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Don't Assume Higher Priced Wines are Always Superior

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 14, 2009 2:28pm ET

One of the worst mistakes you can make in buying wine from a winery is to assume the higher priced wine is the better wine.

I came across a perfect example of this the other day in one of my blind tastings. I sampled a new wine (for me) called Fisticuffs, a 2005 Cabernet from Napa Valley, and it was wonderful. Cloaked in toasty, spicy oak, but with delicious pure ripe currant and berry fruit, with great balance and finesse.

I later learned it’s the second label of Hourglass, whose wines I typically like. But the 2005 Hourglass Cabernet pushed ripeness too far for me and even in the best bottle I tried (87 points, which puts it in the very good range) the flavors strayed into overripe balsamic notes.

I don’t know if the bottles of Hourglass I tried were representative of the entire production. But it just didn’t suit my tastes and at $135 is expensive.

The Fisticuffs, though, did appeal to me and this is the kind of dichotomy that makes me wonder how winemakers decide which wine to bottle under the main label. In this instance, clearly the riper wine was chosen for the flagship wine. But to my taste the better wine is the Fisticuffs, which happens to sell for $28.
Mike Koob
MN —  January 15, 2009 9:31am ET
What rating would you give the 2005 Fisticuffs?
Jonathan Lawrence
January 15, 2009 9:44am ET
James, how did the alcohol levels on the two bottlings compare? (I can't find any info. on the web) I'd be curious to know if that reflects ripeness. I know that Hourglass recommends decanting; do you ever decant for a blind tasting like this? Regarding labeling and grape selection, I believe Hourglass is a special vineyard.
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  January 15, 2009 9:53am ET
James, first of all thank you for being bold enough to be honest about the two bottlings, I'm sure Hourglass doesn't like it. I'm no winemaking genius or I would be doing it for a living, but sometimes I wonder if wineries get too caught up in over-extracted, excessively ripe, heavy wines. As I've progressed in my wine tasting life I come to appreciate the wines that have more finesse and grace, full flavored but not heavy and thick, if that makes sense. I guess balance is the key. Ripeness, acidity, tannins, etc... all in the right place. It must be difficult to achieve though or all wines would be great. Thank you for all of your efforts in helping the consumer sort thru these dilemmas, you've saved me lots of dollars over the years!!!
Patrick Mcdonough
wyckoff, n.j. —  January 15, 2009 11:04am ET
james,we did a blind tasting years ago with eight wines with a regular bottling and a reserve cab from the same year served side by side. the votes were split down the middle on the preference. drinkability was a factor since some reserve wines needed more time but it was an interesting tasting. sometimes price does matter
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  January 15, 2009 12:46pm ET
Once again we find that wine tastes are individual - suited to one's own palate. As for me, I find most second label wines to be great in delivering value - Caravan is one of my favorites - a second label to Darioush. Or the Italian "Langhe Sito Moresco" as a second label to Gaja.
Burgess Cellars
Saint Helena CA —  January 15, 2009 2:22pm ET
Hi James, You mentioned "ripeness" and your commenters mentioned both "ripe" and "alcohol." To get to my point here is that the current allowances for what alcohol percentage is printed on the label is too wide a range. If wines had to label within a tenth of a percent, then a wine style could be more accurately gauged by the printed ABV on the bottle and the consumer would be able to avoid the wolf (16%) in sheep's (14.5%) clothing! Your opinion? Thanks, Steve
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 15, 2009 2:40pm ET
Steve, I think all labels should have exact alcohol levels along with other information that I've written about elsewhere on this blog and "Labels Should Tell Us More" from WS, Oct. 15, 2005.
David A Zajac
January 15, 2009 4:29pm ET
Common theme's I am seeing among the various bloggers is that so many of them have a hard time matching California wines to food anymore - isn't that in itself reason for the industry to stand up and take notice? California is developing into what Australia was about 5 years ago, massive fruit bombs that don't go well with food and are difficult to drink based on the excessive alcohol levels, high levels of VA and finishes that are tasting hotter year after year. Tim Mondavi years ago started a trend toward more finesse in the Mondavi wines and WS and other publications criticized him for doing it, saying the wines weren't any good and that it didn't fit the style of wines California makes. I submit its time to re-analyze what California makes as what they are doing is pushing people away based on their super octane wines. Compare what they are doing to France, Italy, Spain etc., yes those countries all have examples of high octane wines as well, but not at the apparent level Cal. is. Time to change styles? Why are cabs routinely 15-16% where only 10 years ago they were 12.5-13.5? I for one don't care for the trend and will drink more European wines and less and less Californian...
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 15, 2009 4:47pm ET
James -- great blog and interesting coming from you -- as many posters seem to blame you (and another nameless critic) for excessive ripeness by California vintners. Personally, I find ripe fruit flavors (and their attednant ETOH levels) to be appealing as long as the wines do not become hot (too much EOTH), flabby (too little acid) or affected by VA (crazy fermentation kinetics of a high brix must) and I generally agree with your scores and tasting notes. Its that fine line mentioned above by Paul M I guess -- just enough but not too much ripeness (or too little ripeness as well - I find the European wines to be generally to austere to suit my palate). THanks for your help in picking out wines to buy!!
Jonathan Lawrence
January 15, 2009 4:59pm ET
A clarification: by referring to Hourglass as a "special vineyard" I meant to respond to James's question about "how winemakers decide which wine to bottle under the main label." In this case, Hourglass is a unique vineyard (as well as the name of the wine), and only wine made from its grapes gets into the "reserve" bottling. Since both Hourglass and Fisticuffs were from 2005 and from Napa, the brix or alcohol level should be an objective measure of ripeness. James, can factors other than objective ripeness contribute to perceived ripeness?
Frank Melis
San Francisco, CA —  January 16, 2009 10:51am ET
Dear James:As the owner of a retail store that specializes in small, boutique wineries such as Hourglass, etc. I can tell you that Fisticuffs has been (long before your blog)a big hit among my clientele. One comment I like to make; when publications like yours review wines it might be nice to mention the release dates, as the 2005 vintage was released almost one year ago, and the 2006 will be released in 6 weeks.Frank Melis-Golden Gate Wine Cellars- San Francisco

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