Tag Archives: expensive wine

Expensive wine 109: La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva Rioja 2008

La Rioja Alta Viña ArdanzaThe La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza speaks to terroir, tradition, and quality – and at a more than fair price

Rioja, the Spanish red wine made with tempranillo that comes from the Rioja region of northern Spain, is one of the world’s great wine values. And it doesn’t matter whether you want to spend $10 or $100. Case in point: the La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza ($37, purchased, 13.5%).

In the past decade, Rioja producers have been caught between Parkerization, which demanded riper, higher alcohol wines for a high score, and traditionalists, who believed in Rioja’s legendary terroir.

The traditionalists won; even Parker likes the La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza, giving it 93 points.

Their victory is a triumph for everyone who appreciates terroir and making wine taste like where it came from. The blend is 80 percent tempranillo and 20 percent garnacha, and the latter smooths out the tempranillo but doesn’t cover it up. The result is a full, open, expressive, and traditional Rioja that is a joy to drink.

Look for an inviting earthiness, the lovely and telltale orange peel, and rounded cherry fruit, all balanced by a subtle acidity and a hint of tannins. There is even a little baking spice tucked in – the whole is truly greater than the sum of the wine’s parts. This vintage should age and improve for another five years or so, but is ready to drink now.

Highly recommended, and especially as a Father’s Day gift for a red wine drinker who wants something different. Or who appreciates classic wine produced in a classic manner.

Making more expensive wine doesn’t necessarily mean higher profits

expensive wine

Stefano Castriota: “The key is not whether higher quality implies higher prices, but rather whether it boosts profitability, and it does not.”

Italian study finds that cheap wine producers are more likely to do better than those investing in premiumization

No one was more surprised than the Wine Curmudgeon after my email chat with Stefano Castriota, whose working paper about price and quality (“Does Excellence Pay Off? Quality, Reputation and Vertical Integration in the Wine Market”) was recently published on the American Association of Wine Economists website.

“How can you say if price and quality match?” he wrote me. “You can only see whether they are correlated. And they are, in my research and in the previous literature. The key is not whether higher quality implies higher prices, but rather whether it boosts profitability, and it does not.”

In other words, premiumization – the biggest wine trend in the past decade – may be leading the U.S. wine business in the wrong direction. U.S.  producers have been spending hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to make more expensive wine in anticipation of higher profits, because U.S. wine drinkers are supposed to be abandoning cheap wine for something they perceive as better.

Castriota, who teaches at Italy’s University of Bolzana, did find that improved wine quality leads to higher prices. But he also discovered that higher quality is irrelevant when it comes to profitability.

“I was expecting these results,” Castriota wrote me. “The outcome of this research did not surprise me, but surprised many others. Most people – both in the academic and in the business sectors – look only at the advantages of excellence, but do not consider the costs/disadvantages. Many entrepreneurs end up over-investing in quality and reputation.”

Producers spend so much money to achieve higher quality – more expensive land, higher-priced grapes, better technology, increased marketing, top-notch winemakers – that they don’t necessarily make the same return on their investment as cheap wine producers, who don’t do any of those things.

The latter just sell more wine: “Being able to sell the wine is more important than producing good wine,” Castriota said in an email. “This is why in my analysis the firm size is the most important driver of profitability.”

The bigger, the better

That’s because the “issue is business scalability, the possibility to increase production once you achieve excellence,” Castriota wrote. “If you spend a lot of money and invest huge capitals to become famous, but cannot increase the supply, firm profitability can be low or even negative. In the restaurant sector is the same: hiring the most famous chef and interior designer and buying the best raw materials is expensive. You have surely higher revenues, but also higher costs and capital invested. In the end, with respect to the capital invested, are you more or less profitable than a whatever medium-level restaurant?”

The caveats now: First, the study measured wine quality using ratings from Italy’s Veronelli, a leading wine guide. We’ve noted here the tenuous link between critical ratings and wine quality. Second, the Italian wine industry is not exactly like ours, and U.S. and other New World producers may not be as constrained as those in Italy. Having said that, Castriota emailed that it would be reasonable to expect the same results “or something similar. We don’t know until we see some study with other data.”

Finally, the study doesn’t specifically address premiumization; that’s my interpretation. But that approach makes sense, given the rationale to premiumization – that producers will make more money selling more expensive wine. Which Castriota says isn’t necessarily true.

