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A 100-Point Napa Cabernet for $15?

Are you a sucker for a flashy headline? Are you ready to challenge your prejudices about wine?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 12, 2011 11:25am ET

Made you look.

This was a test and only a test. Did you really believe there was a 100-point Napa Cabernet Sauvignon selling for $15? Even if you didn't, you still clicked on the headline to find out what it was all about.

Consider all the red flags in that headline. A 100-point score means it's a perfect wine. Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is a favorite topic of our readers and most wine lovers. And a price tag of 15 bucks? Who doesn't love a bargain? Put those all together and it's the Mother of All Wine Headlines.

So why did I do it? To test your biases and preconceptions about wine. We all have them. Well, I sure do anyway, although I try to rise above them.

How much a wine costs is a big bias. All of our eyes light up when we see the words "value" or "bargain," and it doesn't matter how fat our wallet is. Some people will swear there's no real difference between a $20 bottle of wine and a $100 bottle. (Sure, we've all had a few 100-buck stinkers, but that's a different blog.) Chances are the guy who thinks there's no difference hasn't had a lot of $100 wines in the first place.

And yet, sommeliers will tell you that no one ever buys the least expensive bottle on a restaurant wine list. Who wants to look cheap? All the action starts with the bottle that's $10 or $20 more.

Then there's the other side of the coin—if it's expensive, it has to be good. There are those rarified few who think a $50 bottle is cut-rate. And even that can be taken to the extreme, and wine becomes nothing more than bling. There are some classic sommelier tales about nouveau riche customers pouring $5,000 bottles of wine over ice.

Then we have Wine Spectator's 100-point scale—it's an important tool for our reviewers. Scores tell you the general quality of a wine, but that's only part of the story. They're like Cliffs Notes: a guide, not a substitute for the real thing. You have to read the tasting note to get a true idea about the character and style of the wine. Blindly following scores doesn't serve anyone.

Sure, if a wine rates 90 points that means we believe it's outstanding, but there's a chance—if you read the tasting notes—that you might prefer an 89 or 88 pointer even more.

Varietal and regional biases and prejudice abound as well. Napa Cabernet and Bordeaux are some of our readers' favorite wines, and who can argue with that? That's not likely what they used to drink, or what they always will-some prejudices change. When I moved to Sonoma County 20 years ago, just about the only wine sold here was from Sonoma. Restaurant lists are still mostly stocked with Northern California wines, but there are many more bottlings from France, Spain and beyond. Sonoma and Napa wines now face serious competition on retail shelves from Europe and South America.

Other prejudices are hard to shake. Some wine lovers on the East Coast dismiss California wines entirely. Typically they're Francophiles who might allow themselves an occasional Italian, Austrian or German wine. Most of the wine drinkers and winemakers I know here revere the wines of Europe and have room to love California, too.

One East Coast wine notable told me he had never tried a Zinfandel that be liked. A sweeping condemnation if I've ever heard one. Here's a person who hasn't tried enough good Zinfandel like Carlisle or Hartford.

I just touched on a few of preconceptions and prejudices out there. There are so many. What have I missed? Care to admit to your own biases?

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 12, 2011 1:59pm ET
I'm a Score Whore, no doubt about it. I am definitely biased in favor of any To-Kalon Cabernet and equally suspicious of any equivalently-rated Super Tuscan. CDP's are 50-50 propositions, and my Merlot better come from Lewis or Buccella. I'm 43 now and can count the number of bottles I'll be able to consume during the rest of my expected lifetime. I just came back from a 3-week trip in France and can tell you I'm no more enamored with French wines than I was before I left. Few have an edge up on the same varietals from California based on my palate/pleasure.

Thanks for making me look....
Leonard Danna
Monte Sereno, CA —  October 12, 2011 3:46pm ET
French wines are no better or worse than California. They are just different. If you are used to the California style, you will most likely think French wines are light bodied and not very satisfying. As for ratings, they are important but it is important to not just focus on one specific bottle. I think it is important to look at the winery's overall performance and judge from there. Case in point - Lewis. I have never had a bad bottle from them. They don't always have the highest scoring wines but they are very consistent from year to year. That's the mark of a good house. You can buy with confidence year after year knowing that even their worst is going to be pretty good and every now and then you do catch lightning in a bottle. I am also suspicious of another prominent wine rating source (RP) that seems to always over hype certain wines and give off 95+ ratings like they're a dime a dozen. I find those ratings semi-meaningless. If you go off an individual whose palate is in sych with ours, you won't go wrong. I generally only follow the WS ratings as I find I do generally agree with them. But if the house is good from year to year, I am going to always buy, regardless of the ratings.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  October 12, 2011 5:21pm ET

Heck, I looked cause it's always such a pleasure to see what you've written. Actually, this is a great premise and has nice weight coming from one whose job it is to score wines. At its core, it asks if one has the courage to trust one's own instincts.

