Value of Heresy
wine really great tasting or just really expensive?
One of the grand fantasies people
entertain about wine is to taste a really expensive one.
The expectation is that the higher the cost, the more fantastic
the taste; that, if one is willing and able to pay the price,
some point of sensual ecstasy can be reached.
Although I hate to break your
cork, this is probably not so. Beyond a certain basic level,
the factors that determine wine price have more to do with supply
and demand than with quality. The good news is that, in reality,
the point of diminishing returns, where it doesn't get any better
tasting than this, is not that far from the average consumer's
Once a month, the Professional
Friends of Wine tasting panel meets to taste, evaluate, and
describe wines. Rather than willy-nilly, a "theme" or category
is selected in advance, so we're comparing wines of a similar
type. Each member brings a bottle in a brown bag to hide its
identity and the bags are labeled with letters, A, B, C, etc.
to keep track of which wine is poured in which glass.
We silently taste the wines by
themselves for 30-45 minutes before food is served. As we continue
to taste and write our impressions and comments on a form, we
then individually rank our preferences. The rankings are then
compiled, the wines discussed, and the label identities revealed
as the bottles are unbagged. We normally have ten wines at each
We recently tasted some examples
of Cabernet Franc in this fashion to some quite surprising results,
considering the price range, heritage, and reputation of the
wines. Our host for the tasting was Jon's
Bear Club. Owner-chef Jon Koobation
prepared a very tasty meal of a green salad with a light raspberry
vinaigrette, Roasted Lamb Round with a reduction sauce, and
Rigatoni with a Roasted Red Onion and Tomato Sauce. Each of
the dishes went very well with and actually improved the enjoyment
of several of the wines.
What we didn't realize was that
Jon had also, as a treat for the group, slipped two bottles
of Chateau Cheval Blanc (made predominantly from Cabernet Franc),
both from highly-rated vintages, well-aged, (and expensive to
replace) into our tasting. In traditional wine circles, it is
considered near heresy to comparatively taste expensive and
inexpensive wines together.
The surprise was that the Cheval
Blancs blended into the mix so well and neither their ages nor
their pedigrees were extremely obvious. And, rather than blowing
away the competition of California wines, the most expensive
of which was less than 1/6 the cost, the French wines settled
into the bottom of the group rankings. It's not that we disliked
them; the rankings were fairly tight and by consensus we quite
enjoyed all of the wines in this tasting (see our Tasting
Does this mean that Chateau Cheval
Blanc 1985 St. Emilion, at $460 a pop, doesn't actually taste
76.67 times better than Pepperwood Grove 1998 California Cabernet
Franc at $6? Not necessarily; it might be that, in spite of
the PfW members' experience with and dedication to wine tasting,
we're not very good at it. Or, it's possible that the PfW panelists
have "California Palates" characterized by preferences for wines
that have more fruit, ripeness, and youth to their flavors.
Maybe the subtlety and grace of the aged wines were overwhelmed
by the vitality and power of the young ones. On the other hand,
it might be that grape growing and wine making techniques have
improved so markedly in the last twenty years that traditional
French benchmarks of winemaking quality no longer dominate.
What our tasting result most
likely means is that the flavor differences that exist between
premium wines may be much more subtle to most people's perceptions
than the price differences would seem to indicate. The fantasy
of tasting as good a wine as exists may quite likely be fulfilled
at the local wine shop and even within the confines of the weekly