Expensive Cabernets aren’t all that.
This was my takeaway from judging at the Sunset Magazine Wine Awards last week.
Sunset divides wine into four price categories: below $15, $15-$30, $30-$50 and over $50. Usually I volunteer to judge one of the moderate categories.
But this year, they made me wear pancake makeup and a metrosexual sweater for an hour-long photo shoot in the sun (Blake, can you cross your legs? At the ankles? The other way? And lean your hand on the box? And look casual?). I decided to go greedy and parked my too-black-for-Sunset jacket at the pricey table.
Sara Schneider, Sunset’s wine editor, warned me that I might not like it as well as my regular perch in the under-$50s, because the wines tend to be overblown. She was so right. I breezed through 21 whites from $35 to $50 before moving up in price, and I did not move up one iota in deliciousness.
Sunset’s awards are limited to wines from California, Oregon and Washington that have been nominated by writers and sommeliers. They don’t accept unvetted entries, so it’s generally a good group, which is why I like judging it.
The tasting is blind, as all good ones are, and it’s a verbal irony that blind tastings are always eye-opening.
In this case, what was most shocking was just how ordinary so many of the over-$50 wines are. Few were poor, but as a group, they simply were not as good as the $35 to $50 wines.
I’ll make two sweeping generalizations.
1) Pricey American Pinot Noirs tend to taste like Syrah -- big bodies, no elegance or complexity. I didn’t hate any of the 13 Pinots, but I only really liked four.
2) About half of the pricey Cabernets -- including blends, they averaged $113, significantly more than the Pinots (average $71) -- taste like blueberry bubble gum, which is great if you like that, although Hubba Bubba is, what, 99 cents?
I was not a lone wolf with this opinion. Groans came from around the table, and not just because Sunset didn’t let us wear our own clothes. (The memo I ignored instructed me to wear “sea foam blue.” Isn’t sea foam white?)
The key in a setting like this is to concentrate. You can be in the middle of a rant about grapes getting too ripe, and if you’re not careful you’ll miss a balanced, elegant wine. I did find some of those, which I’ll list below.
Yet more than half of the Cabs were simple fruit-punchy wines; cherry juice with a kick.
I’ll always defend the right of people to drink whatever they want, and wineries to make money by serving that market.
This explains the rising popularity of Argentine Malbec, one of the more characterless red wines in the world. If all you want is cherry juice, why pay $113 for it?
Here are the exceptions to that rule: pricey wines that were well worth the money.
Gamble Family Heart Block Yountville Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($50): Often I turn my nose up at oaked Sauv Blanc, but this wine has great balance and elegant fruit and the subdued oak notes accent rather than cover.
St. Supery Dollarhide Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2008 ($34): Bright citrus and melon with good length and gravitas.
Domaine Serene Clos du Soleil Dundee Hills Chardonnay ($45): Bright lime and melon fruit mingle with some toast throughout the long finish.
Lynmar Quail Hill Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($40): A toasty and warm Chardonnay with nice citrus fruit that takes it time unfolding.
Adelsheim Winderlea Vineyard Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($90): Raspberry fruit with a soft mouthfeel; a treat to taste a pricey Pinot that tastes like Pinot.
Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot ($52): I loved this wine so much, argued for it, and was a little shocked when it was revealed to be a 27,000-case product that I tend to take for granted. But it’s exactly what you want in a Merlot: voluptuous body, rich cherry fruit. I must add that I preferred it without food, but I’m sure that’s how many of its fans most enjoy it. Still, a standout against wines with snootier reputations that cost 3 times as much.
Saxum Broken Stones Paso Robles Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre ($130): I started lunch (post-reveal) with the Gamble Family Sauv Blanc, tasted through all my favorite whites and reds again, and at the end of the meal, this was in my glass. It’s complex and savory, with notes of pastrami, pomegranate, cherry and soy. The price is stunning for a Paso wine, which is probably why the ‘06 is still current release. The wine is stunning as well.
Dominus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($130): I must really like Dominus, because I often prefer it in blind tastings, and it was my favorite Cab again. It’s a Cab with balance and integrity: dark cherry fruit, notes of black olive and coffee. Delightful and not given to excess. If only I could afford to taste it non-blind.
Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($52): Here’s a wine that pulls off the all-fruit style with panache. Berries and cherries keep emerging from the glass with enough acidity to appreciate them. Like the Duckhorn Merlot, it stood out in a group where most of the wines cost considerably more.