Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The 10 most overrated wines

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


Adam said...

Organic wines are as good, or as bad, as the individual winemaker. To suggest that they all, by default, will taste terrible is more ignorant than any article you could possibly have read.

Are there people making bad organic wines to jump in on the marketing? Of course. Are there also fantastic wines being made without sulfites? Yes, and you're missing out if you don't try them.

Personally, I think conventional wines are overrated. Sorry they've dumbed down Yellow Tail for you. Tragic.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Adam, I guess you don't understand the difference between "overrated" and "terrible," though I explained it more than once in the article. It's probably not worth my time to explain the difference between "likely" and "all."

Big Rick Stuart said...

(channeling Woody Allen movie line)

"It's overrated and terrible but only 6 dollars!"

King Krak, Oenomancer said...

I would have put in "New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc" rather than Pinot Noir.

Also, I'd rather drink 40-year-old red Burgundy or Rhone than Bordeaux.

But, all-in-all, you're quite dead on.

W. Blake Gray said...

Big Rick (and Woody): You made me laugh out loud, not LOL, but actually say aloud, "Ha ha ha ha ha." Thank you.

Adam said...

Throughout the article you point out that "overrated doesn't mean terrible" and even explain that when someone doesn't like oaky Chardonnay they may prefer another style. But, come on. When you get to organic wine it is absolutely negative - beyond the subtlety of "likely" vs. "all" which, yes, I understand. You "never" buy it, anyone who does is a "sucker for marketing" and "likely to taste like the inside your shoe," used in this context, comes off as a guarantee.

There is so much misinformation about organic wines, and this passage plays right into it. I write about wines myself and articles like this are a fun way to get people talking and thinking about stuff, but I would hate for anyone reading this to come away from it thinking they knew the first thing about organic wines, with added sulfites or otherwise. Clearly I think your wrong on this, though appreciate you letting me say my peace for anyone who wants a different take.

Anonymous said...

Adam, the organic wine movement has been all about letting the "terroir" shine through in their wines. Why then do you say that the wines are as good or as bad as the individual winemaker? Seems that you're framing the debate such that the organic wine movement is immune to criticism. If an organic wine is good, then it's definitely the terroir showing through. If not, then blame it on the winemaker. Why ignore the very real possibility that perhaps the techniques are not suited to winemaking?

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: For the record, I have tasted a few good organic wines under the US definition. The percentage is low -- I'd say below 5% -- but they exist.

I'd much rather take my chances with wines made from organically grown grapes, which are equally good for the environment and more than 10 times as likely to be good.


Anonymous said...

Maybe we should be specifying USDA Certified Organic wines, which is what I am assuming you mean Mr. Gray.

To just state US Organic wine might not be specific enough.

W. Blake Gray said...

You understood the difference. I'm going to count on most of my readers to do so as well. After all, if you're on this blog, you drink wine, and therefore you're educated.

Anonymous said...

Trite topic and unoriginal victims on your list.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: But you read it anyway. Nyah nyah.

Andy said...

Some of your comments are spot on - but the NZ Pinot Noir is one I really don't agree with. I've tasted some great Pinots from NZ and they compare and can beat any from Oregon or Burgundy. Just pick the ones made well - not fruit bombs.

Joe Becerra said...

We visited Mendoza in 2009. Most of the Malbec's we tried were wonderful. We like Bodega Salentein Malbec at around $20. Pasquel Toso at Costco for $8.99 is about the best deal around.

John said...

If I were a producer of any of the wines on your list I would probably be furious, hurt or feeling wounded, however, I liked the list and assume that some will use it to avoid something, others will use it to discover the infinite possibilities in wine.

Anonymous said...

Screaming Eagle is indeed overrated but recommending Hundred Acre - a Cabernet Sauvignon Auslese which tastes like it has had more than a few trips to the wine additives store - as a substitute is laughable. Hundred Acre is the poster child for everything wrong with ultra modern Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sondra said...

Engaging article but as it comes to 'organic wine' most folks, including educated wine drinkers, don't appreciate that there are organic wines and then those made from organically grown grapes. Its confusing for the consumer who thinks they are the same. Like you, I have not found any organic wine I really enjoyed. But a big yes on biodynamic wines or those from organically grown grapes.

Iron Monkey said...

Anyone who thinks Star Wars isn't the best Sci-Fi movie of all time can't possibly have a good palate XD

Bob said...