“If you succeed in selling bottles at $50 or $100, you make a lot of money, but for every very profitable firm there is another one which is losing money,” he emailed. “On average, looking at the data, I did not find any significant return of excellence, which is very expensive. [A]chieving quality and reputation is not a necessary condition to become profitable because the costs and the required capitals increase a lot.”

Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

Expensive wine 108: Patrick Baudouin Savennieres 2014

Patrick Baudouin SavennieresThe Patrick Baudouin Savennieres shows why chenin blanc should be one of the world’s great wine grapes

Chenin blanc may be the least respected grape in the wine world. In California, it’s used to make sweet, white jug wine or a treacly varietal. Even in France, where it’s best known for Vouvray, the wines can be dull and too soft.

This has always baffled me. Chenin blanc can make amazing wine – fresh, crisp and almost steely. I’ve annoyed any number of winemakers over the years, asking: “Why don’t you do chenin blanc?” after tasting their very ordinary and overpriced chardonnay from a part of the world that doesn’t need to be making chardonnay.

Which bring us to the Patrick Baudouin Savennieres ($40, purchased, 13.5%), a chenin blanc that demonstrates the grape’s potential. The Savennieres region is in the Loire in central France, not as well known as nearby Vouvray and overshadowed by the Loire’s reputation for some of the world’s best sauvignon blanc, made in Sancerre.

The Patrick Baudouin Savennieres shows none of this need be true. It’s classic Savennieres – rich and full in the mouth, but not oily or oaky. In fact, this wine could be used to teach how to do oak. There isn’t much fruit at all (maybe barely ripe pear?), but there is that wonderful Savennieres nuttiness and minerality as well as white pepper and an almost clove something or other. Plus, like all great wines from the region, it will age – maybe 10 more years.

Highly recommended, and especially for any Mother’s Day celebration where Mom wants something a little different. Drink this chilled, but open it 30 or 40 minutes before you drink it.

Wine review: Two Murrieta’s Well wines

Murrieta’s Well winess

Two Murrieta’s Well wines – The Spur and the Whip – are a reminder that top-notch California wine doesn’t have to be expensive and boring

The Wine Curmudgeon has rarely been disappointed by Murrieta’s Well wine for more than 20 years. In the old days, when $20 was a lot of money and not something to spend because it was trendy, I would happily pay it for Murrieta’s Well.

How impressive is the the current incarnation, powered by new winemaker Robbie Meyer and a renewed commitment from the label’s owner, Wente Vineyards? It may be the best yet – and costs about the same, too.

The Spur 2015 ($20, sample, 14.5%) is a red blend that’s almost one-half cabernet sauvignon, but not dominated by it. Most importantly, despite the higher alcohol, the wine isn’t hot but balanced between dark, ripe black fruit, just enough sweet oak, supple tannins, and a wonderfully fragrant baking spice aroma.

The Whip 2016 ($18, sample, 13.5%) is a white blend with orange muscat, a grape that is difficult to work with and tends to overpower everything else. Here, though, it lends the tiniest hint of an orange aroma, which plays off the citrus of the sauvignon blanc, green apple of the chardonnay, and stone fruit of the viognier. And, somehow, the wine is floral, crisp and fresh.

How Meyer got these wines to taste like this – elegant and enjoyable – speaks to his talent and commitment to the cause. Because he is a believer; we tasted these at a media lunch, and Meyer and I probably spent too much time lamenting the sad state of $25 wine – soft, sappy, almost sweet, and tasting exactly the same.

Both wines are highly recommended, and offer value as well as quality. Serve these for a Mother’s Day brunch or dinner – the white would pair with eggs Benedict or a rich and cheesy quiche, while the red is ideal for roast beef and leg of lamb.

Expensive wine 107: Fort Ross FRV Pinot Noir 2013

Fort Ross FRV pinot noirThe Fort Ross FRV pinot noir is a rarity from California – elegant, graceful, and varietally correct

California pinot noir is a conundrum, which is why we have movies about it, best-selling sweet versions of it, and critically acclaimed cabernet sauvignon versions of it. Mostly, the state isn’t cool and rainy enough to make a classical, varietally correct version of it. Which is where the Fort Ross FRV pinot noir comes in.

