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james laube's wine flights

Hunting for the Top Wine

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 12, 2006 1:53pm ET

Come this time of year--and a lot earlier for some of you--many folks start guessing about Wine Spectator's annual Top 100 list and the Wine of the Year.

Over the years, we’ve used essentially the same criteria to make our decision: The factors include a wine’s quality (as reflected in the rating), its value (based on its release price) and its availability (based on the number of cases produced, or for foreign wines, the number of cases imported). So, for example, if wines with the same rating and price have different case productions, that might give the more widely available wine a slight edge in the voting. But years ago we also decided to add what we call the excitement factor--the X factor, for short--which helps act as a sort of tiebreaker.

One way to get in the hunt early--and admittedly it's not an inexpensive approach--is to buy along the way as the wines are released. Highly rated wines that look like good candidates should be among your considerations.

Sure, you’re thinking, that’s great advice. Why not spend thousands of dollars trying to hedge your bet on picking the wine of the year?

But I don’t see how you can lose, really. Any of the contenders that you might be able to pick up early in the year at good prices are going to be great wines irrespective of whether they end up as our wine of the year or even on the Top 100.

Waiting until the winner is announced has its own complications, not the least of which are a mad scramble by thousands of consumers and, unfortunately, often a price squeeze by those who have the wine in stock, or access to it, such as retailers or distributors.

Care to share your wine of the year strategy?

Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  October 12, 2006 3:15pm ET
Last year I was able to corner the market on the 2002 Insignia because I was standing at my computer when your website announced that it was the wine of the year. Years ago, I was able to do the same thing on the Grange (don't remember what year it was) when a news clip service I had informed me that it was the wine of the year at 12:01 AM!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 12, 2006 3:44pm ET
I approach it by looking at what's in my cellar. If I see a highly-rated wine with exciting tasting notes then I'll usually get a couple of bottles. So, to figure out the WOTY, I sort my cellar spreadsheet by rating, then by price. Then I take the top 5 wines by QPR (that were rated in the current year), review the production/import notes, and then also look for your "X" factor in the tasting notes (things like "Best to wait, but who can resist?"). I just go with my gut from there.So.... I'm going to go out on a limb and say my WOTY pick is.... the 2001 Casanova di Neri BdM Tenuta Nuova. The 2003 Domaine du P¿¿ Ch¿auneuf-du-Pape Cuv¿R¿rv¿is the runner up.
Robert Caruana Jr
East Islip, NY —  October 12, 2006 5:29pm ET
I typically take the "buy along the way" approach throughout the year with wines I view as having a high QPR. However, as you note, I don't do it just to hopefully get the wine of the year. I do it because that has always been, and will be for the foreseeable future, my strategy as a consumer. Anyway, just to take a stab at what will be the "Wine of the Year", I'm going to say the 2003 Leoville Barton. With a 98 point rating, $75 price tag, 18,330 cases made and the x-factor of getting the same rating as the other highest rated 2003 Bordeaux with price tags over $400/bottle (Latour & Margaux); I can't see how it won't win. However, my dark horse pick is the 2004 Schild Shiraz - 96 points, $24/bottle, 5,200 cases made. Either way, I have a case of both wines and I'm sure they will be great whether or not they get "Wine of the Year"!
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  October 12, 2006 7:58pm ET
It's hard to take any strategy with the Wine of the Year or the TOP 100 in general. On the east coast in a good year, usually about 40% of the wines have already come and gone, about 30% have yet to make it to the east, and the rest are available. Not too bad a percentage. You just hope the WOTY is in in the 30% that is still at the distributors warehouses. Distributors don't usually jack up their price to the retailers on those that are in stock. You usually see the price jacking on the 30% that haven't made it to the east yet as wineries, brokers, and distributors in the wonderful three tier system that makes up the current wine pipeline, all take a little credit for what the winemaker accomplished through higher profits. By the time it reaches us retailers, the only resemblance to the national retail quoted by Wine Spectator in the list is that the published price is now the cost for the retailer.

Now should we not have a discussion at this point about the folly of chasing the TOP 100 just like the folly of chasing scores? So many great wines out there. Usually most of us would love to trade places with you, Harvey, and the rest of the Wine Spectator gang. During the time you are trying to narrow down all your tastings throughout the year to just 100 wines, your job doesn't seem so glamorous. It just seems like it would be down right frustrating!
Bill Norrish
Groton, MA —  October 12, 2006 8:46pm ET
I think the X factor is consistency from year to year - no "one trick ponies". I would be very suprised if 2003 Concha Y Toro Don Melchor (96 Points, $47/bottle 10,500 cases) is not in the top five. It is my Wine of the Year. It has had an impressive run and has been in the top 100 the last 2 years - #4 2005, #26 2004.
Tim Burnett
October 13, 2006 10:18am ET
I agree with Bill. I like the '03 Don Melchor. At 96 pts, a readily available (until the rankings come out) $47 cabernet is hard to beat. I'm biased though as my wife and I drank one on our anniversary, so it is forever "luna de miel" wine in our house.

Actually, I'm hoping like hell to track some down before the rankings come out, but living in Central Wisconsin its hard -- everyone I've seen is still selling the '02, which is not a bad buy either, but I've already got what I want of it. Last year when the rankings came out, the '01 (#4) was gone in a like a week, even in Central Wisconsin.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  October 13, 2006 10:48am ET
Personally, I could not care less what the WOTY is. I buy what I like to drink, and if a few of my wines happen to end up in the top 100 then I might mention it to my guests--if I even remember. Dave has it right -- it's folly to chase these wines. For example, I recently tasted the 97-point 2001 Fontodi Flaccianello, and it didn't excite me nearly as much as when I first tasted the 2000 Argiano Solengo (rated 90 points). Forget the hype and drink what you like. - Jim
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  October 13, 2006 11:54am ET
Robert:If you actually bought 2003 Leoville Barton for $75 a bottle, consider yourself lucky. I have not seen it in Dallas for less than about twice that "suggested retail" price. I'm guessing this has a lot to do with its 98 point rating, with or without adding WOTY to its pedigree. And I remember the same thing happening to Cinq Cepages a few years back when it got a stellar rating relative to its price - a %50 plus cost jump - even before being named WOTY. That's the problem with chasing wines after they've been well received. And yet, what choice is there for those of us with limited budgets, and limited livers?
Karl Hess
Philadelphia, PA —  October 13, 2006 1:53pm ET
I don't have a strategy to buy the WOTY. I DO have a startegy to buy wines that score well and are at a reasonable price for the score received. I use the Insider/Adavnce to get a leg up on other consumers. I have purchased the WOTY in advance of it winning a few years in a row. This year I was able to get the 03 Leoville Barton @$68, the 04 Schild @ $26, and the 03 Don Melchor @ $39. My guess is all will be in the top 10 and one will probably be WOTY. But like James said, you really can't go wrong buying wines with great scores at a low or reasonable price.
Bill Norrish
Groton, MA —  October 13, 2006 2:10pm ET
One more comment about Don Melchor and the X factor. From my experience, it is a wine that excites and impresses both the wine newbie and the wine snob.
Alex Cobb
Fort Worth, TX —  October 13, 2006 2:11pm ET
Robert - we are really on the same page! Those are both my picks, as I also have a case of each... Have you tried the Schild yet? I haven't, but am very tempted. I don't know if I can wait until 08. -Alex
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 13, 2006 2:37pm ET
Ken, http://www.wineaccess.com/store/winehouse/ecommerce/product.html?product_id=10671028I'm hearing they sell it for 90$ you might want to give it a shot.
Robert Caruana Jr
East Islip, NY —  October 13, 2006 4:38pm ET
Ken: I was very lucky with the '03 Leoville Barton. I purchased a case for $58/bottle. It was from a store that had ordered the wine during the initial round of futures purchases.

Alex: I have not yet tried the Schild as I just received my case from California last week. I'm waiting for the wine to settle down from the travel across country. Not sure if it makes a difference, but that is what the "experts" say to do.
David Nerland
Scottsdale —  October 14, 2006 2:12am ET
I would have to pick Lauren Aubert. Probably the chardonnay although I love the pinot.
Guus Hateboer
Netherlands —  October 14, 2006 10:49am ET
No, no, guys, the WOTY will be Leoville-Poyferre 2003, read: Pure cassis on the nose. Impressive. Full-bodied, thick and powerful, with loads of fruit and big, velvety tannins. Goes on for minutes on the palate. Huge wine. Very, very impressive. This is one of the big surprises of the vintage. (95/100). And recognize this? - I have had this wine three times out of bottle, rating it 97 once and 98 twice. It is a colossal success and a potential legend in the making. Its saturated, dense inky/blue/purple color offers up notes of crushed rocks, acacia flowers, blueberries, black raspberries, and creme de cassis. A synthesis of power and elegance, this multi-layered wine has spectacular concentration, sweet but high tannin, and low acidity. A stunning effort that showcases this legendary terroir, it is a brilliant, brilliant success. The quintessential Leoville Poyferre? (98/100).I rest my case (in the cellar...).
Harvey Kornicks
Vero Beach,Florida —  October 14, 2006 12:46pm ET
Should the criteria of production and access have anything to do with a top 100 list. I have read the criteria's and just can not except that production or access should have anything to do with it. It leaves out many of the wines that could be included in the list.
Mark Mccullough
GA —  October 14, 2006 12:49pm ET
Based on my experiences and reading that of others on the blogs, the Don Melchor (pick a vintage 00/01/02/03) is consistent ...... consistently a controversy on its rating. I disagree that it excites and impresses all...I bought a case each year and have poured it often over the past few vintages and get wildly different responses from those trying it for the first time. Schild does not have a wow factor, just a nice WS QPR. Command, Branson Coach or E&E Black Pepper blow it away, at a higher price point of course. I think the Alban Syrah Reva 2003 could sneak in as #1. It may come down to which editor is the best persuader rather than the wine.
Sao Anash
Santa Barbara —  October 14, 2006 1:49pm ET
Personally, my WOTY would probably hail from the Pacific Northwest.I'm a big fan of Cali and Oregon Pinots, and think they're some of the most exciting wines on the market today.Having said that, I'd pick a Pinot from California's Central Coast or Russian River Valley, or one from Oregon's Chehalem, Willamette, Hood River, Yamhill or Columbia Gorge Vally's.If I had to choose today, the Kosta Browne Cohn Vyd (Russian River) or something from Beaux Freres or Sineann would be my pick for WOTY.At least one of these should be in the Top 5, in my book.
Alton D Trawick
Sammamish, WA —  October 16, 2006 2:31pm ET
James L: If there is a hunt, your suggestion is exactly how I get in it. Buying 1 or 2 bottles of top rated wines along the way I have found is the best way to replenish my collection every year. It also is an opportunity to experience some new wines, (assuming I am not already a fan). If I happen to hit on the top 1, all the better. When the list comes out, and I don't have it, (assuming it is something I want to try), I might look for it, but not with a vengeance. The main exercise for me every year is matching the top 100 list with what I have already collected. The % is usually high. -Al
Paul Wright
October 22, 2006 10:53am ET
The Schilds is great (and drinking now) and have been able to pick up a few bottles in HK at a very reasonable price but would probably agree it's not quite a #1 (hope it is though). I tried to get hold of the Leoville-Poyferre 2003 locally but couldn't, and that was at double the release price. Could be an interesting contender. We have the same problem with the Don Melchor and vintages here, once the 03 arrives it will be a top 10 wine and prices will go up. I found the 10 years of top 25 wines a couple of years ago really useful and have used it to fill in a few holes when 'bargains' have popped up. The hype tends to pass and price return to 'normal' as another hot wine hits the shelves.

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