Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Expensive white wines: made to be conservative
But realistically, I'm not going to spend my own money on that wine (Domaine de la Romanée Conti Montrachet 2008). Or even 4% of it. However, I will spend over $100 on a red wine in restaurants -- most recently for a 1991 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia at Heirloom Cafe. That wine is a steal at $80 retail. I'm not sure I've ever spent $80 retail for a white wine.
But some people do, which is why Sunset magazine has a very small group of white wines over $60 at its Western Wine Awards, and I ended up judging them.
It has become standard knowledge among Sunset's recurring group of sommeliers, wine buyers and writers that judging the "deep pocket" red wine category is a painful slog. This year, two busy, influential sommeliers showed up late, and judging the $100 Cabernets was their punishment. Spare the oak rod, spoil the sommelier. I laughed at them from my perch at the pricey white wine table. I knew I wouldn't be reaching for roast beef to scrape the tannins off my palate and complaining loudly about the incredible heaviness of being (body, oak, bottles). Not this year anyway.
Pricey whites weren't painful at all. Three of us -- me, a wine buyer and CIA sommelier Traci Dutton, who says our palates are completely different because she likes good wines -- started at $26 to $40, where we tasted (blind, of course) a number of wines I have actually paid my own money for. Then we moved up to $41 to $60, where we encountered a few wines I've paid for by the glass.
We were a little chatty by the time we got to the over $60 whites; wine does that. So we got to talking about the concept. We know what people look for in an $80 red. If they're a Pinot drinker, they want some tiny production wine from a great vineyard. If they're a Cab drinker in 2011, apparently they want their tongue bashed repeatedly by a fist in a velvet glove. You might think I'm being sarcastic, but I've seen the "fist in velvet glove" cliche on several expensive Cabs' marketing materials. (Expensive Cab drinkers, bondage submission fetishists -- same crowd?)
But what exactly do people want in a $75 white?
My favorite wine in the category was a 2009 Robert Mondavi Winery I Block Fume Blanc ($75), from a special section of the To Kalon vineyard in Oakville that might yield greater profits if it were grafted over to Cabernet, which is how they justify charging that much for it. Here's something to frighten people considering buying one pricey bottle in their life: the first bottle was corked. But the second bottle had lively lime and mango fruit and good balance, and was actually significantly better than all of the $26 to $40 Sauvignon Blancs.
We knew what it was, even though we tasted blind: there's only one winery in the world that not only has the chutzpah to charge more than $60 for a Sauvignon Blanc, but still calls it Fume Blanc because Robert Mondavi himself came up with the name. (He thought Americans wouldn't want to pronounce "Sauvignon.")
Dutton told us a good story of a patron at a table for six she'd had earlier in the week who told her surreptitiously to "fill my glass and the guy in the blue shirt's glass, and don't refill the others quickly because they'll drink anything and do it in a hurry." This table started with a 10-year-old Corison Cabernet, which costs into three digits, before moving into an '01 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cab and an '02 Harlan Estate. The last two wines might have totaled into four digits. Dutton said they were all drinking great and applauded the savvy consumer who plucked them off her list.
And yet, she said she couldn't imagine spending $75 for a Sauvignon Blanc. Funny: a grand on reds is OK, but not a Benjamin on whites.
Sauvignon Blanc is an aberration in the pricey white wine category, hence Traci's disavowal. Usually white wines that cost $75 are Chardonnay, America's most popular varietal, and that makes sense from both consumer demand and production cost. Chardonnay benefits from expensive new oak barrels whereas Sauvignon Blanc is better in hand-me-downs.
Sunset's group of over-$60 Chardonnays were OK if a little flabby; as a group they weren't better than the Chards between $26 and $60. While all but one were competent -- it does seem like the gooey butteriness is being dialed back at the high end -- none was as exciting as the best of the $26 to $40 Chards. It matters that this competition is only open to American wines, because I've had some great white Burgundies in the higher price range.
So who charges $75 for American Chardonnay?
Our assumption was this: For producers, the difference between a $30 Chardonnay brand and a $75 one is that the latter has established itself, most likely through a few great Parker or Spectator scores (unfortunate, because neither is good at rating whites) or perhaps through crossover effect of having a really expensive red wine. They're charging this much because they have the audience, not because they have something special.
It's not that the $75 Chards are bad. What they are is conservative: no racy acidity, no complexities from wild yeast. I would have drunk anything from our priciest category, but I might have fallen asleep doing so.
That's very different from pricey red wines, many of which these days seem dialed up to 11. However, while judging 50 of them is a chore, there are always more than a few that make you go "Wow," and I mean that in both possible ways: some are blockbusters up front, and some are elegant, complex and interesting enough that you'd like to drink every drop. None of the pricey whites made me go "wow."
So who buys them? Who spends so much more for brand recognition and reliability than is needed? Who spends more for less flavor? Are those wines going on corporate expense accounts, or simply to the risk-averse wealthy? I don't have answers, sorry; only questions and assumptions.
Of course, my potential rant on this topic is tempered by the fact that even now I'd like to recapture my last swallow of that $2225 Montrachet, which is probably the best Chardonnay I've ever had. So maybe expensive whites have a donut hole. If it's more than $60, but less than $2000, I'll pass.