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Assuming the Best (or Worst) in a Wine

Our expectations shape the way we taste
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 9, 2011 11:00am ET

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?

Peter Vangsness
Springfield, MA —  March 9, 2011 1:37pm ET
Since the hunt for and sharing of a wine is as enjoyable, for me, as the actual consumption, I have developed a "sportive" attitude; that is, I am pleasantly surprised by positive experiences and only mildly disappointed by unpleasant experiences.
I recently opened a 1987 Franciscan Meritage and was amazed at how gracefully it had aged. On the other hand, the same could not be said for a 1996 Constant Diamond Mountain Cab - it was a shell of it's former self. I expected the exact opposite.
Without the risk, where would the fun be?
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  March 9, 2011 3:35pm ET
Peter, good point about no risk, no fun. Thanks.
Ryan Schmied
Miami, FL. USA —  March 9, 2011 4:22pm ET
A Brazilian Merlot, 05 Casa Valduga Storia Grand Reserva, completely blew my mind. After tasting several Brazilian wines, this one truly opened my eyes to what is possible in that region.
Joseph Kane
Austin —  March 9, 2011 6:31pm ET
1966 Latour and a 1976 Petrus were massive disappointments. A 1985 Champagne Charlie had all but lost its fizz and liveliness, and a few 1998 Kistler chardonnay I had recently were long since faded. On the other hand, a 1974 Mondavi Reserve was truly incredible, vibrant, and astoundingly complex! I was also happily surprised by a Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot from a few vintages back. For ten dollars, it was spectacular. The first vintage of the Prisoner I opened (2003) was amazing and blew me away for the price. That is probably my Matterhorn. More recent vintages cannot come close to that memory.
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, CA; USA —  March 9, 2011 7:21pm ET
It's been hit and miss with Older Vintages of Bordeaux (Older than 98) and 1997 highly touted Napa Vly Cabernets. I would agree that the disapointments are greater than the high notes. I had an older bottle of 97 La Tache that was frankly dried out too (supposedly stored well).

Greatest discovery was off speed vintage of 2002 Cos D'Estronel and 2002 Pape Clement (Magrez)that were great wines! I also bought a bottle of 1998 "Martha's Vineyard" Heitz Cabernet that both my father and I were in awe for an elegant example of Napa Cabernets from the 70's!

My latest inexpensive enjoyment has been nice Tempranillo's and their blends from Spain in the mid teen range and Cabernet Franc's from Loire Valley.
Finally; the Roederer Brut Rose from Anderson Valley I think can rival $50+ Champagne Rose's. I was purchased at the neighborhood Safeway!
Michael Bennett
Houston, TX —  March 9, 2011 7:40pm ET
Great read. It's so much better when you have low expecations and are surprised than vice versa. I had a good low expectations experience recently. As a Texan, I'd tasted many Texas wines in years past and (unfortunately) had come away with generally very low expectations for any Texas wine. Recently I opened a bottle I received as a gift called "Longhorn Red" (a Cab/Syrah blend) from a winery called "Driftwood." The winery and wine name and blend didn't help with raising my expectations, but as it turns out I was surprised in a good way. It kind of re-opened my eyes to the notion that I might actually like a Texas wine. Thanks for pointing out that these trials are worthwhile and may alter your preconceptions.

P.S. -- I'm really enjoying the new blog. I enjoy the regular discussion of accessible wines.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  March 9, 2011 8:06pm ET
Ryan, Joseph & Mark

Thanks for sharing. Some great Matterhorns.

I just realized that I forgot one myself. About 20 years ago when I was fairly new to wine I was given a 1968 Souverain Napa Cabernet. That was back before Souverain was in Sonoma.

Most of the wines I had been given previously from that particular cellar were spotty, soft corks and over the hill wines. So I wasn't expecting much.

Anyway, the wine was about 23-25 years old at the time and the cork was in excellent shape and it still had a deep color as I poured it with friends.

It was incredible. I still recall its depth and finesse. Later, I did a little research and discovered it was considered a classic wine, from a classic year.

