A couple weeks ago, like a traveling big top, the Napa Valley Vintners’ biannual road show arrived. Seventy winemakers and principals preened and crooned about their $30-plus wines, and the public (and the wine trade) lapped them up. I often rag on Napa, much in the same way I judge talented yet overly egoistic celebrities — their art remains extraordinary but, as my mom chides, "They’re getting too big for their britches." And it seems natural that with fame comes offensive prices. But do the expensive ones taste better? When I taste a $30 wine — from Napa or not — my mind invariably asks, "Would I pay $30 for this? And why?" More often than not, the answer to the first question is "no," but the second response is "because sometimes it’s still worth it."
Influencing the cost of a bottle is not just ego or glowing wine reviews — it’s mostly ingredients. And to make a fantastic bottle of wine, like a fine Ferrari or Lamborghini, you have to start with quality materials. The winery might have its own lovingly tended estate grapes or buy fruit from the best vineyards. And these grapes — and the land they’re grown on — cost serious money. In Napa, the price per acre of vineyard went up from $125,000-$180,000 in 2002 to today’s $200,000-$300,000. Add rising labor costs, winery overhead and the escalating cost of treasured French oak barrels, and you’ve got one helluva budget.
Thankfully, the investment sometimes has incredible results. And you’ll know when the winemaker got it right. You’ll know, since it’s like being chauffeured in a plush SLR Mercedes convertible, getting a luxurious neck massage with the wind blowing in your hair at 100 miles per hour. You might be risking your life (and money), but it’s a great way to go.
(FYI: I limited my selections to the United States since the weak dollar makes foreign price comparison lopsided.)
J. Davies 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain (California) Soft yet firm, like a good parent. Refined fruit of black cherry, vanilla and a subtle oakiness. Really needs to be decanted to let its flavors seduce you. Sw = 2. $75. 5 stars
Sbragia Family Vineyards 2004 Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon (California) From this famed vineyard comes a seductive and elegant cabernet. Has smooth black cherry covered in sweet chocolate, followed by lush vanilla and earthy coffee. What a Napa cabernet should be. Sw = 1. $50. 5 stars
Shafer 2005 Merlot Napa Valley Proving once again that merlot isn’t a frickin’ wimpy grape. This one sports fruit-forward, sweet black cherry, ripe plum, coffee, black pepper, leather, tobacco and excellent acidity with supple tannins. Sw = 2. $45. 4.5 stars
Amici 2005 Pinot Noir Mendocino (California) Rich and elegant blackberry and blueberry. Soft, silky tannins with the characteristic pinot leatherlike earthiness and a dash of spicy black pepper. Worth every penny. Sw = 2. $50. 4.5 stars
Rosenblum 2005 Zinfandel Rockpile Road (California) Bold, inky, gushing black fruit like black cherry and wild blackberries, with edgy bittersweet chocolate and a spicy finish. Voluptuous comes to mind. Sw = 2. $30. 4.5 stars
Saint Laurent 2005 Syrah Reserve Wahluke Slope (Washington) Wild berries float up to your nose while the smoky, beautifully floral cherry and raspberries wrap themselves around your tongue. Balanced, even tannins and acidity. Great effort. Sw = 1. $55. 4.5 stars
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 2004 Cherry, black pepper, green pepper, cocoa, smoke and a bit of licorice. It’s dense, concentrated and young but good once it lets itself breathe in the glass. Sw = 1. $125. 4.5 stars
Simi 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Alexander Valley Silky with blackberry, ripe red cherry, vanilla and a dash of black pepper. Subtle tannins and well-integrated acids. Sw = 1. $60. 4.5 stars
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.