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11.09.2006

Three Perspectives on Cult Cabernets

Even though I don't consider myself a wine expert, I still get asked for a lot of advice, and I end up having lots of conversations with friends and strangers alike about wine and wine related topics. One of the most common has to do with really expensive wines, and always circles around the question of "are they worth it?" There exists no simple answer to this question, or to the question often nested inside it: "is a $100 bottle of wine ten times better than a $10 bottle?"

This past week saw the publishing of three interesting perspectives on "Cult Cabernets," those New World red wines (often, but not always, from Napa) that command price tags between $100 and $1800.

The first, and somewhat suprising perspective came from Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher in the Wall Street Journal. In their weekly wine column they conducted a tasting of many top cult Cabernets for the first time ever. Those familiar with this dynamic duo of wine will know that is is quite unusual for them. They tend to focus on more accessible, down-to-earth wines and wine drinking activities. But not this week. Instead they brought out the big guns, tasting even the famed Screaming Eagle along with several other top Napa Cabernets. The results? Surprisingly, both to me and to them, apparently, Screaming Eagle was their favorite wine of the tasting, and the only wine that merited their top rating for a wine: "Delicious!" (Colgin came in a close second with a 'Delicious' minus the exclamation point). None of the wines earned their "Yuck" score, but several did not show well. The duo left the question of value for readers to decide.

Not content to pay first and drink later, journalist Stephen Yafa took up the same question in an article in Salon this week, entitled "Two Hundred Buck Chuck." Yafa takes a look at just what ends up distinguishing the cult wines who sell in the hundreds from the merely "expensive" wines that sell in the high fifties and sixty dollar range. Comparing producers in the same areas, such as Chalk Hill vs. Harlan Estate, Yafa speaks with winemakers and wine retailers to tease out some of the facts, the people, and the psychology behind top wines. And then he tastes them, putting the Harlan Estate wine into a blind tasting lineup with a $16, a $30, and a $60 Cabernet. His verdict? A lot of times, they ain't worth the money.

People are often the reasons that many cult wines have the reputations they do. There are a few folks in the wine world, and in Napa in particular that have the Midas touch when it comes to wine. Names like Heidi Barrett and David Abreu are currency for high-end wine collectors. But Doug Wilder, a wine buyer for a San Francisco retailer points out on his blog this week that a lot of those superstars also make wine for much less prominent (and pricey) labels. Wilder highlights several "under the radar" labels by famous winemakers and winegrowers that can be had for sometimes 30% the price of the big name wines. As Doug rightly points out, you're definitely always paying something for the brand on the bottle, as opposed to the juice and hard work inside. The question is, just how much?

I've had my share of $200-$300 Cabernet and Bordeaux. OK, maybe not my entire share (I'm secretly hoping it's bigger than the few bottles I've tasted or shared with friends). I haven't experienced red wines (or whites, for that matter) in the $1000 range yet. But my experiences thus far have left me with the distinct impression that there are only a few wines that are worth (to me -- this is purely subjective, remember) paying a couple of hundred dollars for. I just decided to buy a couple of old Rochioli Pinot Noirs for about $175 a pop. Youch. But they're amazing, and worth it to me. There are a few Napa Cabernets I'd shell out a little more than $100 for, like Dominus or Staglin Family Vineyards in a good year. But somewhere between $100 and $200 any correlation between price and quality really drops off severely. And if I'm honest, for most wines, that line is probably down around the $75 level.

When I score wines I don't include price as a factor, mostly because everyone's sense of whether a wine is a "value" for the money is completely individual and frankly, a private matter. But when it comes to spending my own money on wine, in my experience a $300 bottle, even when it's transcendental, is definitely not six times better than a really fantastic $50 one.

Of course, that doesn't mean someday I wouldn't really like to taste Screaming Eagle (on someone else's dime), or that I might not plunk down $400 at some point in the future for a really phenomenal Bordeaux. But for the most part, when it comes to drinking really great wine, I like to get a bottle AND a couple twenties in change for my $100 bill.

