Ok, now we’re back at the wine aisle ready to pick something out. The sad part is, I’m almost as lost as you in this aisle. But there are a few rules that you can play by to get a good wine.
The first and most important rule is: NEVER EVER BUY CHEAP CABERNET SAUVIGNON
It’s bad. When we first moved to California, I went to a wine shop and asked for the salesperson to recommend a wine to me.
“Well, what kind do you want?”
Me, thinking of wines I had heard of. “Ummm, cab I guess.”
“Ok how much do you want to spend.”
Me, thinking of Kat’s $23k a year stipend but wanting to splurge all the same: “$20?”
He picked me out a bottle and it was predictably (in hindsight) terrible. I left the experience thinking maybe wine just wasn’t for me. Now I realize there is no such thing as a good $20 cab. Well, it’s not impossible. We went to a wine shop a while back and bought a case of $20 wine that tasted like $80 wine. But it’s very rare, hence why we bought a case.
Cab is the most sought after wine in the country because it’s so hauntingly good when done well. Very few varietals have as high a ceiling of quality. It can be everything a wine should be. But there’s a lot of bad cab grown.
Furthermore, cab is a terrible value. Even when it’s good is exorbitantly priced. You can get much better value in lesser known varietals. And really, this is the best way to game the system. Knowing the varietals and the regions can allow you to pick a good wine, or at least increase your chances.
Let’s start with some basics first. There are two separate spectrums to consider.
1. Light >>>>>> Heavy
2. Old World >>>>> New World
Light vs. Heavy
On the heavy end, you would pair with heavy food. Fatty foods like cream sauces or big meats like steak. Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals go here, as would some heavier Italian wines and some Syrah/Shiraz (same grape, different name depending on where it’s grown). My experience is that these wines will remind you of “black” fruit like blackberries and currant, but not always. In whites the heavy would be Chardonnay and some lesser known varietals like Chenin Blanc, Marsanne and Rousanne.
On the light end, you would pair with lighter dishes like pasta (not red sauce), chicken, pork, fish, etc. My experience is that these wines are associated with “red” fruit (again, not always). They will remind you of raspberries, cherries, strawberries and other red fruit. In whites the lighter wines might be Pinot Grigio.
In the middle, you’ll find more versatile grapes that can go with heavy and light depending on how they’re made. Rhone style grapes go here, which are usually either Syrah or some blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Incidentally, these also tend to make very good value wines. In whites, a lighter Chardonnay or well done Sauvignon Blanc might go here.
Old World >>>>>> New World
Basically this is Europe (particularly France) vs. the rest of the world (particularly California). California has become known for lush, jammy, high alcohol wines that taste great at a young age but don’t last as long in the bottle. The is the opposite of the restrained Old World style that focuses more on acid than fruitiness and places a premium on aging wines.
Now, I “grew up” on California wines, and without a cellar I simply don’t see the value in aging wines a long time and have little desire to do so. I will say that very old wines that are made well take on some unique and interesting flavors, and often have layers of complexity which understandably is highly desirable. And perhaps most importantly, they are made to drink with food, rather than on their own.
BUT, you have to wait 20 years or more to get it AND you give up those wonderful jammy flavors in the meantime. Many people that prefer old world say those jammy flavors just all taste the same after a while and get boring, lacking the complexity of old world wines. Possibly so, but how boring would the wine world be if we just had one style of wine? My two favorite wineries are:
Siduri: renowned maker of unabashed new world Pinot Noir making wines from coastal california and oregon
Arcadian: renowned maker of old world Pinot Noir making wines from coastal california
Heck, they even pick from the exact same vineyards (but Arcadian picks earlier for more acid and less fruitiness). My point is, why choose? They both have significant merits, even if their winemakers both are serious rivals who disagree with the other about the right way to make wine.
So how do you know which you’re getting? Most domestic wine is New World. It often says thinks like luscious, jammy, fruity in its description. But more importantly, right on the label it says the alcohol content. Anything over 14% is likely New World, with many approaching 16% or even 18%+.
Old world often has words like balanced, complex. And it has alcohol content below 14% in most cases, usually around 12.5% to 13.5%.
Armed with this, let’s get to the shortcuts. How to find good wine.
Bordeaux Varietals (good for fatty meals or big meats). The big one here is Cabernet Sauvignon (Cab for short). Generally speaking the most expensive wine.
- <$10: Avoid
- $10-20: Good values will get you a moderately acceptable table wine. Generally avoid
- 20-30: Good values can get you a weekend wine. Still very unpredictable. Look for off-region wines (e.g., outside of Napa/Sonoma). Costco’s Kirkland Signature “Signature Series” cabs can be found at $20 and are quite good if a little generic. Avoid the ones that don’t say Signature Series.
