Tasting five really expensive wines

image And each was impressive — not just to me, but to the other 56 people in the room. But impressive is only part of the story.

The tasting was a promotion for Terlato Family Vineyards, which produces a red Napa blend called Angel’s Peak. We tasted the 2004 vintages of Angel’s Peak and five of Napa’s biggest names: Silver Oak, Insignia, Opus One, Episode (another Terlato product), and Dominus. The idea? Taste each wine blind, so we weren’t swayed by price or reputation — and then see which wine that a knowledgeable group of drinkers enjoyed the most.

The favorite was Insignia, but there wasn’t much difference in the scores between the six wines, something like 15 percent from first to last. (We ranked the wines 1 through 6, with 1 as our favorite, and low score won.)

My pick was Angel’s Peak, about one-quarter of the price of the $200 Insignia. My second favorite was the Dominus, at about $100 a bottle. I thought the Angel’s Peak and the Dominus were more balanced than the other four, which is what I look for in wine. (It was also the first time I had ever tasted Opus One, about $170.)

That the ranking was that close spoke to a couple of things: First, each wine was extremely well made, and second, that the wines tasted extremely similar. Each was young, rich and incredibly fruit forward, but also had very refined tannins. In addition, each had lots and lots of acid, the kind that calls for pairing with the juiciest, most rare cut of prime rib.

In fact, most of the 57 at the tasting were restaurant types — sommeliers, wine buyers, general managers. The goal of the tasting was to show them that Angel’s Peak compares favorably with wines that cost two, three and four times more, so they’ll consider ordering it for their restaurants. In this, it succeeded. I didn’t see anyone not having a good time and saying nice things about Terlato and Angel’s Peak.

These wines are not just the best Napa offers, but the wines that most everyone else copies for style and approach. Which in turn leads to one of the problems with too much Napa wine. Craig Williams, who makes Insignia for Joseph Phelps, can make that kind of wine because he has the grapes to get away with it. When someone tries for that kind of fruitiness and acid with inferior grapes, they get the over-oaked, over-tannic, over-priced wines that drive the Wine Curmudgeon (and so many of my colleagues) crazy.

In fact, my favorite wine of the day was Terlato’s $30 syrah, which we had at lunch (paired with a bacon-wrapped mushroom). It had dark fruit and a nifty syrah earthiness. This does not mean that it was a better wine than the six cabernets, but in terms of what I look for — balance and value at the top– it may have been the best wine of the day.

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