It was a wine I will never forget.

Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  March 9, 2011 8:09pm ET

Thanks for the comment and the kind words. I toured Texas Hill Country a few years back and really enjoyed it. While the wines were indeed spotty, it seemed to me there was untapped potential. As someone who lives in Sonoma County it was hard for me to keep an open mind but I'm glad I did.
Megan J Robinson
Michigan —  March 9, 2011 9:40pm ET
I had put a Marquis Philips Shiraz down for fun for about 7 years and brought it up for a Super Bowl party with a Shiraz theme. It was proclaimed the winner of the evening even over some newer and more expensive bottles. We were pleasantly surprised!
Gary Stoyan
Sherman Oaks, CA —  March 10, 2011 8:26am ET
I still have some 1999 Chateau Souverain Sonoma County Cabs that have been showing great with deep color and nice flavors over the last few years. Excellent quality corks they used have made a big difference I believe.
Lon Lowenthal
Dallas, TX —  March 10, 2011 11:26am ET
Somewhere along the historic continum of wine making it had moved from an art to a business to a science to a combination of all. Expectations are culled from an intricate combination or singular result of any of these. And when you throw in the subliminal bias of all individuals because of knowledge and/or information about the wine, expectation is inevitable. Time to dumb it down.
Keir Mccartney
League City,TX —  March 10, 2011 5:08pm ET
I think I approach this in a similar way to how I approach golf. I am a mid handicap player who plays badly enough to still really enjoy the couple of excellent shots I play each round yet I also retain the ability to totally dismiss the, oh too frequent, not so excellent shots I play. The scratch golfer expects each shot to be perfect and can have their day completely ruined by one bad shot. That doesn't sound like fun to me.

So, I consider myself to be a happy "mid handicapper" when it come to wine.I really enjoy the occasional birdie I score, and a par is always welcome!
Ben Treadaway
San Antonio, TX —  March 10, 2011 5:35pm ET
Thanks Tim...this was a good article, and it resonates home. Again, I like the hunt as good as the kill, but expectations can let you down.
Joseph Kane
Austin —  March 11, 2011 3:46pm ET
I think expectations make wine that much more fun. How great is it to have that bottle you have been dying to end up being even more than you hoped for? Also, dealing with expectations is a fantastic way to become a great taster. Take your great expectation to a blind tasting with friends. Bag it up and take the bias out of it. I think that is a great way to stay excited, but to also stay realistic about what you are drinking. Plus, even if your bottle turns out to be a bust, at least you can try someone else's.

As far as hill country wine goes, it has a long way to go, and I don't think there is untapped potential. There may be potential out west, near the Davis Mountains, where there is actual volcanic, ashy soil, mixed with warm days and cooler desert nights. But as a former San Antonio resident, and Hill Country fan, I can attest: The days are scorching, and the nights are hot. The grapes get no reprieve. They get ripe too fast and are either medicinal and high alcohol, or watery since the sugar to juice ration is all out of whack. I will cross my fingers and hope someone thinks to try Aglianico or something that can stand up to heat better than Cab, but I won't expect much soon.
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA, USA —  March 13, 2011 5:40am ET
As a dedicated hunter for $7-$20 great values, which these days translates crudely into 88-93 points, I generally drink well regarded wine. I am rarely wow'ed but it is hard to be overly dissappointed with a purchase in this price range.

My biggest disappointments come from:
- wines of which I have many bottles, which tasted great in the past but have lost their youthful zing. The Monte Antico 2006 Rosso $8 at Costco continues to be a Matterhorn. And the Marquis Philips 2008 Shiraz was an over-the-top perfect fruit bomb for about 8 bottles, but on the last few, the ride had already ended.
- of course the wines I've stored for years which flab out.
- wines which cost a more than 3X my average price disappoint more often than not.

