Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Expensive white wines: made to be conservative

Perhaps the best wine I've tasted this year was a white that costs $2225, which I rated 99 points. So I can't be said to have a grudge against pricey white wines.

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.


  1. I am assuming that these were all domestic white wines being judged.

  2. Yes, sorry if that wasn't clear. In fact they're all "Wines of the West," as defined by Sunset: California, Oregon and Washington for sure. I'm not sure about, say, New Mexico, where Gruet makes very good value bubblies.

  3. It's just this kind of philosophy I bang my head against on a daily basis... The discrimination against white wine! There should be a "Civil Rights Act" for white wine... Everyone is willing to fork over serious cash for reds, but whites are relegated to "back of the bus" status...
    The world is full of beautiful, complex, age-able, powerful, elegant and thought-provoking white wines, yet SO FEW PEOPLE THINK PAST cheap Pinot Grigio, and ridiculously oaked CA Chard.
    Where is the white wine revolution!? When will white wine get the respect it deserves?
    You have to forgive my vehemence, but white wine is my passion, and while I can drink beautifully aged whites for a pittance because they are considered "over the hill", I feel that white wines need to get the same attention and reverence as reds.

  4. Wayne, I not only forgive your vehemence, I respect it. But don't bang the drum too hard. You might be in a golden era, able to pick up most of these great whites outside of Burgundy for affordable prices because so many people are spending their Benjamins on overripe reds whose grapes they probably couldn't identify. Be careful what you wish for: a world where consumers think white wines are worth $250 is a world where white wines cost $250.

  5. King Krak, I Drink the WineJune 29, 2011 at 10:04 AM

    If I want to drink an expensive Sauvignon Blanc, it's the 2006 Miani. About $100 retail and so worth it. Yeah, that's in Friuli - a great place for SB.

  6. Great blog ... I am finding more New World rhone whites in the $40+ dollar range and the one I have had I feel have been worth the money. Not sure if I'd go much over this amount though. I have only quibble. You wrote: "...most likely through a few great Parker or Spectator scores (unfortunate, because neither is good at rating whites)". From what I can tell, you also do not think they are very good a rating reds either!


  7. Andy: That's probably a fair synopsis of what I've written about Parker and Spectator, but I don't feel that way.

    Parker just takes reds more seriously than whites. I wonder if he drinks white wines in his personal life. I don't think he gets their purpose. And I will say this for Parker: he has one of the most consistent palates in the business. I don't agree with his personal taste, but when he describes a red wine, I know what I'm getting.

    Spectator's ratings depend on the quality of their critics of course, but I do like some of their
    critics on red wine. They take white wines more seriously than Parker, but their problem is that they hold them up to the same standards. White wines that score well with Spectator tend to be "impressive." Whether or not you want that in a red is debatable, but I don't know how many people want it in a white.

  8. Having been fortunate enough to compare, repeatedly, the domestic SB's with producers like Cotat or Daganeau, I am hard pressed to find a domestic that would present the epth and completeness of one of my favorite Loire SB's. The "Missing middle" donut-hole theory seems to be apt for Domestic whites. Is it the producer's fault if they're paying more attention to the red cash cow, or is it just that a number of whites aren't planted with the careful site selection they deserve. Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule, worldwide, but to find a vineyard selectively chosen, planned and planted around a white grape variety seems an anomaly in the new world. I would love to see the attention and dedication in the vineyard, as well as the winery, as there is tremendous room for improvement in the whites.