As a winery, Australian producer Penfolds has always tried to be all things to all people.
In 1844, the cause was noble enough: Emigrated English physician Christopher Rawson Penfold planted vines around his Adelaide cottage and set out to produce wine for his patients; he was a firm believer in the curative power of the stuff, and at the outset, he focused on fortified wines styled after sherry and port. However, once cured, his clientele apparently decided that the medicine had value above and beyond its intent, and Penfold eagerly expanded his winery to accommodate them. Upon his death in 1870, his wife Mary took over the operation, and the Penfold family retained a controlling interest in the company for another century.
Penfolds’ reputation is justly deserved. In nearly all categories, styles and price ranges, the winery has consistently offered refined, aromatic and luscious wines.
Home on the Grange
Take Grange. Named after Dr. Penfold’s original South Australian cottage, which was in turn named after Mary Penfold’s Sussex home, Grange the label was first conceived by winemaker Max Schubert in 1951. Having toured the wine regions of Europe the previous year, Schubert returned to Penfolds intent on duplicating, and perhaps exceeding, the quality of top estate wines in France. Under the auspices of the company, he produced two thousand bottles of an unthinkably (for the era) powerful shiraz-based wine, which he called Grange Hermitage—‘Hermitage’ being an Australian synonym for shiraz. The critics didn’t care for the wine, and sales were weak, so in 1957, Schubert was ordered to stop producing it—advice which he ignored, continuing to vinify Grange in secret. His insubordination proved providential: By 1960, it was clear that Grange Hermitage was an extraordinarily age-worthy wine—the 1955 vintage alone won 50 gold medals—and management called for re-production, oblivious to the the fact that it had never stopped.
Grange is unique, no question, perhaps in the main because unlike most praiseworthy and pricy Old World classics, Penfolds’ flagship is not single-vineyard designated and cares little about reflecting a specific terroir. The grapes come from a wide strath of vineyards, and there is no specific ‘formula’ other than the winemaker’s palate. Still, Grange (the ‘Hermitage’ was dropped in 1989 after French whining grew intolerable) winds up being among the most well known and sought after wines in the world; across vintages, prices average $600 per bottle—it is considered Australia’s only Primier Cru equivalent.
Thanks a Lot; It’s Bin Great
Meanwhile, Penfolds produces a great ocean of quality drink for the masses—and we’re not talking sacramental wines, but wines for the other masses: Consistent, fruit-centered, spice-loaded affordables, many of which seriously over-deliver for the price point. Koonunga, like the Rawson’s Retreat range, can be had for around $7 a bottle; these wines are succulent and immediately accessible with uniquely Australian blends like chardonnay/semillon and shiraz/cabernet
A trifle more upscale is the Thomas Hyland series, named for Christopher and Mary Penfolds’ son-in-law, a canny marketer who took over the winery following Mary’s death and was responsible for an exponential growth phase during which the company wound up producing a full third of all South Australian wine output. Thomas Hyland wines are multi-regional blends (primarily from Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and cooler Adelaide), and available for under $15 a bottle.
The numbered ‘Bin’ wines (Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz and Bin 128 Coonawara Shiraz, for example) are another of Max Schubert’s innovations. They’re styled like Grange, but far less expensive, ranging from the mid-$20s to the mid-$30s, with a few notable exceptions like Bin 60A—vintage 2004, at $500, has to be the most expensive screw-cap wine ever made.
There are also Penfolds lot wines, Penfolds reserve wines, Penfolds fortified wines, Penfolds one-off special-release wines; you may be overwhelmed, but if you walk into the bodega with a finite wad of wealth in your wallet and are pining for a Penfolds, it is a virtual guarantee that you’ll walk out with something satisfying.
So, With All This Penfolds-Pumping, What’s the Problem?
We’re humble people here, right? Meek, even. And we intend to inherit the earth, as promised by the Jehovah of Hosts who indicated His intention to ultimately throw open the floodgates of Heaven and transfer the deed to the planet to us wimps.
And damn it, I don’t know about you, but I have a definite bug up my badonkadonk when dealing with non-meek people who act like they have already inherited it.
And if you can spend six figures on a single, barely-released bottle of wine, that’s you.
‘And ye are cursed, and you afflict me, even the whole nation of you.’ – Malachi 3:9
On June 29, Penfolds announced the global launch of the Ampoule Project, an acutely limited-release ’04 Block 42 (Kalimna Vineyard) made from the oldest continuously producing cabernet sauvignon vines on earth (the same earth I intend to inherit, thank you very much); the ten acre plot was planted in the 1880s. The wine received a perfect 100 point score from Wine Spectator, so some bright bulb in the Penfold chandelier came up with the idea of hiring a bunch of Aussie craftsmen to ‘…celebrate the provenance of truly extraordinary wine and in the spirit of Penfolds innovation and experimentation.’
So far, so good; even the cornball copy.
The tariff that Penfolds is charging? That’s where the precise nature of the good gets a little squirrely to your average workaday earth-inheritor:
$168,000 per 750 ml.—a standard size wine bottle.
The Ampoule Project team included Nick Mount (glass sculptor), Hendrik Forster (silversmith), Andrew Bartlett (furniture craftsman) and Ray Leake (glass blower), and the resulting objet d’art is accompanied by a Certificate of Authenticity signed by all the above, along with winemaker Peter Gago. I should think so.
And when you finally decide to open the damn thing—it should be ready to drink the same year that we meek will be cashing in on our inheritance—a senior member of the Penfolds winemaking staff promises to travel to wherever you are—even (apparently) to the wildest depths of the Mato Grosso rain forest or the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—and hold a ‘special ceremony’ in which he/she will officially open the glass plumb-bob casing and, using a specially designed tungsten-tipped, sterling silver scribe-snap, unscrew the bottle’s cap.
But that’s facetious, of course. There is no cap. There isn’t even a bottle: For the money they’re asking, a ‘bottle’ would hardly do, so instead, the wine is contained within a hand-blown ‘ampoule’.
Isn’t ‘Hand-Blown’ an Oxymoron?
For the bored and curious, an ampoule is a hermetically-sealed vial traditionally reserved for 1) The blood of saints, 2) Low frequency RFID tags, 3) Anointing oil for the coronation of French monarchs, 4) Cesium; the waste extracted from nuclear reactors.
Wine appears to be something of uncharted ampoule territory, and as such, the folks at Penfolds promise a ‘truly memorable experiential and sensory engagement’.
Amazing what $168 large can buy you in terms of language, too. Who writes like that, even when they’re joking?
So, if you have the dosh and choose to waste it on a single ampoule of cabernet, what do I care?
I suppose I don’t, but once the awe wears off—and it really is a transcendentally beautiful package—the whole deal begins to come across like Penfolds’ version of the Istana Nurul Iman palace, home to the Sultan of Brunei. With two thousand rooms, three hundred bathrooms, a hundred ten car garage, five Olympic-sized pools and air-conditioned stables for the Sultan’s two hundred polo ponies, the palace seems rather mind-bogglingly over-the-top in a world (my world) where three billion souls—half the population—live on less than $2.50 a day.
Penfolds’ painfully pretentious project likewise.
If six hundred dollars for a bottle of Grange seems steep—and it does—a $168,000 ampoule of Block No. 42 must send you through a newly-formed wormhole of unconscionable self-indulgence and into some bizarre, plethoric, idiotic ego dimension in the wine world’s Twilight Zone.
But I can hardly spend any more time fretting about it, folks; I have a steamy date on Saturday night who I want to impress, and I need to ask God if I can—just this once—borrow the keys to the Earth.