- $30-50: Very solid cabs can be found in this range but you can still find quite a few flops, especially around $30. Low end Napa cabs from quality producers start showing up at discount stores. Heitz Cellars Napa cab ($32 at Costco), Stags Leap Artemis cab ($45 at Costco), Ladera Howell Mountain Napa Cab ($41 at Costco) are example.
- $50-100: Second label cabs from top producers start showing up (meaning their second best grapes). Some solid and famous producers will even have top cabs in this range.
- $100-250: Top cabs in this range. Still a few second label cabs. Be aware that while quality is consistently high in this range, you still may not like a winemaker’s style, so best to go on tasting or at least reputation before shelling out for a special occasion.
- $250+: cult cabs, aged cabs, etc.
You’ll notice in Cabs I talked a lot about Napa. That’s because, more than any other grape by far, Cab just grows well in Napa, a little bit of Sonoma, and not much else. Washington has a few nice ones. But outside of Napa and Bordeaux, it’s hard to find excellent Cab. Sometimes producers know it’s second rate and price it for a good value, but generally it’s a bad value.
TIP: The surest way to spot a bad winery is to look for a mismatch between their terroir and their tasting menu. If they are in Santa Barbara selling Cab, walk out now. If they’re in Napa selling Pinot Noir and Syrah, same thing. It’s not unheard of, but hundreds if not thousands of tastings have taught me this lesson.
Anyway, onto Merlot. This the other major grape from Bordeaux. If Cab is the life of the party, Merlot is like the dude chillin’ in the corner. In blends, this takes the hard edges off the cab and makes it more approachable. Actually, even in most bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, there is a healthy dose of Merlot. To meet labeling requirements, 75% has to be what’s on the name of the bottle. The rest is the mystery wine, but usually Merlot and Pertit Verdot (to make it darker) for Cab. 100% cabs almost always say 100% cab on the label. But I digress.
What makes Merlot so pleasant in blends also makes it a great, or bad, wine on its own, depending on your perspective. The movie Sideways killed Merlot sales. It can be kind of one dimensional and soft. But it’s also a great approachable red wine for new wine drinkers that need to get used to the harsh tannins without getting overwhelmed. It can also be damned good wine by any standard when made well.
- <$10: Avoid
- $10-20: Some good values can be found
- $20-30: Most decent Merlot can be found in this range. You’ll still find a dud, but this is a good price to quality range for Merlot.
- $30-50: You start getting some very nice quality Merlots in this range. Weekend worthy wines can be had here.
- $50+: These start to taste very similar to nice cabs. A $70 Merlot will taste like a $100 Cab.
- $100+: Pretty rare to find this price range. Top quality if you do.
Cabernet Franc (Cab Franc): Usually a blending wine that adds acidity to a blend. On its own, it tends to be too strong, but when the acid is tamed it can make an exceptional value.
- <$10: Rare to find at this price range. Low quality producers don’t bother
- $10-20: Still hard to find but can be a good value if you do find from a smaller producer. One exception is the Coppola Cab Franc for under $15 at Costco
- $20-30: Usually this is the sweet spot for this wine
- $30+: You can find Cab Francs for $70 or more, but it’s quite rare for them to get much above $30 or $40. While they’ll never match a Cabernet Sauvignon, they can still be a pretty good wine, and an attractive price point.
Now, this is most of what you’ll find in Bordeaux style wines. Pertit Verdot is not worth mentioning. I’m not sure you can even find it solo, as it’s a blending grape to add inky darkness to wine. Interestingly, it’s the most expensive grape in Napa Valley. But there’s one more I want to point out: Malbec. It’s not normally a wine you’ll see on its own, but it’s gained a foothold in South America, such as Chile and Argentina. It’s very very good and priced exceptionally well. If you need a great wine to go with a heavy meal on a budget, this is the first place I’d look. $20 or even as low as $10 might find you a very solid wine. No guarantees of course, but I’ve had good success. The Norton Riserva Malbec from Argentina is a great value at Costco, I believe under $15.
Summary of Bordeaux:
- Cab: Expensive, bad value. Hauntingly good at its best though. Look for Napa or France at high end.
- Merlot: Approachable, softer. Slightly better value but generally lower quality.
- Cab Franc: Look for good values from smaller producers
- Malbec: Great value wine, especially from South America
Now let’s run over to Burgundy. The Burgundy region of France makes almost exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I’ll get back to the whites, so this is basically about Pinot Noir. For a long time, Pinot Noir in this country had a small but loyal following. Then Sideways came out and it grew almost exponentially. Still significantly smaller than Cab, but no longer an underground wine. It now gets its own section at the grocery store wine aisle.
