Friday, November 09, 2007

Value Wine Recommendations

Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm a value-minded consumer. In this edition of the blog, I thought I'd share with you some recommendations for value-minded wines. I got these recommendations from Wine Spectator. I've had a subscription to Wine Spectator for a couple of years, but just recently did I really start digging into their ratings, buying the wines they recommend, and comparing the quality of those wines.

This "research" was prompted by a blind tasting at a friend's holiday party a few years ago. He bought 2 wines: 1 was a $8.99 bottle of Rosemount Shiraz, the other a $50 bottle of Shafer Merlot. Based on blind tasting- half of the group picked the $8.99 bottle as their preferred wine. The conclusion of that exercise was that half of the tasters were buffoons. But looking back at that experiment, both of the wines in that test were rated exactly the same by Wine Spectator: 87 points. So, if you believe the pros at Wine Spectator the wines were equal in quality although one cost 5x as much as the other.

Fast forward 5 years later. Based on recommendations from Wine Spectator over the past 2 years, I've discovered the following 4 wines. I present them for you for their Quality/Price ratio:

Columbia Crest
Grand Estates Merlot 2003/2004
90 points/$11 (bought a case @ $9.59/bottle)

Yellow Tail Shiraz Southeastern Australia The Reserve 2005
90 points/$11 (bought for $9.99)

Wolf Blass Cabernet/Shiraz South Australia Yellow Label 2005
88 points/$12 retail (bought for $7.99)

Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon California 2003
82 points/$2.99 (Trader Joe's only- $2.99)

If you like red wine, I hope you give these a try. If you do, please post back and let me know what you think. I'm planning on having some blind tastings here for Thanksgiving. I'll post back with the results of that experiment.


Shell said...

Yeah for Two-buck Chuck!

Nick and Brandi said...

Interesting taste test Bob. I read the latest Wine Spectator and was confused as to how they actually rate wines. Is value a consideration? Has to be. Plus, wines are rated within their own varietal. Case in point, they slotted Ridge Chardonnay at #2 and 97 points? Maybe its great, but the best wine overall in California and #2 in the world? No. Didn't see their 82 rating for two buck chuck cab but that wine is pure motor oil. I guess 82 must be the worst score you can get. You have to be both alcoholic and masochistic to chug that stuff. It's actually $1.99 in CA.

Robert said...

Woo hoo! Some discussion in the blog comments section!

Value is *not* a consideration in the Wine Spectator ratings. The business about Ridge Chardonnay being "#2" on the list of the "Top 100 Most Exciting Wines of 2007" is not to be confused with the "Quality Price Ratio" that wine geeks talk about. The former is an arbitrary list that Wine Spectator compiles once a year, the latter is aligned with what I'm using as a basis for the wines mentioned here.

A point of contention that I've been pondering is whether the Two Buck Chuck samples submitted for tasting (to Wine Spectator or other wine competitions) are "cherry picked". Further, I've noticed rather inconsistent quality levels from bottle to bottle. It makes me wonder whether they're doing something knowingly deceitful when they submit their wines -or- there's simply so much of their wine produced from so may sources that it is highly irregular how good a particular bottle will be?

There was a fairly lengthy story about Charles Shaw and Fred Franzia in Spectator a while back- I'll E-mail you a copy. What I remember from it was that they get their grapes from all kinds of different sources. Sometimes the grapes are good, sometimes they're bad. So for me, when I buy Charles Shaw I feel that I'm "spinning the wheel"- when it's not good at least I haven't spent that much.

I was at a wine show a few weeks back where they were pushing bottles of 2004 Cardinale Cab for the bargain price of $125 (retail is $150!). I asked the guy what the ratings were for it and he claimed that it hadn't been rated yet. I checked Wine Spectator's ratings and found that it *had* been rated. The rating was (you guessed it): 82 points.

When I see discrepancies like this (seemingly equal quality with radically different prices) it makes me want to set up some blind tastings to see what people think. I'm planning some upcoming Cabernet taste tests which are sure to have some Charles Shaw mixed in. I'll report back on the results.

Nick and Brandi said...