Blake, this is great, as your perspective often is. However, Italian Barbera is not a great alternative to Super Tuscan. It has more acid, less alcohol, less tannin, and more fruit, than said Super Tuscan. Of course, that might be your point, and I LOVE good Barbera. But perhaps the more sensible alternative is simply buy the same winery's Brunello or an Amarone. Still big, badass wine (which is probably what you wanted if you were drinking a Super Tuscan), but probably better wine than the Super Tuscan.

Brad said...

Blake, Are you really saying Petite Sirah and Syrah are more food friendly than Cab? I would've picked just about any other two red varietals than those if going the food friendly route. For me, overrated is the high alcohol, mega oak, zero acidity style of 98 pt Cabs.

Anonymous said...

You cab add anything from Hobbs, Kosta Brown and Helen T. These are wines of the Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and R. Parker... Otherwise, no one I've ever talked to really enjoys these wines...

W. Blake Gray said...

Quick note to commenters: You are free to disagree with my choices on wine or movies, and to call me names (I really hate being called Super Genius, for example). But I will delete posts that are sales pitches for wines with links to winery websites.

Brad: I hear what you're saying re food-friendliness, but to tell Cab drinkers to switch to Burgundy means ignoring what they're looking for in wine.

Anon: Re Hundred Acre -- can't claim to have tried it many times, but in the bottles I've sampled I found some complex, delicious and balanced wines. It beat Screaming Eagle each time I tasted them together.

Bob: Re Italian wines -- you're right on all counts.

Anonymous said...

Blake, try a really good Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige or Friuli. You may change your mind.

Taron said...

Nice write up. I especially agree with the organic wine and NZ Pinot. Regarding the kiwi PN, I was generally dissapointed with it during my travels and work down there; I was expecting something different with all the hype I had been reading about. I did really enjoy a few here and there(none in marlborough though). Like you say, maybe it's that the vines are young. Maybe the wines need a little more time in the bottle, as some of them from Central Otago seemed overpowering.... very extracted and spicy.

I liked King Kraks suggestion on NZ Sauv Blanc being on the list...

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: Re PG, I hear what you're saying, but the wineries in those regions that make PG invariably make something else better.

Taron: Me & the King just don't see eye-to-eye on NZ Sauv Blanc. That's why every time I come to his town for dinner, he leaves the state. True story.

Anonymous said...

I am in the wine business and have been for quite some time. This is the best thing written in quite sometime. Thanks for putting yourself out there! I agree with everything.

Hailey T. said...

Thanks for the Oak Knoll District shout out!

Barbara said...

Agree with a lot of what you said but think you are a bit unfair to Argentina. There are some excellent $20 plus red blends coming out of Mendoza, most with very little US distribution, but which compare very favorably to Napa cabs many times their price. Unfortunately it is the over-oaked, over extracted very expensive wines that get most of the attention.bributro

Courtney Cochran said...

Loving this list - tx, Blake!

W. Blake Gray said...

Barbara: One of the great things about blogging is I don't have to be fair to everyone! Woo-hoo, Argentina has a few good wines that nobody can buy, that might be better than -- wait a minute -- isn't Cabernet on my list?

I don't cry for you, Argentina.

Jesse L said...

@Adam - The author already hammered home the semantics issue "overrated" vs "terrible". It's already settled law that best practices in Vineyards and Winery aim for minimum usage of SO2 & other chemicals but frankly, if you know anything about the process to ensure the quality of their wines these practices are mostly required to some degree contingent upon environmental factors. Before I accuse you of being one who will defend "bretty" wines vis-a-vis the "terroir argument", do you understand that SO2 is considered indispensable in the winery. FYI, most winemakers will use this liberally to kill off microbacteria, natural yeasts and other bugs that will make your wine taste awful, in addition to taking advantage of SO2's anti-oxidant benefits. I'd rather drink well than be smug and self-righteous about a throw-away line about my wine being organic/natural, especially when the more important issue is that of sustainable agriculture and being a steward of the land. I agree with the author that this nugget is commonly overshadowed by the marketing hook that is organic/ecocert wines...

Tilman said...

A brief comment about the organic wine debate. It's true that the US is one of the only (the only?) countries in the world which prohibits added sulfites to organic wine. This is tragic, since it hobbles the winemaker severely. Much better that a small amount of SO2 be used to keep the wine from spoiling quickly (Canadian organic wine allows 30 ppm free SO2) .

I applaud the call to search out well-made wine from organic grapes, but would also encourage US wine drinkers to push for organic standards that allow a limited use of sulfites in wine.

Tilman Hainle

Lucky13 said...