The Fort Ross FRV pinot noir ($52, sample, 13.8%) is elegant and, in its elegance, spectacular. It’s not what one expects from California pinot nor, given the excesses of many of the best selling labels. It somehow combines New World freshness with a little Burgundian complexity, so that each part of the wine complements the other and the whole is greater than the parts. It’s balance where balance is too often lacking.

Look for forest floor aromas (not too funky), plus dark red fruit and baking spice flavors, and soft, refined tannins. The tannins, as well as the exquisitely judicious use of oak, might be the most impressive achievements. This is a California pinot noir made to express pinot noir from Fort Ross’ Sonoma terroir instead of making it to get 94 points, the soil and the climate be damned.

Highly recommended. Ready to drink now, and probably won’t age for more than several years. Enjoy it with anything pinot noir–related, from roast lamb to salmon. And, given its grace, by itself.

Expensive wine 106: Graham’s 20-year-Tawny Port NV

Graham’s 20-year-Tawny PortGraham’s 20-year-Tawny port is subtle, sophisticated, and a reminder how great a great port can be

Port remains one of the great mysteries of wine – usually very expensive and bought by a very limited audience, and mostly unknown to almost everyone else. Which is a shame, because well made port should please almost anyone. Great ports, like the Graham’s 20 year-old Tawny, are even more appealing.

The Graham’s 20-year-Tawny ($65, sample, 20%) is a step above even a lot of top-notch port – incredibly subtle and sophisticated, with layers of flavor that go well past the usual caramel and nuttiness. There is almost a tea-like flavor, as well as hint of baking spices and a kind of toffee instead of the caramel. And, despite the high alcohol and residual sugar, it’s not even especially sweet or especially hot. That points to quality winemaking, not always easy to do given the complexity of port.

In this, it shows how futile it is to cut costs in an attempt to make a mass market port, several of which I’ve tasted with regret over the past couple of years. It’s like the difference between cheese food slices and aged cheddar cheese; what’s the point?

Highly recommended. And the good news, even at this price, is that one small glass of the Graham’s 20-year-Tawny Port is usually sufficient. So the bottle will last three to four times as long as a table wine.

Expensive wine prices in the real world

expensive wine prices

“There is no way any bottle of wine is worth 10 times more than one of my performances.”

I can see Glenda Jackson and Justin Timberlake for $150, but the best I can do in wine at that price is far from legendary

For $150, I can watch Glenda Jackson do Edward Albee on Broadway. For $150, I can see Justin Timberlake perform in Dallas. But for $150, the best I can do in wine is hardly legendary – labels that even the cheerleading Winestream Media considers good, but not great. Legendary costs four or five or even 10 times Glenda Jackson, and that’s difficult to believe.

How did we get to this point? Most of us will never taste the world’s greatest wines, which have been priced out of our reach for decades. The 2005 Chateau La Tour costs $1,000. And maybe that makes sense, in some warped supply and demand way. But it doesn’t make sense that wine that isn’t close to being the world’s greatest costs more than watching a legendary actor or musician. And this, as I have noted many times, does not bode well for wine’s future.

Or, as the wine economist Mike Veseth has warned us: If we keep this up, wine will be like opera, something that interests only the rich and the privileged.

In fact, supply and demand does work for plays and music. It’s one reason why it costs $20 to see a community theater do “Hamlet” and it doesn’t cost more than a cover charge and some beer to watch a local band. There is lots of supply, and not nearly as much demand, compared to stars like Jackson and Timberlake.

So why the divergence between the best wine and the best live shows? The answer, I’m afraid, is that the people who produce the latter want to keep their products affordable. The least expensive tickets for Jackson and Timberlake are about $50, and you can’t get anything close to legendary in wine for $50. If fact, you can buy crappy wine for $50 without any trouble at all. The people behind theater and music understand, in a way wine doesn’t, that the future of their business depends on making it accessible to people who can’t afford the top ticket. In wine, it’s the other way around; if you can’t afford the top ticket, why should we bother with you?

That’s why the pre-teen and teenaged girls who will attend the Timberlake show will be buying his music for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t matter what I think of him, what their parents think of him, or what music critics think of him. It’s why one friend’s daughter, told she couldn’t go to the Timberlake show, has stopped speaking to her mother.

And it’s also why, when you talk to young people about wine, they don’t show anywhere near the same kind of loyalty and enthusiasm. Accessibility is all; otherwise, we’re going to turn into opera.