Troy, When in Rome. . .? Appreciate your honesty. I grew up on french wine--love it, but I can honestly say I like wine from virtually any region of the world, depending on the time/place. On a recent trip to New York while dining at Dinosaur's bbq, I enjoyed a Finger Lake's Riesling (Gotham something or other)which they had by the barrel on tap. This was not even the best Riesling in (terms of absolute quality) I had from Finger Lakes, let alone the best Riesling I've had, yet at that moment with that meal there is no other beverage I would rather have been drinking. And this despite leading off with Stone's Arrogant Bastard ale on tap!!

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 12, 2011 5:59pm ET
Indeed Tom, the meal does at times define the wine. My prior comments are limited to wine-only evaluations. I certainly had a great deal of amazing food to go with the wine pairings in France. The most memorable were at the Jules Verne restaurant in the Tour Eiffel. From a 2007 Meursault with my appetizer to a 2004 Pomerol with my main course - John Dory no less (forgot the producers) it was amazing.
Richard Lee
Napa —  October 12, 2011 6:33pm ET
Just because WS orParker scores a wine 100 pts doesn't mean one or the rest of us might score it a 90. Basing your wine purchases off of one persons ratings makes ZERO sense to me. I have never, and, will never, run out and buy a wine because someone I don't know gave it a high rating. Cheers!
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  October 12, 2011 6:50pm ET
Troy, sounds wonderful, although you probably would have been better off with a 1998 Pomerol and a 2008 or 1999 Meursault. That's part of the problem with french wine, for those not inclined to it, there are many variables which must be right to make the experience a good one.

Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 12, 2011 7:29pm ET
Thanks for the comments and some excellent insights.
Cutting Edge Selections
Ohio —  October 13, 2011 9:12am ET
What I've found over the years is that most people who say they don't like French, or European wines in general, just don't feel comfortable with the unknown. They know what to expect from a wine that has a varietal name on the label, i.e. Cab, Chard, Merlot, and even an Argentine Malbec or Australian Shiraz. The thought of blends in Bordeaux, Italy, Spain, etc. and grape types that are alien, along with different terroir is just to much to overcome. I say drink what you enjoy, but go to tastings and try things out of your comfort zone. You may be suprised.
John Kane
Dallas, TX —  October 13, 2011 2:13pm ET
Tim, I really appreciate your take on wine prejudices. It is safe to say that everyone has a prejudice. Or, at least it's safe to say that everyone has a preference and a preconceived notion. Francophiles may dismiss Napa cabernet sauvignon due solely to preconceived notions. The same can be said with chardonnay. Alas, wine prejudices are often based on ignorance, and ignorance can often lead to embarassment. Didn't we find that out in 1976 with the Tasting of Paris? Keeping an open mind and mouth is one of the greatest things a taster can do. There is nothing better than being blown away by a wine when you least expect it.
Douglas Johnson
Appleton, WI —  October 13, 2011 4:45pm ET
The best way to select a wine is to taste it before you buy, no question, but that is not always an option. Ratings and tasting notes are useful to steer one through the myriad of labels in the market today. Tim, I can't say I've ever had a $100 stinker because that's a bit out of my price range, but I have seen wines in that price range and above that have not scored to well with the WS staff. This just emphasizes the point that you can't judge a wine by its price. For my money, I've found Washington State wines, in general, and the Columbia Crest family of wines, specifically, to provide good to excellent quality and value, and their ratings are typically in the high 80's to low 90's. Not bad for wines retailing for $15 a bottle or less!
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  October 13, 2011 4:51pm ET
Tim, I don't know if it is a bias but I prefer CA and Wash wines to French wines. To a point that I hardly ever look at a French wine list in a restaraunt. Once we had a blind tasting at a friend's house comparing his 2001 Chateau Haut Brion and my 2007 Columbia Crest Cab Reserve. We picked the CC, including my friend. I guess I am biased against expensive wines.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  October 13, 2011 5:50pm ET
Doh! Thought you might have reviewed my own garage wine (curious since I had not yet submitted it for testing). Honestly though, I am at the point where I don't worry about the biases of others and try to keep my own open mind. Case in point occurred this summer as a friend procured a bottle of Petrus from a good vintage and well reviewed as a sort of "bucket list" wine. Ummmmmm good but worth the price -- no way. Next up Paloma -- dare I say a draw and a much, much cheaper.
James J Sherma
hershey, PA —  October 13, 2011 8:04pm ET
In my opinion ratings have merit within a given region/varietal/year as a way of comparing wines. For example if I am looking at Oregon Pinots form a certain year and price range relative ratings can be a useful piece of information if I have not tried all of the candidate choices. However, comparing ratings across wine styles/regions is useless. In general a higher rated wine has a better chance at being a marginally better or successfully made wine. Whether or not one style or varietal is to my preference that is another question
Matt Anders
New jersey —  October 14, 2011 10:37am ET
I do rely on scores a great deal, but only from those reviewers I have learned to have a similar palate. Parker, for example, has a leather tongue that I don't share. Anyone who has done blind tastings, when you eliminate obvious old world/new world style differences, has seen that few biases based on country hold up when tested.