I could have not said this better. My only addition would be any wine with Brettanomyces, mostly we are talking Rhone, Bordeaux and Australian reds.

Anonymous said...

@Jesse L

You drove it home, thank you. There's a farming practice I have come to know called "sustainable/logical". Essentially, make the lightest footprint possible while ensuring the health of your vines and soil.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing organic about monoculture. The US organic growing rules are a joke!

I agree with most of the 10 overrated wines. But I have to say that to me, the most overrated wines are the $100+ wines. No wine is worth more than $100! They have to charge more because of what they spent making the wine.This has nothing to do with the quality of the site and the grapes.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: I disagree with you on several counts.

How can you say no wine is worth more than $100? What if you were rich? What are you saving your money for, real estate?

Also, wines with price tags over $100 have little to do with the cost of winemaking. Yes, they might have double-sorting tables and brand new oak barrels, but that's not why they're over $100; you can do all that and charge $40 and make a profit. Prices over $100 are about exclusivity and marketing.

That said, wine is a daily foodstuff sometimes, and an aspirational luxury good other times. Is a Gucci bag worth $100? Not to me, but it is to many people.

There's a reverse snobbery in saying all expensive wines are not worth the money, and it's just as close-minded as saying cheap wines can't be good.

Jeannette said...

Re: biodynamic

Biodynamic happens in the vineyard - not in the winery. Or so say my learned friends, without whom I would be way less interesting.

Cheers to a very fun read. Not sure I'll ever buy into the Parker-ized points ratings; my ignorant taste buds like what they like, regardless of points. And I still actually *pay* for every bottle I taste...but I'm open to donations. :-)


Weston said...

Maybe it is the Market Up here in Vancouver, Canada but NZ Pinot is better for the money for oregon Pinot [I mean most Oregon pinot is starts at 40$] That being said I think the more expensive NZ Pinot is over rated but the entry stuff is good juice

I like the 100point scale, I use it myself it gives me refrence but of course I never buy cases of wine based on one person score, maybe to try a wine.

Had a yellowtail Merlot for the first time last week, and the problem is well the Merlot tasted like a Shiraz, and it had way to much RS

Mark said...


"Biodynamic happens in the vineyard - not in the winery."

True adherents will also follow BD principles in the winery such as racking day and bottling days, etc.

Anonymous said...

If you know how a wine that retails over $100 was made and you know it does not taste like a $100 plus bottle of wine. What do you think about the rich guy that bought a cases of it?

To ME wine is made to be drank, that is why when I buy expensive wines i always get three bottles: one to drink right away, the second one to drink in 6 months and the last one (if I like the wine) to drink for a special occasion.

PS: I don't save my money, I buy wines that taste better than their price tag. How many wines over $100 can you name here that taste better than their price?

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: By putting ME in capital letters you have shown that nobody will win this argument with you. I'm writing about value to some people; I cannot possibly know more than YOU about a wine's value to you.

But I'll tell you what I think about rich people who buy cases of $100 wine: Thank you. Thank you for supporting the wine industry, the agricultural economy, and the nation's economy as a whole. Thank you, and please keep it up. I hope you enjoy every bottle and are back again next month for more. We need you.

Paul Tudor said...

I have to concur with you over NZ pinot noir - thanks for saying this

David Gaier said...

This is a really great article and, I'm happy to say, dovetails nicely with what I've said on and in classes I've taught.

I especially enjoyed the "mouth rinse" reference to Santa Margherita!

The Gray Market Rules.

Anonymous said...

Organic, shmorganic...

When you get down to it, cyanide is also organic.

Blake said...

spot-on, sir.

- US legislation on organic wine is as misguided as just about everything else most corporate congresscritters attempt to regulate. Biodynamic wines are the way forward, and there is some very major money in France being hedged on that.

- The cat that said that anything over $100 is overrated has never tried a good one. First of all, the dollar being pathetically weak over the last few years as a result of printing money to pay for two wars didn't help American buying power much. Personally, I set my financial speed limit at 200€ for standard sized bottles. When the dollar was at it's worst, that's $US 300, and that's the cost before the cost of transportation to the US & import duty! (we started calling them "dollarettes" over here once the euro passed $US1.30 :-). To limit yourself to $100 is like saying any car with more than 100hp is overrated.

- Pinot Noir and Syrah deserve just as much space in the limelight as Cabernet Sauvignon, as do Zinfandel & Merlot. Lucky for us this means that you get about 2x to 3x bang for your buck in the Rhone & Burgundy than in Bordeaux.

