Assuming the Best (or Worst) in a Wine

Our expectations shape the way we taste
Mar 9, 2011

When I was a kid, my family set off on a cross-country road trip and, after three weeks in the car, my parents miraculously remained married. People didn't fly as much back then, and as a first grader I had just one thing on my mind—to get to Disneyland as quickly as possible.

Years later, I returned there with my kids, eager to resuscitate a memory, but something was terribly wrong with the Matterhorn. Southern California's implausibly snow-crusted pinnacle had shrunk in 30 years.

Expectations are like that, and wine is no exception. Our expectations shape every experience we have with wine, and sometimes a wine goes through a Matterhorn-like transformation. California Rieslings, for me, are a good example. They were a favorite of mine when I was a young drinker, and I still enjoy them, but after I tasted Rieslings from Alsace and Germany, the bar was raised a lot higher.

For those of us familiar with wine, there are the obvious expectations, the sort most of us share.  No one, for example, expects a Sauvignon Blanc to taste tannic or young Champagne to lack fizz. If it did, we'd send it back.

There are the expectations that center around price—not always a reliable guide to quality—especially on the high end. I've had $100 wines that smell like my son's gym socks. When I pay that much I expect to be amazed. Amazement, of course, is relative to your knowledge and appreciation of a certain wine or region, not to mention the richness of your pocketbook. To a wealthy Hong Kong investor, 100 bucks is tip change, so his expectations—and reaction—may be different.

When money is tight, expectations are often the most fragile. When you're shopping for a $10 wine, you're still hoping for the best. At the minimum, you expect the occasional "wow" out of a bunch.

Wines that over-deliver for the price are there if you're a smart shopper. Consider the Bogle Chardonnay California 2009 (88 points, $10), which is fresh and vibrant with apple and honeysuckle notes. Or turn to France for the Georges Duboeuf Morgon Flower Label Beaujolais 2009 (90, $13), which is ripe and juicy with black currant, dark chocolate and herb notes. The Korbel Brut California 2008 (88, $16) is made from organically grown grapes and is a surprisingly tasty bubbly for the price, with crisp and spicy apple flavors. Saintsbury's Garnet Pinot Noir has been a consistent California value, and the 2009 (88, $20) is vibrant and snappy with dark berry fruit.

The matter of whether wines meet our expectations, or tank, is especially resonant when it comes to mature vintage wines. I've shared in a few treasures over the years, like a 1961 Château Margaux at a dinner in Bordeaux and some of the great early Inglenook Napa Cabernet Sauvignons and Beaulieu Vineyard's Georges de Latour from the 1940s, '50s and '60s. And yet for every 10- or 20-year-old Cabernet I swoon over, there are a dozen that don't live up to their promise, that just didn't have the stuffing to improve over time.

Expectations are often dashed in the cellar because of tainted corks. Imagine a collector opening his last bottle of a cherished case, knowing the wine should have finally achieved its peak, only to discover that it's corked. At those moments, it's best to hand the guy a hanky and give him some alone time.

At times, we're prepared for the worst; our expectations for a wine are low. Let's say your notion of Argentinean Malbec was based on a few cheap bottles opened 15 years ago. Well then, you're in for a surprise today. For that matter, not every Zinfandel is an overripe bull in a china shop, despite what some of the variety's detractors claim, and unless you're a complete Champagne snob, the top California sparkling wines are better than you're willing to believe.

What about your expectations when it comes to wine? Which wines have disappointed or surprised you? What was your Matterhorn?

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