As for price, I have far more often been dissapointed with bottles over $50 than with bottles under $20. But that's more a matter of relative expectations then relative quality.

I do have one bias that I live by. I rarely if ever buy a wine with 13.5% alcohol, especially one I don't know. It fascinates how many wines have that exact, arbitrary level, which indicates a mindless, formula-based wine making effort, where all grapes are picked at a certain pre-determined Brix no matter what they taste like or the conditions during harvest.
Montreal, Quebec, Canada —  October 14, 2011 12:34pm ET

Over the years, as a wine trader(agent), I had the chance of tasting/drinking lots of great(and expensive) wines from all around the world, including many top rated wines(up to 98 points from either WS or Parker). I have to admit that most of the time(lets say 90%), I would have rated those top wines much lower, as they are too often predictable in their style.
At the same time, many wines that I do represent often get very average ratings, and it frustrate me as I found them of fantastic value, very terroir-focused, with the caracteristics of the varietal(s)...

So I never rely on ratings when it comes to pruchase wines for myself(business wise, it is another story!).
And it is not only because I probably have what you would called a European palate that is quite different from the palates of US wine critiques(I'm from Montreal, Quebec, so I grew up tasting French and Italian wines).

Indeed, most of my portfolio is New World wines + Spain, so I am used(and enjoy) full-bodied wines. What I find most of the time with top ratings is that the wine will be very rich, with some sweetness in the finale, and will lack some tannins(for reds).This is especially true for Pinot Noir, and the varietal caracteristics are no longer present. Why should I purchase a pinot noir if it isn't tasting like a pinot noir??? Oregon, for example, produces the most balanced pinots in the US, but funnily enough it is still the Californian pinots that are the top rated...Many of them at 15% alcohol!!!

So, as we say here, you cannot drink ratings, you drink wine, and as we all have our preferences, you are 100% right when you say that we might prefer a wine that received 88 points instead of a wine that got 90pts(or even higher).It takes more efforts to find the styles that we prefer the most, but it is worth it, and on top of drinking wines that we really enjoy, those wines are often cheaper, and way easier to find!!!


Francois Blouin
Tony Whalen
Calgary, AB, Canada —  October 14, 2011 4:56pm ET
Matt Anders - Interesting bias! First I've heard of that... but I just walked through my favorite store, looking at the cheap section just to see how many of their selections were the arbitrary 13.5%, and after I figured out it was more than 2/3rds, I wandered back to my usual section. :)

I think you may have just infected me with the same bias!
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  October 15, 2011 12:28am ET

I think you make a great point about Washington wine. They don't have the history or pedigree of CA or Old World, but they can be downright delicious not only on Tuesday but Saturday night. I love Columbia Crest reserves which are enjoyable at a fraction of the price of Beringer, Mondavi, Caymus, or any other "reserve" at a significantly higher price. Check out great "Bordeaux" blends from Tamarack Cellars in WA as well. They are wonderful.

My advice is to try everything. The more the merrier!
Todd Hansen
Newberg, OR —  October 15, 2011 2:50am ET
Matt - I typically don't measure Brix until the grapes are processed and dropping into the fermenter. To me Brix is something that bears only a loose relationship to optimal ripeness. Still, in some (exceptional) vintages we get a wine that is 13.5!
Susan Blough
Boise, Id, USA —  October 15, 2011 11:23am ET
Something is missing from my understanding of alcohol percentages. I don't find all that many wines with percentages under 14% in our stores/wine shops. I prefer wines with lower alcohol levels, so that the wine, rather than the alcohol is the focus of my tasting, and my head feels better the next morning. Is it the issue that the exact number 13.5 is not to your liking- would 13.7 be met with more favor? or is it that the wine takes manipulation to be exactly that number? I am curious- can someone tell me why wines under 14% alcohol tend to end at 13.5%, and what that means in the wine making?
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 16, 2011 1:43pm ET
I'm no expert here Susan, but as I understand it most governmental authorities allow a finished wine to deviate up to 0.5% (or maybe even 1%?) from the alcohol-by-volume (ABV) stated on the label. That's because the labels are usually approved/printed in advance of the bottling. 13.5% has been a historical target for many of the world's largest (sometimes meaning "bulk") producers. At that percentage level they are hitting a certain point of ripeness while also producing a wine that will pair with a greater range of foods. When you're pumping out 10,000 cases you need the wine to have the widest possible appeal under the greatest number of circumstances. When you produce 100 cases you are more likely to target a specific audience that enjoys wine in and of itself and will tolerate a higher alcohol level that comes from increasingly ripe grapes.

How does that sound all you industry folks? Am I missing anything?
Roberto Haendel
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brasil —  October 16, 2011 10:48pm ET
I am a retailer and importer of wine in Brazil. Search the best value wines is a tireless work. Fortunately we are achieving great success with French wines. I find the great bargain of the moment are the Crus Bourgeois. Are bargains that at the French restaurants of the own wine regions of are not normally found. The challenge of the importer is to research and bring these fine wines to consumers.

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