Wall Street Journal
A Stateside Search For a World-Class Experience
Around this time of year, more people than usual think about spending a great deal of money on a single bottle of special wine as a present, for entertaining or as an end-of-year gift to themselves. They often turn to America's best-known names in expensive red wine, such as Opus One, Dominus, Insignia and Rubicon.
These wines generally cost more than $100, sometimes far more. At that price, buyers have their choice of wines from all over the world -- fine Bordeaux and Burgundy, great Barolo, the very best wines of Spain. But many people prefer to buy reds from the U.S., and that often means Napa Valley. What are they getting for their money? We decided to find out with a large tasting of top reds from Napa and elsewhere.
When we were growing up in wine, there were a few famous high-end
American Cabernet Sauvignons, notably Heitz Cellars "Martha's
Vineyard," Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve
and Robert Mondavi Reserve. The 1968 and 1974 Heitz and Beaulieu
and the 1974 Mondavi were among the greatest wines we ever tasted. As the years went on, there were so many more to love: the
1978 Diamond Creek, the 1994 Pahlmeyer and on and on. During
the 1990s bubble, these were topped by trendier, even more expensive
wines, such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate, which commanded
hundreds or even thousands of dollars a bottle.
So we wondered: If we were to pick up 50, what we would find? Scores of American wineries now make a limited amount of very expensive red wine -- it's their signature wine, the one they want to be judged by -- but we stuck with the wines that are household names, at least in some households. We set our limit at $160, which included the familiar names but left out the very expensive cult wines like Screaming Eagle. We included both Cabernet Sauvignon and proprietary labels made from blends of the classic Bordeaux grapes -- primarily Cabernet and Merlot, often with some Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
We bought wines from the 1999, 2000 and just-released 2001 vintage, depending on which vintage we saw. In some cases, we bought two or more vintages of the same wine. Of the three vintages, 2000 is widely regarded as the weakest although, of course, there are always exceptions. Some might argue that we shouldn't have included the 2000 vintage because it wasn't a very good one, but if a winery doesn't want to be judged by its wine from a so-so vintage, it shouldn't be charging $100 or more for it.
All of these wines are young, of course, and most will be better in a few years. Going into the tasting, we knew it would take some time to decipher what they are now and what they might become in the future.
At this price, we're not just looking for a pleasant wine. At this price, we have a right to expect a special experience, wines with layers of taste and surprising nuances that make them interesting and conversation-worthy. They should be made from the best grapes from the best areas of the best vineyards and get the best care. This doesn't mean we will love the wine, because any wine at this price should have some individuality, some sense of the winemaker. We might not really like the same kind of wine the winemaker does. Still, it should be a wine that makes us sit up and take note, one that we find interesting and well-made. And it should be American, with the hard-to-imagine combination of elegance and power that made us fall in love with American wines so many years ago.
Sadly, too many of these did not reach the bar, including far too many of our old friends. The Beaulieu 1999 was disappointing and we were deeply saddened by our experience with the Mondavi Reserve. The 1999 was so lackluster that we tried a second bottle purchased from a different store and it tasted the same. The 2001 was only slightly better. (Both vintages cost about $90.) We have never much liked Dominus, and this tasting, unfortunately, didn't change our minds (we tried both the 1999 and 2000). Rubicon 1999 and 2000 were also just OK to good. A travesty at these prices!
Keeping the Faith
Our best of tasting was a surprise, a real eye-opener for us. We have never been really fond of Opus One, the well-known joint project of the Mondavi and Rothschild families -- we have found it perfectly fine but overpriced and overrated. The 2000, however, offered the combination of finesse and heft we love in a great American red. A close second: Opus One 2001, a powerful wine lacking just a little of the structure of the 2000. We paid about $160 for each and they were worth the price for the experience. These are wines that, throughout the night, changed, grew and offered all sorts of different tastes and sensations, giving us tight, intense, pure dark-berry fruit and bittersweet chocolate for a few minutes, then more-giving, softer, sweet-fruit tastes, then tightening up again. There is no substitute for good fruit, and these were bursting with it.
So, our overall advice if you're looking for a top American red this holiday season? First and foremost, the old saw really is true: Price itself is no guarantee of quality. Spend some time with a merchant, look around and choose carefully (and keep in mind that prices on these wines vary widely). Also, consider this: Young, expensive reds generally aren't at their best right now. With about the same amount of money, you can probably find a fine older American Cabernet -- from any of the early years of the 1990s, for example, and from less famous wineries -- that might be more satisfying at the moment. You will need to go to a good, trustworthy wine store to find a wine with some age on it, but at that price range, you should have your choice of a few.
• You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org and read much more about wine in our new book, "Wine for Every Day and Every Occasion: Red, White, and Bubbly to Celebrate the Joy of Living."
The Dow Jones Very Expensive Cabernet Index
Vineyard/Vintage: Opus One 'Red Wine' 2000 (Napa Valley)
Vineyard/Vintage: Far Niente Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (Oakville,
Vineyard/Vintage: Opus One 'Red Wine' 2001 (Napa Valley)
Vineyard/Vintage: Staglin Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
(Rutherford, Napa Valley)
Vineyard/Vintage: Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
'Gravelly Meadow' 1999 (Napa Valley)
Vineyard/Vintage: Dalla Valle Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2000
NOTE: Wines are rated on a scale that ranges: Yech, OK, Good,
Very Good, Delicious, and Delicious! These are the prices we paid
at wine stores in New York, New Jersey and Illinois.