I just returned from Sonoma--so I'm an expert on all things wine for the next month or so.
One could really get used to a life out there: beautiful weather, wonderful entertainment and dining options, friendly and interesting people. What was it that Kurt Vonnegat didn't actually say? "Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel."
As we all know, not all wine is created equal and price is NOT the way to tell the difference.
I was enjoying our first tour and tasting at Far Niente when it fermented in my mind how people tend to not understand how to think about wine. The wines at Far Niente are superb . . . in my opinion. Fortunately, I don't find them so superb that it spoils less expensive wine for me. I can appreciate both the difference and that it is a difference rather than a superiority.
Many people don't understand this. They want to think about it linearly: good to bad = expensive to cheap. But wine is not something so simply categorized. The evaluation is multidimensional. Comparing wine is not as simple as comparing soft drinks. Soft drinks are much more a commodity (both in supply as well as demand). There are taste preferences, but the taste dimension has much tighter bounds in soft drinks than with wine.
Doesn't price correlate with quality, you ask. Yes, but quality is in the eye of the beholder. People want wine to be like real estate where quality tends to be relatively linear in definition. Larger dominates smaller. Most people tend to agree most of the time on location preferences. Elaborate dominates simplistic. And so on. There is of course a lot of room for personal taste differences in real estate. It is just that these are muted relative to the linear factors.
Instead of real estate consider wine to be like art. Here there are vast differences in personal taste and these tend to be overwhelming. It is a lucky man who can get as much joy out of his child's painting as he can a Picasso. I look at wine the same way. Our very sophisticated yet down-to-earth guide at Far Niente is perhaps cursed with a high appreciation for fine wine.
Adapting the analogy to hit closer to home, consider the differences in football appreciation. For some only the NFL will do. For others watching the same college team when good and even when not so good is the top preference. Still for others even any small college game gets the job done. Is devotedly liking OU or Texas or Alabama superior to having the same devotion to Kansas or Tulane or Indiana? Of course not. Sitting in premium seats to watch OU beat Texas is consuming an altogether different product as compared to casually watching from home or listening on the radio while you work on your car. It is essentially a coincidence that these three things involve the same sporting event facts and outcome. My meal at Bouchon and your meal at McDonald's share only the coincidence that both involved digestion.
There is one other aspect to consider when it comes to the price of wine: namely, budget constraints matter. One factor that determines consumer responsiveness to price changes (the technical term is elasticity) is how much of a consumer's wealth the price represents. Pencils are a classic example as they are usually so cheap that a large increase in price does not cause a large decrease in the amount purchased (price inelastic). Wine is not an inelastic good for me. So to ask if a bottle that is 10x the price of another is 10x as satisfying is relevant to me. But it is not relevant for a billionaire. So understand that the price dynamics in part of the wine (and art and sports attendance) market is simply not relevant to many of us.
PS. Here are some pictures from my trip. Random thought: How less popular would wine be if it were produced in less amazing places?