Are "Special Occasion Wines" really worth it? How good are U.S. wines in the $30 to $50 range?
Once again I found myself asking that after judging at Sunset magazine's Western Wine Awards.
These awards are different from most in that all wines considered have to be nominated by a wine writer, rather than submitted by wineries that pay to enter. So in theory, it should be a group that ranges from good to excellent.
But that wasn't my experience in judging 51 wines in the $30 to $50 category. And while the over-$50 category has some nice wines, the quality is surprisingly variable there too. (Caveat: I'm relying on the opinion of the over-$50 category's judges, as I tasted just 15 or so of those wines, non-blind, after finishing my panel.)
If I spend $40 for an American wine, I want it to be good. I don't think this was a bad group of wines, but only a few excited me, and nothing made me drop to me knees and thank God for fermentation (though I should do that anyway on general principle.)
Another judge, a sommelier and wine industry consultant, told me this year's group of over-$50s was better than last year's, which he said was difficult to get through because of all the imbalanced, huge, over-ripe wines. I see two reasons: this year had more Pinot Noirs -- a sign of increasing prices -- and fewer "name brand" Cabernets.
So are pricey U.S. wines really that good, as a class? I think not, but we don't complain because they're not openly bad. If you order one $60 wine in a restaurant and it's "nnnh" (my feeling about approximately half the wines, and remember these all came recommended), you drink it and don't complain -- especially if it's a well-respected brand. You're not thrilled, but you're not ripped off. You forget it and move on. But when you taste it blind, without knowing the back story or having someone else praise it, you're forced to confront its mediocrity.
All of that said, I love judging at Sunset. The tasting size is manageable -- more than 60 wines becomes a slog. And we get a nice lunch from their test kitchens afterward, along with any and all of our favorites of the wines we just tasted. That sounds so simple, but it's actually quite rare on the wine judging circuit. I think it adds depth to our understanding of the wines because we get a chance to retaste them with food.
Looking at my notes, I can see that the reds I liked tended to be full-flavored. I don't think of myself as a fruit bomb guy, but I do believe in judging wines on their merits, and maybe that's what the West Coast does best. Winemakers have to work with what the sun gives them.
Here are my favorites from the $30-$50 group. I don't know the eventual winner, as I was just one of four judges. But I'd be happy to pay the retail price for any of these.
Just one entered, but it was a beauty: 2005 Schramsberg North Coast Blanc de Blancs ($36). Complex aromas and flavors of honeycomb, toast, lemon pith. One taster said, "Can we get a second bottle of this? To take home?" 92
2007 Ridge Monte Bello Estate Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($40): My favorite in this category, easily. Nicely balanced wine; toast and lemon flavors stay persistent though long finish. Burgundian in its elegance. 94
2008 St. Supery Dollarhide Ranch Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($35): Intense passion fruit flavor and aroma; nice fruit. Mollified acidity will attract some people more than others. 89
2006 Tantara Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir ($48): Juicy black cherry with nice acidity; raspberry and violet notes in aroma. Good balance, good fruit. An easy pleasure. 92
2006 Dutton-Goldfield Morelli Lane Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($40): Intense, juicy blackberry with hint of bramble and a long finish. Not particularly complex, but a great mouthful of fruit. 90
2006 Mazzocco Pony Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($32): A fruit bomb but 3-dimensional, like a blast of blackberry with all the stems and seeds. 92
2005 JC Cellars Caldwell Vineyard Napa Valley Syrah ($45): Another fruit bomb -- very ripe blackberry, rich, soft mouthfeel. Spiciness in the aroma gives it that extra attractiveness. 90
2006 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Syrah ($32): Balanced and elegant. Blackberry flavors with notes of coffee and orange peel. 91
2005 Snow's Lake County Two Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc ($45): Jammy black raspberry with some pleasantly herbaceous bramble. Nice mouthfeel -- mostly smooth, but a little prickly to give it some presence. Well-integrated. 90
2006 Abeja Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($43): Voluptuous wine. Ripe and rich with good blackberry fruit and a little toast. Lots of tannins but they're very well managed. 92
The wines below were wines from other categories that I enjoyed at lunch, but since I didn't taste them blind in context (plus I had just tasted more than 50 wines) I don't feel right giving them scores. Still, nice wines all:
2007 Macrostie Carneros Chardonnay ($23) -- Burgundian in a good way
2006 Landmark Steel Plow The Kivelstadt Family Vineyard Sonoma Valley Syrah ($29.99) -- I wish this had fallen into my category, because it was fantastic. Another taster called it "the best northern Rhone I've had in a long time."
2007 Kutch McDougall Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($80) -- Maybe the nicest of the pricey Pinots I tasted, but it wasn't my panel. With that caveat, an excellent wine
2006 Dutton-Goldfield Devil's Gulch Vineyard Marin County Pinot Noir ($55) -- Controversial enough to engender continued debate. Some felt it was too powerful for Marin County. All I will say is I liked it with my lamb chop.
2000 Schramsberg J. Schram Brut Rosé ($130) -- Schramsberg is by far the best bubbly maker in the U.S. Elegant, delicious, refined, refreshing. I could drink this every day.
Also, I really liked the 2003 Erba Mountainside Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot ($38), which was at its peak, wonderfully complex and sophisticated, yet smooth and satisfying. However, it turned out to be a ringer, as Erba has released at least two vintages since, so I won't rate it. But if you find some at that price, buy it.