Wine School: How to Value Wine From $10 to $100

Recently we’ve been thinking how the wine world has it all figured out now. The recession blew the socks off trophy wines taking down everyone with them. The “survivor-type” wine producers foresaw the end of the “wine bubble” and started moving to lower pricing without sacrificing quality. The intersection of CHEAP and QUALITY is precisely where most wine consumers get lost. The old signals no longer work. You really just have to taste the wines to know for sure. There are other indicators such as knowing the importer or distributor but that gets into advanced wine studies. Here are some tips for selecting and detecting which wine to buy and which wine to pass on.

There is virtually no relationship between PRICE and QUALITY. As we shall attempt to illustrate. When the trophy wine bubble burst along with the economy in 2008 this truism became abundantly clear. The emergence of flash wine sites like Lot 18 and Wines Til Sold Out let it be known there were plenty “premium” labels sitting on stock that was not moving. Does this mean that the quality was not there? When we saw Williams Selyem offered on Lot 18 our jaw dropped. Sure the quality at WS had taken a turn when the program undertook a campaign to bottle ever more vineyards in order to maintain prices that had not skyrocketed over two decades. A noble business choice in some sense. WS still produced high quality wines BUT there had to be some reason for the placement. A better example of the rush to unload would be the proliferation of high end Napa Cabernet wines that simply fell through the floor inevitably showing up on flash sites. Many of these wines had been late entries to the trophy market and got caught with too much cash in, not enough reserves, and only one way to recoup. Start bailing! These are the most obvious cases where one must question the PRICE/QUALITY relationship to begin with. I was recently told by a car fanatic that Kia is the Korean Porsche. I just do not know enough to say whether he is correct however I really wonder if there was not some hyperbole operating. I know hyperbole still abounds in wine. The marketing just aims a little lower today.

1994 R. López de Heredia Rioja Reserva Viña Tondonia
$100: A flagship wine from the TOP PRODUCER in Rioja and perhaps all of Spain. People scrounge and save for these wines. Every bottle of the Bosconia I have tasted [ed. both of them] has been spectacular and worth $65. But this was a dog. Flat, without fruit, unappealing nose. With five tasters half the bottle is still sitting on my bar. 13% POSTSCRIPT: two weeks later I poured a half glass. While there was more fruit than before the wine was still without physical appeal.

There is no reason to presume the word RESERVE means anything more than higher price. BARREL SELECTION, VINEYARD SELECTION, etc. are meant to convey something special about the wine. Even when the winemaker has discriminated between his or her preferred vineyards, or rows, or vine pockets, or barrels of juice blended just so…you the consumer may still not like it. Only one thing is certain; the Reserve bottle will cost more than the “entry level” or “basic” blend. tBoW is never surprised to find he prefers the “entry level” bottle. This just happened with a Paso winery and a Tuscan beauty. The basic Cabernet Sauvignon from Rangeland in Paso held far more appeal for us than the vineyard select wine. The Tuscan entry level Sangio blend from Testamatta delivered everything and more. Recently, a team taster told me to forget the basic wine and just get the reserve for tasting. Whoa Nelly! Not so fast! If we have a choice of tasting both I definitely want to taste the difference.

The plain facts are that there are so many wines that fail to impress one should really not assume a “special” designation is a clue to selecting a decent bottle. The best policy is to keep trying out new wines from different regions. Case in point. tBoW team taster IGTY used to be strictly a “Montrachet” dude. tBoW cringed at the stories of pulling the cork on a 2 or 3 year old bottle of the most desirable Chardonnay vineyard in Burgundy, way ahead of its “natural” timetable. These wines should be aged 10 years minimum. Now IGTY is teaching tBoW how to try new white wines. He put us onto Muscadet. Now he says he likes German Riesling. Well hell yeh. IGTY has had it with $15 Pinot Noir from California. Right. That IS a tough sell. Mediocrity is rampant. We suggested he look at Garagiste which is like telling someone to lean a bit further over the guard rail. When you try new wines you never heard of the odds are good you will not be impressed.

2010 Consensio Cellars Symphony of Wines Amador County Tempranillo $30: We have enough wonderful wines from Lodi to no longer simply poo-poo Amador County as too hot. Consensio Cellars makes this wine. Consensio is as much an idea of a winery as it is one. And Symphony is an idea for a product line. The marketing is perfect for the disposable cash clan. So what about the wine? Well we have only tasted one so we offer that caveat. Maybe the Lodi Sangio is better. This comes out of the Camarillo Custom Crush group. The winemaker is sourcing fruit from the good value wine growing regions in the state including Lodi. Part of the wine experience is thinking about the wine, where it came from, what were they going for. The only question this raised was what is worse: making a middle-of-the-road wine with nothing exciting right down to the label, OR making a wine that might be defensibly overpriced given the highly regarded producer yet is simply awful? Same grape as the $100 Lopez. The Consensio is a repeat multi-gold medal regional state fair type winner as Best Domestic Tempranillo which could be like making the best pizza in Thailand. Says more about these fairs than the medal winning wines. [ed. Oooo! tBoW getting his crab on!] Maybe we are harsh but we were not impressed. Will probably sell out production! It is not that the wine is bad. It just offers nothing to get excited about. 14.4%

As if to prove the point about odds ratio, there was a third blind bottle recently tasted that kept hope alive.

2010 Azienda Vitivinicola Offida Bacchus Rosso Piceno Ciù Ciù $10: OK. Half Sangiovese and half Montepulciano. From the unglamorous Adriatic side of central Italy. Consider this Italy’s Languedoc – the Marches. Nice bright fruit. Some spiciness. Middle weight. Enough to like but not enough to search out. Ever. Of course, if we were driving up this coast we would drink it in a heartbeat. Of course, it would be served chilled. 13.5%

Congrats to two of the best tBoW team tasters on their wedding day!

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