To celebrate, impress guests or boots-and-all showing off ... ordering wine has many purposes.
To celebrate, impress guests or boots-and-all showing off ... Ordering wine has many purposes. Photo: Quentin Jones

Cathy Gowdie

At some restaurants I see bottles priced at $1000-plus - sometimes much more. Do people actually buy them?

That is a rhetorical question, right? I'll ask a couple of my own. When you browse a city jewellery store, do you ponder why they've put a necklace in the window so dazzling it ought be worn to a royal wedding by the Dowager Countess Filthyrich? Do you wander through a Mercedes dealership and wonder why the sexy new S-class gets pole position on the showroom floor? Of course, you don't.

You know most people at the jewellers plan to buy an engagement ring or a pair of earrings, just as you know most people in the car showroom are more likely to buy from the ''entry level'' or middle range. But those super-fabulous items on display serve some important purposes. First, they reassure you that you're in a classy place. Second, they give you stuff to fantasise about should you win the lottery or a job at an investment bank. And, third, they make whatever you're there to buy look, well, quite reasonably priced - even if it's a a lot more than you initially planned on paying.

Wine lists can be like that. Not so much at neighbourhood places, but at the kinds of special-occasion restaurants where well-to-do people go to celebrate, impress guests or indulge in a spot of boots-and-all showing off.

When a sommelier assembles a list at a restaurant such as this - and it's a more complex task than you might think - he or she will aim to offer wines that reflect the restaurant's style, play well with its food, and speak to its customers' tastes and aspirations. This is where a smattering of super-expensive, hard-to-get or iconic wines play their part. Though they may not be ordered often, these wines help justify their place on the list in a number of ways. Their price tags reinforce customers' sense that they are dining somewhere pretty flash with a serious cellar. The wines give enthusiasts and label fetishists a brush with glamour, plus a chance to marvel at the sommelier's acumen and the restaurateur's deep pockets. And if they have deep pockets of their own - well, you never know …

Finally, they give people who get a kick out of spending exorbitant sums in front of others the chance to do exactly that. Such bottles are most likely to be ordered by a host for a group. Sadly, for some such high-rolling hosts, the quality of the wine may be a secondary consideration. For folk of this ilk, much of the enjoyment comes from dropping a lot of dough and being seen doing it.

What's the most expensive bottle of wine you've ever bought? Was it worth the price tag? Share your thoughts in the comments below.