Good point on the WS Top 100 list. I didn't see it was "Most Exciting" wines. As for Charles Shaw, I read that article you sent me. Some of it has been reported on ad nauseum by the SF Chronicle in the "Wine" section. Wine for $1.99 is great but sometimes you get what you pay for. Since it's so popular here (especially at paries) I've tried it a few times. I think their Chardonnay is more drinkable because white wines seem to be more consistent. I've sworn off the reds. Life is too short, even if they are super cheap. There are actually a few other labels at TJ's made by Bronco. There was a label based on Fred Franzia's name -can't remember what it was -but it was dubbed Four Buck Fred because of the $3.99 price. Supposedly it was a little bit more consistent than Charles Shaw. There are probably 5 different labels at TJ's that all are from Bronco. They're all run-off grapes and come from the same central valley places, so spin the wheel.
I think the wine industry is fun to follow. There is an interesting documentary that came out a few years ago from some Italians called Mondovino. You should check it out sometime. They focus on the globalization of the wine industry and how WS and Robert Parker are homogenizing wine with their heavy influence.
One last thing about your blind taste tests. To level the playing field, you might consider sticking to one varietal, like Cab or Merlot. Otherwise if you're comparing a cheap Shiraz vs. an expensive Pinot Noir you might not be conducting a true test. Some people may just prefer Shiraz. More interesting would be to line up 4 Cabs of varying prices and ratings and have people compare.

Robert said...

I totally agree about the mixed-varietal tasting vs. the "horizontal" tasting that would compare low/medium/high quality/price within a single varietal.

While the mixed-varietal tasting was educational, and "fun" I agree that it is a better test of the wines to align on varietal similarly to how WS arranges their blind tastings. The intent with the varietal tasting was to open the taster's eyes (perhaps) to a varietal they may have overlooked for whatever reason. But I fear the most robust wine won out as it blasted the tasters with spicy aroma and wowed their taste buds with flavor. That doesn't exactly make the Yellow Tail Shiraz an ideal dinner pairing.

Thanks for the Mondovino recommendation! I'll check that out. "Sideways" is currently the extent of my wine-movie experience and I'll look forward to seeing that one.

I agree that the wine world is an interesting one to explore. Kind of like baseball cards in a lot of ways (and you know how I loved to waste money on baseball cards).

Tom said...

I hope you don't mind a comment two months after the conversation seems to have ended but I wanted to chime in on the Wine Spectator discussion. I used to get the magazine (free through airline miles) but did not renew after a year (even for free). A few reasons, one, they would always seem to have an article about some great vineyard, it would have a picture of a rustic, handsome, sun-tanned middle age man (clearly not an engineer) standing by some oak barrels. WS would claim he made the greatest wine ever and then note that only 12 cases were made and each bottle cost $250. My thought was always, "this just does not help me". And two, although I found their ratings helpful, they review so many wines and then to try to figure out which ones were actually for sale at my local wine merchant was a big task. Plus, most wine merchants will print out any positive review they get in WS and post it on the shelf by the wine anyway.

I find it most helpful to find a trusted, local wine merchant, and get their opinion. Also, if you get the WSJ, they have a good wine review every Friday. They recently highlighted a grape from Sicily. Nero D'avlo, check it out, usually around $12/bottle. It was recommended to me in July from a wine store in Delaware and I have found a few others since. All very good (probably 88-90 on most scales).

Not sure I added anything to the discussion......other than try to find some Nero D'Avlo!!

Robert said...

Hi Tom,

It is never too late to comment, especially on one of my favorite topics.

Regarding WS reviewing scarce/hard to find wines. I agree this can be very frustrating. I made a list of a dozen wines I wanted to try based on WS ratings and took it to a half dozen local shops. None of the shops could find any of the wines- every by special order. They said the wines weren't imported to MA. Lame! On a recent business trip to CA I stopped in a shop and was able to find at least one of the wines I was looking for, so perhaps part of the problem is the outdated regulations in the states we live in?

I've been considering a subscription to Robert Parker's Wine Advocate off and on. Have you ever read that? With WS, I trust that their reviews are done by tasting blind, and with Wine Advocate he doesn't take any ads so it presumably eliminates the bias towards advertisers. Robert Parker seems to be more generous with his scores. Everything seems to rate in the low 90s at minimum and wines that are 92 in WS seem to be like 96+ in Wine Advocate.

I always read that you should just trust your palate and drink what you like, but the reason I think we read these recommendations from the pros is that it is easy to waste a lot of money on overpriced wine. I can't think of another industry where the product pricing is so randomly out of sync with quality as it is in the wine industry.