Comments (18)

Brian Miller wrote:
11.09.06 at 11:49 PM

I just tried Heid Barret's Showket cab today at Napa Wine Company. I usually prefer a savoury, kinda earthy style, but her ripe, lush, red fruit? forward Cab convinced me big time. Not that $60 is "cheap" or even "affordable" by any means, but it is at least "reasonable." :)

I did splurge and buy a 1997 Stags Leap once (Fay Vineyard) It was utterly delicious. Worth it? Probably not. And, I really, really like the Verite wines from chalk Hill Road. But then, I liked Volker Eisel's $35 cab almost as much as a $120 Jones Family at Napa Wine Company, as well.

John Dito wrote:
11.10.06 at 2:09 PM

Nice article Alder and great links, now ive got some good reading for the ride home.

I am lucky to have an uncle who buys the hype on Latour,Lafite,Opus One,Screamin Eagle and other such superstars. Through the years ive tasted some amazing wines.

Are any of them worth the sometimes multi-thousand dollar price tags??

Thats a big no in my opinion, are they special, yes but so is the beautiful Rhone red I had last night and that cost $21.

cheers-John

victoria wrote:
11.11.06 at 6:35 PM

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on cult cabernets. My opinion is that a lot of times it is not worth the price. But it certainly feels special having one of those wines in your glass.
I had the pleasure to taste Harlan Estate last year. I had the 2002 which of course was to young, but showed what it would become in the years ahead. It was great, but was it "$800-great"? I would any day choose a Schrader, Merus or Hourglass over it (considering the price). These are in no means cheap bottles (ranging $100-200 retail) but you can truely enjoy every sip without feeling guilt how much that sip was that just went down your throat + they truly are some of the best wines I have had.
To mention a few that are definately not worth the money I have to say Opus One and Silver Oak. Nice wines but I can get much better for less money.

Brian Miller wrote:
11.11.06 at 8:03 PM

I really liked Silver Oak Napa Valley (hides in shame). I thought it was really rich and lush and delicious. Is it too expensive? Yep :)

Anonymous wrote:
11.11.06 at 11:59 PM

I agree with your comments, value is subjective and any price point above $50 or $75 is tough to justify the value.

Tyler T wrote:
11.12.06 at 10:01 AM

Isn't 'worth' in the eye (or wallet) of the buyer? I agree that after about $75 bucks quality is not necessarily increasing linerarly or at all with price. Beyond $75 I think it comes down to simple economics: supply and demand. High demand, low supply = high prices, for better or worse. There are some top Burgundies that if they were in my budget, I'd pay for 'em, even if Domaine Serene thinks their better! Nice take Alder.

Alder wrote:
11.12.06 at 11:25 AM

Brian,

No shame in liking Silver Oak. Everyone's tastes are different. I thought it was great, too, at one point long ago, but my tastes have changed.

Tim S wrote:
11.13.06 at 4:52 PM

Alder--Another fine blog; my math is that a $50 bottle of Napa Cab from say Delectus is at least 5 times better than a $10 mass produced cab but a $500 cab from Araujo is not 5 times better than the Delectus. I think the sweet spot for the quality/value equation for Napa and Sonoma Cabs can still be found in the $40 (Scherrer) to $70 (Delectus small cuvees) range. The one super trophy that me and two cab loving friends shared was a 1995 Colgin Herb Lamb and it was profound and sublime. Cheers.

Zach Coelius wrote:
11.13.06 at 9:11 PM

The question I have is if wine "value" from an individual perspective is really priced relative to other wines or if it is priced relative to our pocketbook.

For instance, there once was a time when I considered the difference between a $10 bottle and a $15 bottle to be significant because that $5 was a meal to me. I thought of a $50 bottle as pure extravagance. I was poor.

I can only imagine that for someone with lots of money the difference between a $50 bottle and a $500 bottle is as trivial as the difference between a $10 and $12 bottle is to me now.

And if the difference is trivial, and the only thing that matters is time and enjoyment, why not drink the good stuff?