Some recent thrills include
- Sebastiani Sonoma Cabernets ($12 ish). I had a sublime 2001 (WS 89, my score 94) two years ago and so I eagerly opened a 2003 a few months back. And it was lovely. Elegant, still fruity, drinking wonderfully. I was shocked it got a "whopping" 83 points! And I still have another bottle of the 2003 :)
- Columbia Crest 2007 Vineyard 10 Washington Red ($8 list). One of the nicest all-round super easy to drink reds. I was blown away, though others, aka my spouse, haven't been. My wine of the year in 2010.
- wines that were amazing, then the wine, or maybe it was me, went through a dumb phase, but the last bottle was a return to (near) greatness. The Mont Tauch 2005 Fitou Saint Roch ($8) and the Chateau Mas Neuf 2005 Compestelle ($14), both from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, were examples of up, down, up roller coaster rides.
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  March 13, 2011 7:15pm ET
We are bargain hunters also. The 2007 Gerard Bertrand Tautavel Reserve is one of the best buys for us at $9.99, WS 91. Great stuff, low expectations. Conversely, the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Morgan $15 , WS 93, high expectations, was an absolute bust.
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  March 14, 2011 4:17pm ET
At a restaurant a couple of weeks ago, I spotted the 2008 Four Vines Loco on an otherwise uninspired wine list. I was leery of a domestic tempranillo, but I trusted both the Four Vines name and the Paso Robles region to deliver the goods, so we rolled the dice. It floored everyone at the table (including some clients) and reminded me why truffle hunting in the wine world is so much fun.
David Williams
Carlsbad, CA —  March 14, 2011 11:38pm ET
"Conversely, the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Morgan $15 , WS 93, high expectations, was an absolute bust."

Ditto. I think it may have been an all time worst buy for me--and I 9 bottles left!

I've learned not to trust a relatively new reviewer.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  March 15, 2011 2:31pm ET
Sometime around 1990 I purchased several cases of the 1987 Los Vascos Cabernet for my wife's parents fiftieth wedding anniversary. The large crowd of older folks seemed to prefer cocktails to wine and I ended up with 18 bottles or so to take home.

The loose bottles were tasty enough and got consumed quickly, but the sealed case got shoved to the back of my large wine closet, behind my stacked wine box "racks". About five years later I decided to re-organize the cellar and lo and behold, the long forgotten case was discovered!

The Spectator rated the wine 86 points and said
"A great value that shows textbook Cabernet flavors, with deep, intense cherry and black currant notes and just a whiff of smoky oak, backed by moderate tannins and a lingering, fruity finish. Drink now through 1993."

Drunk in 1995, this wine was one of the most fantastic cheap bottles I have ever tasted! We drank the entire case over a four week period, and I was sad to see the last one go. The price? With case discount, $6.50 per bottle.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
David Dickson
Sacramento, CA —  March 16, 2011 3:53pm ET
A couple of years ago my wife and I went out or town to celebrate our anniversary. This was a "big" one so I brought a couple of special bottles for the occasion.
For dinner I took a 1989 Dominus Cab. I had previously opened a 1991 Dominus and had really loved the wine so I was expecting a similar experience.
Well, the fruit had faded and although it wasn't a complete bust (and the waiter and my wife were either too polite to mention it or didn't know the difference) I still came away disappointed. (At least I hadn't paid much for it.)
On the other hand I once gave a friend a bottle of wine as a present. He is not much of a connoisseur so I gave him what I considered a nice but not fantastic bottle of Zinfandel from Woodenhead. Well we opened it while we celebrated his birthday. The fruit was up front but still restrained, the tannins were smooth with balanced acidity and a finish that left you craving more. That was my Matterhorn experience, having a wine completely bowl me over by far exceeding expectations.
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA, USA —  March 19, 2011 4:33pm ET
Homer, I too got the The 2007 Gerard Bertrand Tautavel Reserve (WS 91) at BevMo's recent buy a second bottle for $0.05 sale, aka 2 for 1. And I liked it alot too, but alas BevMo was out when I went back a few weeks later.

In general, most of the wines at the BevMo sales seem to be high-volume brands mostly exclusive to BevMo like Tapiz. And what is what their in-house wine rater who pretty much gives 87+ to anything?

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