the next day. Thinking this would be a cheaper meal any way and would help them stay on the vacation budget, they agreed to show up the next day at 1:30.
As Janke tells it, it appeared the restaurant opened special for them. No one else entered the restaurant throughout their entire meal; a meal that lasted four hours and sixteen courses. Not only were there no prices on the menu, there wasn’t even really a menu. Instead, there was a sequence of food they would be served; like a Playbill describing the various Acts and Intermissions of a play.
In addition to the food that arrived (and kept arriving), the sommelier of the restaurant arranged special wine pairings for each major course. By the end of it, the couple had probably consumed two whole bottles each. Each of them had two servers attending to everything, whether they needed it or not. Upon returning from the bathroom during the meal, they would find their napkin re-folded into the dangerous origami known only to the fanciest of restaurants. They stumbled out of the restaurant late afternoon, the daylight feeling totally inappropriate.
“The meal cost over $600,” Janke tells us. He and I had both supplemented the bottle of French wine with some Spanish wine by the glass. I didn’t feel drunk, but knew I would when I stopped talking. The restaurant had begun to fill up a little more, though it was by no means busy. The emptiness, combined with some too-bright overhead lighting, made it slightly difficult to relax.
“Yeah, which was over our food budget for the entire vacation. And this was like our third day there. We literally ate bread and cheese from the supermarket for the next week and a half.”
Which: OK. This sounds very romantic and Ethan Hawkish; and we can sit in this French restaurant nodding our heads and saying, oh yes, it was worth it. How often do you get the chance for something like that? Sixteen courses? $600? The Best Meal Ever?
But truthfully, is that worth it? Is a $600 meal that much better than our $100 meal? Or is there a cap to the enjoyment?
Maybe with a restaurant experience, $600 can buy you more—clearly your napkin will remain folded—but what about with wine? In some ways the price question is more pure here; no matter the price, you are still only buying a bottle of wine. And So: what is the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $100 bottle? Is it quantifiable? The most expensive wine I think I’ve ever consumed was close to $100 retail. I drank it at home one evening with dinner to commemorate something, I don’t remember. It was nice, but I do not remember anything about the wine’s flavor. In fact, I remember only the price.
There was a California Institute of Technology study recently about how knowledge of a wine’s price affects how a person tastes that wine. The researchers asked the subjects to taste five different cabernet sauvignons, all sold at different prices. The reveal here is that the subjects actually only tasted three wines; two wines given twice, but with different prices attached. So like there was a $90 bottle of wine, a $5 bottle, and a $20 bottle. The researchers gave the $90 wine twice, one time telling the subjects it was $90 (which it was), while the other time saying it was only $5. Not only did the subjects not suspect it was the same wine, and not only did they rate that wine higher when they thought it cost $90, their actual brain function changed, showing more pleasure. As a final slap to the $90 bottle, as a New York Times report on the study said, “when tasters did not know any price comparisons, they rated the $5 wine as better than any of the others sampled.”
The idea that price would affect one’s experience of wine is, of course, not surprising—knowledge of price affects everything always—but this is the kind of thing wine aficionados/snobs hate. Just like the famous experiment where (hopefully blindfolded) people could not distinguish between red and white wine when both were served at room temperature, this study invalidates the basis for many wine-lovers’ passion. It gives the impression that their fancy talk and rating systems are at best an illusion, and at worst, actually made up.
This problem seems at least specific (if not exclusive) to wine. Compared to stuff like cars or restaurants, even the greatest differences between two different wines are pretty darn subtle. There’s neither bell nor whistle (nor napkin fold) when it comes to a bottle of wine. The differences between two wines are simply the difference between two liquids whose recipe, regardless of grape or region, is essentially always the same.
Which is not to say that all wines are of equal quality—obviously there are better grapes, more thoughtful producers, better tended soil, etc.—just that the experience of wine quality is pretty elusive. It’s much easier to experience distinctions in price. I know exactly how to evaluate the difference between $10 and $100—and so I use that as a guide for how to experience the wine I drink. I don’t remember liking the aforementioned $100 bottle of wine better than the $10 bottles I go through by the caseload; but I do remember caring about the bottle more. I think I even kept it around for a while, empty, on my desk.
But, as the California Institute of Technology’s study illustrates, using price to determine quality is not necessarily a strong guide, and could be downright misleading. We are haunted that maybe this $100 bottle tastes pretty much like this $10 bottle; or worse, that the $10 bottle tastes better.
This is why I love Janke and Emily’s Best Meal Ever story. Spending $600 on a meal for two is (except for maybe the very rich, and probably even for them) completely absurd. And I’m thinking the financial absurdity opens you up to, or at least focuses you on, the experience. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not, and I don’t know if I could even do it, but perhaps Going Big pushes you beyond the question of whether this thing—food, wine, etc—is worth it and into a place where your meal or the wine, and not money, is the object.
When the bill came for our celebration dinner, we split it down the middle. W.A.G. and my half came to just over $150. When I looked at the bill, I briefly regretted choosing this slightly fancy restaurant for our celebration. While I enjoyed the meal, I don’t think I enjoyed it more than I would have somewhere less expensive, assuming that place had cocktails.
Perhaps I would feel differently if it had cost $600.