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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.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud