We all know it's true, so there's no sense pretending: Everybody is influenced by how much a wine costs. You and I both know that if somebody puts a wine in front of us—and yes, I include myself in this—and says, "This wine costs $500," we’re going to sit up and pay mighty close attention.
Now, we all like to think that we're better than this. That we can taste wine and judge it on its own merits. And you know what? We can.
Professionally speaking, the way that I try to ensure just such an approach is to play a game with myself and ask the following question: If I didn't know how much this wine cost, how much would I think it cost?
Very often I find myself mentally replying with a much higher price than what the producer modestly asks. This, I have to note, is rarely the case with Napa Valley Cabernets and most California Chardonnays. But it's often true for numerous obscure wines from Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Chile and Argentina.
Fame equals fortune. Back in the day, less-famous places typically did create lesser wines. But that's no longer true, thanks to modern technology and more scientifically astute winemaking. Almost everywhere in the world today, the (low) price of a wine is only rarely a reflection of its intrinsic goodness.
Let me give you an example. For the past several years I have repeatedly recommended in wine columns that I have written for newspapers a Syrah from a brand called Cycles Gladiator. It sells for—brace yourself—$7.99. It's astonishingly good, delivering pure, true cool-climate blueberry Syrah scents and tastes delivered with a brisk, refreshing acidity.
I was so intrigued by this particular wine that a few weeks ago I drove 130 miles from San Francisco to the Salinas Valley of Monterey County to visit Nicolaus (“Nicky") Hahn. He's the guy who owns Cycles Gladiator, as well as a number of other brands, including his flagship Hahn winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA of Monterey County.
"The next time you come across a bargain wine that you just know is far better than its price suggests, remember this: You're right."
Have you heard of Nicky Hahn? I'll bet not, unless you're in the wine industry or you're particularly interested in Monterey County wines. Yet Mr. Hahn owns 1,105 vineyard acres in Monterey County, 650 of them in the Santa Lucia Highlands, with the balance in the Arroyo Seco AVA. That's a pretty sizable vineyard holding by anyone's measure. Yet his name remains relatively unknown.
Meeting Nicky Hahn is not easy, if only because he spends half the year on his 50,000-acre wildlife preserve in Kenya. A tall, lanky fellow in his mid-70s, Hahn came from his native Switzerland to purchase the former Smith & Hook winery in Monterey County in 1979. That property, which is the site of his Hahn winery, is picturesquely located in the higher-elevation benchlands that look down on the flat Salinas Valley.
It was clear to Hahn then, as it also was to others in the area, that these benchlands are a world apart, with different soils, exposures and elevations. So Hahn pioneered the creation of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. "I don't mind saying that I was the one who started that process rolling," he noted. "Anyone who comes here can see for themselves how different it is up here on the benchlands than down on the valley floor."
Among wine industry insiders, Hahn's real claim to fame is the meteoric success of his low-priced label called Rex Goliath, featuring an improbable, gaudy circus poster label depicting a 47-pound rooster that supposedly was once a sideshow attraction. In the space of just three years—from 2002 to 2005—Rex Goliath went from 70,000 cases to 500,000 cases.
"It started creating its own life," recalled Hahn. "But we were churning dollars rather than actually making a profit. And we had to keep borrowing money in order to keep growing the brand. In the end, it was a lot easier for us to sell the brand than it was to sell the wine." So Hahn sold the brand to Constellation Brands for a reported $40 million. But he kept all of his vineyards.
How much of that reported $40 million was profit Hahn wouldn't say. (When I inquired, he replied with a laugh, "I assume that was a rhetorical question.") But he did say that the sale of the Rex Goliath brand left him with what business sorts call a high-class problem: "We needed a new product for our distributors after we sold Rex."
This was how Cycles Gladiator emerged. I had assumed that with some 1,100 acres of vines, Hahn needed a new home for so many grapes. But I was quickly disabused of that naive notion. "Not at all," he replied. "Nearly everything we use for Cycles Gladiator comes from around Lodi. It's nearly all sourced from the Central Valley." Welcome to the real world of wine.
Now, you can say what you like about the merits of connoisseurship, but when I heard that last comment I stood my ground. "That's not possible," I declared.
"Excuse me?" said Hahn, bewildered by such a forthright assertion.
"You know that I admire, particularly, the Syrah you sell under the Cycles Gladiator brand. And I know that the eight different wines you sell under that brand are all designated simply as ‘California.’
"But there is no way," I continued, "no way at all, that the Syrah I've tasted since the original 2004 vintage release could come from Central Valley. It's got all the attributes of a cool-climate Syrah and, unless you know something about Lodi that I've missed, there's no way that Lodi could create such a Syrah. I've always assumed that the Syrah had to come from Santa Lucia Highlands."
I grant you that this was hardly diplomatic, or even especially polite. But I do trust my palate.
With that, the Hahn winemaker, Paul Clifton, hustled to straighten things out. "Actually, the Syrah is partly sourced from here," he said, referring to the Santa Lucia Highlands. "We've got 84 acres of Syrah here and the 2010 Syrah, for example, was 60 percent Santa Lucia Highlands fruit."
What did surprise me, however, was the reality of the low-priced wine business today. "Cycles Gladiator is currently at 150,000 cases," said Hahn. "And that's where it will stay for the foreseeable future. Why wouldn't he ramp it up the way he did Rex Goliath? "Because we can't get the grapes, that's why," he replied. "There's a shortage of bulk wine on the market these days, everywhere in the world in fact. We can't grow the brand because we can't get the wine we need at the price we need."
This brings me full circle to where this all began: That we can taste wine and judge it on its own merits. So the next time you come across a bargain wine that you just know is far better than its price suggests, remember this: You're right.
Now, a question for you: Which wines do you nominate as just such bargains in today's supplies-are-tight wine world?
I would nominate Cono Sur Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s Central Valley ($8), Masciarelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($9) and pretty much any wine, red or white, from Portugal's Casa Santos Lima ($7 to $10), to name but a few.
So, step right up! In a short-supply world of inexpensive deals, what are your go-to bargains?
Dorns Wine Warehouse — Ft. Lauderdale, FL — June 5, 2012 11:21am ET
Peter J Gatti — Austin, — June 5, 2012 11:29am ET
Dan Alban — Arlington, VA — June 5, 2012 11:53am ET
Michael Schulman — Westlake Village, CA — June 5, 2012 1:12pm ET
David Peters — Mission Viejo, CA — June 5, 2012 1:51pm ET
Edward Chisolm — Miami, Florida — June 5, 2012 1:56pm ET
Morewine Bishar — Del Mar, California — June 5, 2012 2:11pm ET
Steve Kirchner — huntington beach, ca — June 5, 2012 2:32pm ET
Reggie Mcconnell — Indiana — June 5, 2012 4:33pm ET
Hoyt Hill — Nashville, TN USA — June 5, 2012 5:47pm ET
Donald Wisniewski — Kerhonkson,New York — June 5, 2012 7:55pm ET
Jeremy Matouk — Port of Spain, Trinidad — June 5, 2012 7:55pm ET
James J Sherma — hershey, PA — June 6, 2012 9:43am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — June 6, 2012 11:06am ET
Mary Jane Phillips — Farmington Hills, MI — June 6, 2012 6:09pm ET
Mitch Zavada — Minneapolis, MN, USA — June 6, 2012 6:23pm ET
Eric Pottmeyer — Portland, OR USA — June 7, 2012 10:38am ET
Giancarlo Ortega — Washington DC — June 7, 2012 10:59pm ET
Ned Osborn — Philadelphia PA USA — June 8, 2012 8:15pm ET
Jerry Reid — Sherman,Texas, U.S.A. — June 12, 2012 11:17am ET
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Stem Wine Group — Ontario Canada — June 15, 2012 9:06am ET
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