Anonymous said...

What about Williams Selyem pinots.
Priced way more then the rest of the Russian River Valley. As much as Turleys overpriced wines.

jim said...

Blake, some folks just don't get the spirit of the article. It could have been a list of 100 wines or more...

"Ignore the Ignoramae" as Clive Coates once said to me.

I liked it.

SteveinOakland said...

Spot on with your post and later comments Blake. I could not agree more.

One final note on Adam's defense of the organic wine processing standards (a topic mostly beaten to death hopefully).

People naturally want to do things in a unique way, especially those who are young and full of energy, but another factor to consider is waste. I hope you never experience the sadness of VA spoilage . I wanted to write the French cooper and grower a letter of apology. A 600 year old tree and that farmers old vines deserved better, my best wine making practices to ensure their sacrifices resulted in something beautiful. Never again!

The wastefulness of creating spoiled wine due to failure to maintain sulfites is selfish, consumer unfriendly, and NOT a good environmental practice.

The Etruscan said...

I know this post is quite old by now, and I imagine that no one except the author of the blog will ever see this post, but I'm hoping Mr. Gray (at least) sees this.

You do a disservice to Malbec. Bordeaux isn't Malbec's home. Malbec is from, as I understand it, Cahors. If I read correctly, Cahors was long preferred to Bordeaux, but was utterly wrecked by phylloxera and never recovered. Only recently have they really started on their way.

Cahors Malbecs can be lovely, fascinating wines. They have little in common with Argentinian Malbecs, and I won't come to the defense of the Argentinian wines, but the grape itself deserves much more credit than you give it.

I'm not clear on what would push this into the territory of a "a marketing post," so I won't list any producers, but Malbec can be fantastic, and the ones from Cahors often are.

David Derbyshire said...

A very refreshing article, thanks for posting! I tried some exceptionally good Argentinian Malbecs at the LIWF last week and they were all very good value - so I concur with what you said there.

However, I think the quality of a lot of NZ Pinot is great value - most of the entry level PNs I have tasted from NZ are very drinkable, and much better value for the average drinker than those from Oregon. That said - I'm UK based and I have no idea how prices compare in the US.

Great to see this type of post - we need more people shaking things up!! It should all be about value for money - the most expensive wines are not necessarily the best, and your article calls this out very well.

Louise Hurren said...

Comment from a Brit in France: I learned something from this. What I call "organic wine" (meaning wine made from organically-grown grapes) and what Americans call organic wine are two very different things. What you need to bear in mind is that your readers are from all over the world, so terms like "organic wine" have the potential to be misunderstood. For me, wines made without SO2 fall into the natural wine category: do you have such a thing in the US or does organic get used to cover the whole shebang? I enjoyed your article, but you do seem to have a major down on organic wine (in the US sense). Hey, it's a free world and you are of course allowed your opinion, but it seems strange to me to condemn an entire category/way of making wine - can you really be sure there are NO good organic wines out there? Still, I enjoyed reading, and I learned something, so more power to your blogging elbow.

W. Blake Gray said...

Louise: Since I posted this last year I have done quite a bit more writing on organic wine. In the US, currently only wines with no sulfites are "organic," as I stated, though I have written about a petition to change that.

The situation in Europe, as I understand it, is that the EU is fighting the exact same fight over a definition of "organic wine" -- whether or not it may contain sulfites -- and there has not yet been a decision.

I encourage you to look carefully on the bottles in France. I am a HUGE fan of "organic grapes," "organic vineyards," etc. But I suspect you will not see the actual phrase "organic wine" very much right now because of uncertainty over what the EU will rule.

BTW, I have also written a column in the last two months praising a no-sulfite producer. So I appreciate that you came to read my blog, but I can't put everything I've ever written on a topic into one part of one post.

Louise Hurren said...

Hi Blake, yes, since I responded to your August 2010 post I found and read other, more recent postings, including the one about the petition to change USDA regulations. All interesting. Thank you.

Rob said...

I'm no wine expert so I'm probably out of my depth with everyone here, but I do enjoy a few bottles of wine every week. I personally think that Australian wines (the one's I've tasted anyway) are overrated, and overpriced.

Unknown said...

Sangiovese blended with Bordeauxgrapes can be a match made in heaven and also among the best value wines under 100$. At least if you want wines that taste great after 5 years. Supertuscans aren´t underrated at all.

South African wines are really overrated in general and Australian Shiraz wines too.