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Q: Is a winery’s most expensive wine always its best?


A: Not necessarily.

That’s the long and the short of it, but as this is a blog, not a tweet, I have the luxury of getting a bit more into the topic.

Most people automatically assume that the more expensive a wine is the better it is. After all, if a Mercedes is better than a Honda, why should not this basic aspect of capitalism hold true with wine?

But the fact is, wineries go to great lengths to part consumers from their money by persuading them that a wine is better than it really is. Extra-heavy bottles, sometimes wrapped in tissue paper, are among the sillier tactics, but so is high price itself, which makes people think: “If it’s that expensive, it must be good!” But nothing, I think, screams “Quality!” more than a reserve bottling (or some similar designation which alerts the customer to the fact that this is the winery’s highest bottling).

Oftentimes — maybe usually — a reserve is better than a regular. But looks can be deceiving, and sometimes even a professional taster can have trouble distinguishing them apart, particularly if they both come from a noble vineyard and the winemaker is scrupulous in wanting to instill greatness into all his wines.

I have more than once chosen a winery’s regular wine over its reserve. I did this once at Harlan, and I did it again this week at Wine Enthusiast, where, in a blind tasting, I preferred a $25 Portuguese wine over the winery’s $50 bottling.

To put this into perspective, I’m not talking about a situation where a winery has an estate wine and then bottles another one made from lesser vineyards. No, I’m talking about a wine where everything comes off the estate, and then the winemaker and his team choose which barrels go into the regular and which make it into the reserve.

How do they make this choice? Consider the case of a dry red table wine. The winemaker is typically looking for traditional qualities such as depth, fineness of tannins and fruit, but these things will be found in both regular and reserve wines, assuming it’s a good vineyard and winery. For the reserve, however, he’s probably seeking that extra kick of power and complexity, which — he hopes — gives the wine greater ageability.

Sometimes, if the winemaker knows that certain blocks have a history of making the reserve, he may be subconsciously inclined to include them. He may also exclude young vines from the reserve blend.

Of course, as in the case of reviewing wines, assembling them is subjective. Winemakers have told me that if they had made the regular-reserve distinction on another day the blend may well have turned out differently. (And even on the team, there will be disagreements.) How could it be otherwise, when you have 20 or 40 or 100 or 500 barrels to play with?

So the choice is made, the reserve and regular are bottled, and after a year or three the critics get to check them out. How to explain for when a critic prefers the regular over the reserve?

There are as many possible explanations as there are readers of this blog, but here’s a biggie: it depends on whether the critic is judging based on hedonism or aging potential. If hedonism, he awards the wine points for immediate drinkability. If aging potential, he awards for what he thinks the wine might be somewhere down the road but isn’t now. And, of course, if the wine is both hedonistic and ageworthy, it’s going to get a very high score.

So how you score depends on where you sit. The reserve isn’t “better” the way a Mercedes is better than a Honda. It’s different. If you’re of the school that a big wine far from its peak is better than one made for drinking tonight, then that’s where you sit. But there are other seats at the table.

One sidelight of this topic concerns those people who taste on teams (or will someday). There will be times when everybody prefers wine “A” and you’re the only one who chose “B.”  You’re out there on your own. Under the circumstances, tasting can take on aspects of an athletic contest. All alone, standing on the ledge, you have nowhere to go but down. You may be tempted to doubt yourself, and wonder if you’ve made a mistake in the full glare of public scrutiny. You may feel embarrassed and defensive.

Well, don’t. Stand your ground. Just because you’re alone doesn’t mean you’re wrong. The minute you doubt yourself you start going down that slippery slope at the bottom of which you no longer have convictions, but merely hold your finger up to see which way the wind is blowing. That is not the stuff of a great taster.

Tasting wine isn’t for the faint-hearted or thin-skinned who are easily swayed by the force of peer pressure. Having said that, it’s also not for the close-minded who believe they have nothing left to learn. Somewhere inbetween is the mind-set of a winetaster.

  1. i’m so glad i got to meet you last tuesday – really enjoyed discussing california with you.

    as a drinker of cheap wines and a perpetual bargain hunter, this post really resonated with me – so much that i wrote one in my own blog about it: .

    thanks for posting such an informative blog! looking forward to reading more!

  2. Steve,

    While I agree that rating wines contains some elements of subjectivity, I fail to see how that is different than rating automobiles, as you seem to suggest.

    From where I sit, a Honda is far superior to a Mercedes (even putting aside initial cost): both get me where I want to go at legal speeds; the Honda gets better gas mileage and has a lower cost of ownership (maintenance, repairs, insurance); the Honda’s cloth seats don’t get burning hot like the Mercedes’ leather when parked in the hot sun…

    So if you are going to use the “subjectivity” argument, I don’t see how you can say that a Mercedes is better. It all depends on where you sit.

    On the other hand, if you’d like to make the argument that there are some reasonably objective criteria that are used to judge quality, I think you can say that one wine is better than another and a Mercedes is better than a Honda. Perhaps you might consider acceleration, braking, turning radius, etc.

  3. Joe, it’s the old subjective vs. objective thing. We’ll never resolve it because there is no resolution!

  4. Perhaps this preference/price issue has a lot to do with the selection process in ‘new’ and ‘rediscovered’ regions. It seems common for wineries to use more new oak with their top wines or to just select barrel by barrel as you said. But in older regions, cuvees are often organized by the terroir and age of vines based on experience. Maybe the vintner even has vintages decades old that show how the wine will age given the character of the year. It just seems the typical New World approach to reserve wines relies very heavily on winemaking choices, which naturally reflect subjective preferences like oak influence. Purely terroir-based decisions, meanwhile, are intended to reflect soil, exposure and fruit. I suppose you’ll still have preferences, but there is context in this case.

    The aging question is interesting, too. How often does it turn out that the really structured wine dries out before it becomes approachable, while the more approachable wine is delicious in its youth because of the fruit and initial complexity? Or there’s the question of over-oaked vs. consumed too young before the oak integrates. The critic must assess where a too-young wine will go, but this must be extremely difficult given how many variables are in play, especially when a producer with little history is involved.


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