I hear what you're saying about finding a trusted local wine merchant (I'm looking and I've found some better than others). But I'm concerned that all merchants have a conflict of interest when it comes to recommending wines due in large part to the distribution system. In order to get the choice wines (high quality -or- good value), retailers have to take the good with the bad from their distributor. The retailers then have to liquidate good and bad wines. So when we take a recommendation from a retailer- how can we trust that it is going to be a good one? And what credentials do most wine shop attendants have? Probably the same as you and I- little or none!

Nero D'avlo- I'll definitely check it out. I'm trying to learn more about French and Italian wines lately and all I've found is overpriced duds. Do you have a specific label in mind? Or is the recommendation simply for any Nero D'avlo based wine?

Finally- the more I learn about wine the more I realize how little I know. I always feel that I know about 5% of what there is to know about wine. I'm sure I'll look back years from now at these comments and think what a rookie I was. I guess with wine I'm enjoying the journey since it is one of the few somewhat sophisticated hobbies parents with young kids can keep up with.

Tom said...

I have not read Wine Advocate so I can't comment. As for the Wine Merchants and conflict of interest, well, that is true, but they also need to get you as a repeat customer so it is in their best interest to recommend a wine you will like. Best thing to do is ask them to recommend an inexpensive wine and see if you like it. If so, move up from there.

The store in Delaware I visited is called Total Wine and More ( It is a large chain and the store in Delaware is the second largest retail wine store in the US (so they claim). Talk about being intimidated!! I flagged down some help and this guy knew what he was talking about. I can easily say he knew way more than I did. He was the one who pointed me towards the Nero D'Avola (I spelled it wrong in the previous comment). He had his picture on a tag next to the wine, so now when I visit the store, I look for his smiling face near other wines and try his suggestions.

As for Nero D'Avola, I have one from "Cusumano" for about $11 and one from "Terre". This one was rated a best buy from the WSJ and I picked up a case at $7/bottle!!

Lastly, if you want to confirm that you know very little about wine, I recommend "The Wine Bible" by Karen MacNeil. It is about 900 pages and covers most every wine and wine region known. To put it in perspective, the Nero D'Avola grape gets a one paragraph mention! Not exactly Cabernet in it's popularity, but just goes to show there are hundreds of grapes/wines that we have never heard of that are terrific (and cheap!!).

Robert said...

I did a little shopping this weekend and picked up 2 bottles of Nero d'Avola. One from Trader Joe's (Ruggero di Tasso, $4.99) and another from a little wine shop (Corvo, $6.99). Those were the most expensive (well actually the only ones) I could find. I'll post reviews when I try these. I'm hoping they're good since I'm frequently looking for an affordable bottle of Italian wine to go with dinner. The guy at the wine shop compared Nero d'Avola to Red Zinfandel (which I tend to like) so I'm optimistic. Thanks for the tip!

Robert said...

I tried the $6.99 Corvo Nero d'Avola and posted a review under "Recent Wine Reviews".

While I enjoyed drinking Italian wine with Italian food (especially *affordable* Italian wine), I can't say that I loved that particular bottle. I'll try again with the $4.99 Ruggero di Tasso. I will also pick up a bottle of the Cusumano if I see it in a local shop.

Robert said...

Hey Tom,

I stumbled across this Wine Library TV episode devoted entirely to Nero D'Avola:

Interesting how the episode summary says "This is not Corvo people, Nero has taken a big jump in quality and today Gary Vaynerchuk tastes through 4 wines to see whats up." Corvo is the exact Nero D'Avola I tried!

Tom said...

I guess it is good news that you found out the Corvo sucks. I have never heard of it but will be sure to pass if I do see it. Hopefully you will be able to find some more Nero's. After watching the Gary video, it seems the sweet spot for this wine is around $12. I've enjoyed the ones I have had, and I'll bring a few on my next trip to Boston.

In other Italian wines, I just tried a "Montepulciano D'Abruzzo". This is another wine that was recently reviewed in the WSJ. I found a few of these in the $8-12 price range and so far, I have enjoyed the one I had from "Marchesini". I would say these struck me almost like a Beaujolais Nouveau, but with structure and character. It may not be a good description, but it is meant as a compliment.

There is another, inexpensive Italian to look for and I hope you don't find another Corvo!!

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