Most wine writers -- outside of Parker and Spectator -- like to highlight what we think are underrated wines. But the universe demands balance.
So today, I present you the Ten Most Overrated Wines. I mean this in some cases literally: a style of wine that gets crazily high ratings when the raters themselves don't drink it with dinner (No. 1). And in some cases figuratively, as when some fans think it's more special than it is (No. 10).
Keep in mind that overrated does not equal bad. Manny Ramirez is overrated, but when healthy he can still hit. Star Wars was overrated because it's not the greatest sci-fi movie ever, but it was still a good yarn.
So here's the list.
10. Italian Pinot Grigio
This wine is figuratively overrated, because wine critics rarely give it much play. But the public loves it and pays a premium for it. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio sells for $25 and is one of the most popular imports in America, yet at its best it's a mouth rinse. Nothing wrong with that, but why would you pay more than $10 for it?
Buy instead: Portuguese Vinho Verde
9. Super Tuscans
Picking on Italy again, these wines are more literally overrated, as the Wine Advocate seems to think that Italian reds just aren't great if they don't have some Cabernet Sauvignon and maybe some Syrah in them. At most portfolio tastings I've done with Italian wineries, their Super Tuscan is their 4th or 5th best wine. Moreover, even good ones are just generic reds from anywhere. Think about it -- what should a Super Tuscan taste like? What distinguishes that from an Australian Cabernet-Shiraz, or from, say, Big House Red?
Buy instead: Italian Barbera
8. Napa Valley Chardonnay
With the exception of some parts of Carneros and Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley is just not good Chardonnay terroir. It's too hot, so the wine gets too alcoholic. A lot of Americans today claim they don't like Chardonnay, but they often also say they like white Burgundy. What they don't like is Napa Valley Chardonnay, or the gooey, oaky Napa style. I don't blame Napa vintners for making a wine that sells. But there's consistently better Chardonnay from at least five counties in California (Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Mendocino, Monterey, Santa Cruz), and it's cheaper too.
Buy instead: Mendocino County Chardonnay
7. Screaming Eagle
Even when it was great, it wasn't THAT great. I've had the pleasure of tasting this wine a few times in comparison with other expensive Napa Cabernets, and it has never been bad, but it has never been in my top 3 either. New owners have added many more vines and drastically ramped up production. There's always a market for wines as possessions, and having lived in Japan I understand that the reason $100 melons exist is so the recipient knows you paid $100 for the gift. But why pay $10,000 for something that's not the best and is in a downward spiral, when there are other expensive cult wines that are more consistently good?
Buy instead: Hundred Acre, Colgin (What, you were expecting me to say Two Buck Chuck?)
6. Yellow Tail
Unlike Screaming Eagle, when Yellow Tail was great, it really was great value. I remember buying an early Reserve version for $7 and thinking it was one of the best Shirazes I had that year. But too much popularity in the wine business is a temptation from the Devil. Yellow Tail has bumped up its production so much that there's no control over the grapes anymore, and it's not any different from any other generic million case wine on the market. Its fans, though, still seem to think there's something unique about it. If you want something special, even in a cheap wine, you have to look for wine made in reasonable enough quantities that the winemaker can have some control over it.
Buy instead: Grant Burge, an independent Aussie winemaker with character
5. Argentinian Malbec
Why is a fairly bland red grape from a previously little-known wine region suddenly one of the hottest wines on the market? The theory goes that when the economic slowdown hit, people who were used to paying $100 for Cabernets wanted something big and red for less money. The problem is that Malbec is the 4th grape of Bordeaux for a reason: It's just not as interesting as even much-maligned Merlot. Moreover, there's a complete disconnect between price and quality for Argentine Malbec. The best ones are usually $12 to $15, while Malbecs over $25 are almost all overly oaked in an attempt to give them the gravitas that the grape itself doesn't have. So if you must buy Argentine Malbec, make sure it's cheap.
Buy instead: Toro, an intense red from Spain
4. New Zealand Pinot Noir
I'm sorry, kiwis. You're nice people. You make excellent Sauvignon Blanc and much better Chardonnay and Riesling than people realize. But until the world warms up a little more, you're still a white-wine country that makes good red wines for domestic consumption. There's nothing wrong with New Zealand Pinot -- it's pleasant, with good fruit. There are a lot of solid wines. But I've tasted maybe 200 of them, and I have yet to get that "wow" effect that I want from Pinot Noir. Maybe the vines need to get older, but the complexity just isn't there.
Buy instead: Oregon Pinot Noir
3. The Wine Advocate's 100-point wines
This was a stronger category when Robert Parker himself was the keeper of the perfect scores. But Jay Miller hands out 100 points like an elementary school teacher delivering gold stars, and in my experience, often to the least drinkable wine in the portfolio. If you like syrupy sweet wines, you might agree with his suggestions, but there's no reason to spend hundreds of dollars on them -- buy vintage Ports and high-end Paso Robles red blends, neither of which should set you back more than $60. I don't know how I can better express the wrongness of these ratings than this suggestion: If you have a chance to drink either a 93-point wine or a 100-point wine (Wine Advocate scores), always buy the 93-point wine. It will be better.
Buy instead: Wine Review Online 94-point wines
2. Organic wines
This is a huge growth area for Whole Foods, and I've read any number of ignorant pieces online extolling how great it is to drink organic. I'm a locavore, I'm a complete sucker for organic farm-raised food products, yet I never buy organic wine. The reason? Sulfites, a naturally occurring grape byproduct, must be added to wine to preserve its fresh fruit flavors. In Europe, lawmakers realize this; "organic" French wines can have added sulfites. But US organic wine standards don't allow any sulfites, which means the wine is likely to taste like the inside of your shoe. Spoiled wine isn't better for you or the environment. If you're buying this stuff, you are also a sucker for marketing, not the same marketing that draws people to Yellow Tail, but perhaps written by the same copywriters.
Buy instead: Wine made from organically grown grapes; biodynamic wine
1. Cabernet Sauvignon
Remember, I said "overrated" doesn't mean "bad." I love good Cabernet Sauvignon. There's no unfortified wine that ages better. If I want to drink a 40-year-old anything, I want it to be Cab. But that's a very specific situation, and Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red wine in America. That's nuts -- it doesn't go well with almost any food other than red meat (which is good with just about any red wine) and you usually have to spend more than $20 to get a good one. Moreover, all wine publications tend to give their highest ratings to Cabernets based on its aging potential. To me, this is a big reason people often drink it with dinner or take it to parties: most 98-point wines are Cabs. But the reverse is not true: most Cabs are not 98-point wines. I'm not saying you should disregard Cab completely. But if you're looking for a red wine that will make your dinner taste better, unless you're eating meat topped with meat, look for almost anything else.
Buy instead: Petite Sirah, Syrah/Shiraz