Cedric Bouchard
“La Haute-Lemblé”
$165 USD at Income Tax (Chicago, IL)

Wine writers—what a deft and lucky bunch. From vintage pours in the catacombs beneath the hills of Burgundy, to endless buckets of free Grand Marques Champagne, the wine writer’s glass is never empty. Indeed, he or she could use a fresh splash of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti ’72, if you don’t mind.

This is most assuredly not our milieu here at Sprudge Wine, and indeed, the culture around today’s progressive wine culture—sometimes called “natural wine”, or real wine, or wine that doesn’t suck—is not supposed to cost a fortune. In fact, it seems to stand diametrically opposed to the fetishization of wildly expensive wines. What a huge breath of fresh air.

But there’s still certainly some more pricey bottles—by which we mean above $100—I would sincerely like to drink someday, but cannot. Thus this column, which highlights the wines we can’t afford, but still think sound rad. It’s the wines your eyes drift to on the restaurant list, but you just can’t make the math work out. It’s the splurge you’ll be able to afford someday, but in the meantime…the $25 Bow & Arrow or $30 Peter Lauer will do just wonderfully, thank you.

The first bottle featured in Wines I Can’t Afford comes ripped from the pages of my own diary. I recently had the opportunity to visit Income Tax, an excellent restaurant in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood from Chef Ryan Henderson, owner Nelson Fitch and general manager Collin Moody. Henderson’s worked for Wylie Dufresne and Danny Grant, and Moody is well-known in the Chicago wine and coffee worlds for his work with Red & White Wines and Intelligentsia Coffee, respectively.

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Income Tax walks the line between restaurant and bar, and tows perhaps closer to the former than the latter. Smart reviews from the Chicago Tribune and other city publications have helped turn it into a dining destination, and Henderson’s food—a kind of pan-Euro bistro bazaar of influences and techniques—more than lives up to the task, from his comforting, capable Coq au Vin to light, flavorful, occasionally chance-taking pastas (carrot agnolotti with veal shortbreads) and dumplings (Germanic rye dumplings served along stuffed quail with cabbage). But for our purposes Moody’s wine list is the focus, and it’s a masterclass on fusing accessibility with an earnest attempt to broaden horizons.

This is by no means a 100% natural wine list—whatever that actually means—but it is stocked with the sorts of bottles you’ll find at nice progressive wine shops: Clos Cibonne “Tibouren”, Ar.Pe.Pe. “Rosso di Valtellina”, a great big magnum of Le Sot de L’Ange “Sec Symbol” for less than a hundred bucks. It’s a professional and respectful list with something for everyone, even the hedonistic magnum-pounding glou-glou hordes. It’s a list with stuff I want to drink, and Moody will open anything for you and pour by the half-bottle, which is generous and cool and perhaps how all I dream all wine lists could be.

And then there is the Bouchard.

New York’s great Chambers Street Wines calls Cedric Bouchard “the poster-child for single vineyard, single variety, single vintage Champagne, a man who has categorically rejected blending and has established a new paradigm for micro-production, terroir-driven grower Champagne.” If you’ve never drunk grower Champagne before, trying these wines can be as eye-opening as tasting your first natural processed coffee, or trying a farm fresh egg for the first time. It is astonishing, world-beating stuff, and it opens the doors to question everything we’ve come to learn as a society about Champagne as a luxury item, reserved for conspicuous consumption.

Bouchard works in the Côte des Bars, a region beautifully profiled by influential New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov as “a sort of scullery in the elegant house of bubbly, essential to the smooth operation of Champagne, but best ignored.” Long consigned to blending, wines from the Côte des Bar—in the very far south of Champagne, closer to Chablis than Reims—are now being celebrated and sought after by progressive wine types. None moreso than Bouchard’s, whose lovely entry-level “Inflorescence” wines retail for around $60, with more distinct bottling rising from there in price and loveliness.

I’m not even sure how the Income Tax has this wine in the first place. Bouchard’s Haut-Lemble is made in exceedingly small batches of just 500-800 bottles (not cases, bottles) annually, as per Chambers Street. (Another site, Renaissance Vintners, lists annual production at 1200 bottles, but still, that’s nothing.)  It’s a blanc de blanc, meaning 100% Chardonnay, from a tiny plot no bigger than 1/10th of a hectare, owned by Bouchard himself.

It must taste marvelous. But alas, we did not splurge for it, choosing instead to enjoy a half-bottle of the Sandhi Chardonnay with our chicken, then enjoying a splash or two of whatever Moody brought by from there (including some good sherries, yum yum, from Income Tax’s considered sherry list). But if you’re out there reading this and you’ve got a rich uncle in town, or you had a good week at work, or you want to just say “fuck it” and plonk down cash for something you may never see again, much less drink, let me suggest this bottle at Income Tax, where you’ll be treated well and have delicious stuff to snack on between sips.

This is wine I can’t afford, but it deserves a good home. Perhaps it can be yours. But meanwhile, you know, as an alleged wine writer, feel free to invite me along when you pop the cork. Or if you’ve got a splash of that ’72 DRC left, I wouldn’t say no.

Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network.