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The Value of Heresy Is that 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 economic grasp.

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 session.

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 Notes).

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 grocery budget.




Article written October, 2000.
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