Brian Miller wrote:
11.14.06 at 8:01 AM

Brian,

No shame in liking Silver Oak. Everyone's tastes are different. I thought it was great, too, at one point long ago, but my tastes have changed.


Sure, Alder-like I said over at Wine Lovers blog, I'm being facetious :) It's the degree of vituperation expressed about Silver Oak by some people I was talking with this weekend. I guess I've had too many bad Napa fruit bombs so that when I run across better made fruit bombs, my interest is piqued. For instance, I think Showket is VERY fruit forward and not my usual style, but I really liked it despite myself.

Of course, how can one person like both Corison AND Silver Oak? (Have you ever tried Chateau Boswell-you might enjoy this small producer, too. No fruit bombs here!)

Alder wrote:
11.14.06 at 9:00 AM

Brian,

Very big of you to admit that you like both new world and old world renditions of Cabernet. Not many people are willing to do that. I'm with you, sometimes the big luscious stuff is really damn good.

Brian Miller wrote:
11.14.06 at 12:02 PM

I did read one interesting post re: why the vitriol against Silver Oak-some people consider it showy, like a Rolex, and more expensive than it deserves.

Of course, some people just dislike.

Jim wrote:
11.14.06 at 4:16 PM

I miss the good old days when you could buy Opus for $60-65 a bottle at Cosco. The price has doubled but my income has not. I am happy to have a few bottles.

Gene wrote:
11.14.06 at 5:59 PM

Great blog, Alder. Very stimulatiing.In my view, price and cult status have more to do with psychology than economics. Sure, a cult wine has to have a "closed mailing list" and be hard to get. But as several of your readers have pointed out, quality doesn't increase in direct proportion to price. IMO, price and cult status have more to do with the desire to impress oneself and others, the desire to have what others don't, the desire to show off, and the desire to be envied, etc,. Gene

carlos Serafim wrote:
11.14.06 at 6:46 PM

Price vs quality

Let me put it this way:

Sebastiani buys land in 1895 and pays 120.00 an acre.
A rich dentist retires and buys some of that land for 200,000.00 a planted acre. He than hires the former wine maker from Sebastiani and makes his own wine.

If Sebastiani charges 35.00 for their very good cab because they can make a decent profit does the dentist's wine at 175.00 taste any better because his costs are so much higher to make virtually the same wine?

I've had many of the so called Cult wines that have been mentioned above and I've enjoyed them all. Some more than others. Hundred Acre was my favorite, but I think Harlan makes the best wines all around. Luckily, I never had to pay for them, I was the buyer for a restaurant and many of my clients were very generous with their wines.
But, having drank some of the best wines in the world I still wouldn't pay more than 50.00 for a red and 40.00 for a white. There are just too many great wines out there to enjoy and I don't miss the Cult wines at all.

It's buyer beware. If you can afford the best and it doesn't bother you to drop 500.00 on an industrial product by all means enjoy it. Makes a 10,000.00 watch seem cheap by comparison doesn't it?

Carlos

Mike Silverman wrote:
11.14.06 at 8:31 PM

What old Rochioli are you buying. I have quite a few and maybe we could share one.

Steve wrote:
11.18.06 at 9:53 AM

Just came across this string and wanted to get my 2 cents in. All these comments are very true and wise. Bottom line: At the cult level wine is a luxury product, like anything else. For example, an art collector might pay $50,000 for a ruined old Etruscan head that looks like it came from a child's kindergarten class. Most people would not even notice the statue, but the art collector will covet it. Same with Harlan, Colgin, Sloan, Hundred Acre, etc. Most people I know would obtain little more pleasure from them than they'd get from, say, a good Sebastiani Cab. But the people who buy Harlan etc. get the extra pleasure of knowing the background. When people ask me if Harlan is ten times better than a $30 Cab I tell them, No, not strictly on the objective merits. But wine isn't just objective, it's subjective. Has been since Julius Caesar preferred his Falernian, which nobody else could afford.

09.16.14 at 7:26 PM

Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon every day.
It will always be exciting to read content from other authors and practice something from other websites.

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