Here’s the thing. Pinot (Pee-No) is the second worst value in wine. It’s not that it’s limited to one area like Cab is to Napa. You can find good Pinot all up and down the west coast, but it’s notoriously hard to grow. It needs to be nearly on the verge of death to make good fruit and has very low yields. 2-3 tons per acre vs. 5-8 for most grapes. That means expensive wine. Good Pinot is grown in the Central Coast of California, particularly Santa Barbara and the Santa Lucia Highlands, as well as Sonoma (also labeled Russian River sometimes, a sub-region of Sonoma) and Willamette Valley in Oregon (and it goes without saying France). It can be found in other places as well, but these places are unique because of their coastal influences, cool temperatures, mostly dry conditions, and long growing seasons. My favorite by far is the Santa Rita Hills appelation inside the Santa Barabara wine region. This is one of those times when you don’t want to look for Napa on the label, though some good stuff comes out of the Carneros region of Napa.
- <$20: I’ve found some moderately acceptable bottles between $10-20 from smaller producers, but it’s not easy to find, Hahn comes to mind here
- $20-30: still very hit and miss but can be found here. My favorites are the Siduri regional blends at $20, an amazing value at this price point. You kind of have to know when they’re coming out and order them quickly though. They sell out fast.
- $30-40: BANG! Welcome to Pinot land. Lots of options in this price range. I don’t know what it is about this price point, but $30-35 gets you a regional blend from any one of the west coast Pinot appellations. They’ll all taste somewhat the same as other wines from the same appellation
- $50-75: Wait, what happened to $40-50? I don’t know. I don’t see a lot of wines in that price point. Siduri has some I suppose. This is basically the same as the previous wine category, but you get single vineyard designations.
TIMEOUT: I need to digress here on a very important point. Why does single vineyard matter? Is it a marketing gimmick? Not exactly. The more local a wine is, the better it generally is, and therefore the more expensive. The perfect example of this is Robert Mondavi winery. Look at their stuff in a grocery store and you’ll find:
- Cabernet Sauvignon: lowest designation. Cooking wine as far as I’m concerned
- California Cabernet Sauvignon: still crap but not as offensive
- Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: the leftovers from all the other wineries. Slight step up but will have objectionable qualities
- Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon: Oakville is a district or appellation in Napa Valley. This is likely to be decent actually even if it has a few off notes
- Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: Get out your credit card. Top quality wine for a top quality price forthcoming. This is called a vineyard designate wine. Generally they are the most expensive and they are the best representation of the terroir. What this really means is that it will have nuance, complexity and be unique from other wines. Wineries compete to get grapes from the best vineyards. In rare cases, you might even find wines from individual blocks or rows within a vineyard, that are even more exclusive.
Ironically, many wineries have one final level above the single vineyard designates. These are where they take their best barrels, blend them and charge a premium. My experience is that they’re rarely worth the markup, but they are quite good. Even more ironically, some top wineries call this their Red Table Wine or something similar. That just means get ready to pay through the nose.
I mention this under Pinot Noir, because more than any other grape, you will find LOTS of Pinots that are single vineyard designates. It is a grape that really lends itself to the complexity and nuance of the terroir. Just don’t get me started on the different clones of Pinot. It’s a very complicated grape. Anyway, back to our chart:
- $75-150: High end domestic pinot. These are, to me, the definition of refinement.
- $150+. Remember when I said that generally speaking the most expensive wines were cabs? Well, that excludes the very high end Pinot Noir. The best Pinot Noir from Burgundy France goes for obscene amounts. You could pay $25k for a slightly aged bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. That’s not a case. Not even a magnum. Heck, normal people can’t even buy it. You have to be connected or inherit some connections to buy it.
My progression in wine (as far as my favorite at any given time) has gone from white, to Merlot, to Cab, to Pinot to Rhone. I drink more Rhone now than any other wine, with Pinot a close second (though more Italian is sneaking in too). I rarely drink Cab, but when I do I tend to spend a lot and expect a lot. Mostly Pinot and Cab, in my experience, have consistently shown me that “hauntingly good” level of wine. But Rhone gives me the best bang for my buck.
Rhone style wines. Let’s start with Syrah. Syrah can be light and velvety or heavy and peppery. It’s a very versatile grape. I find the best Syrah in Paso Robles and inland Santa Barbara, but it can be found anyway (of course along with Rhone France).
- <$10: Expect a peppery Shiraz (same as Syrah) from Australia. Not going to be really good, but might be drinkable
- $10-20: Again, imports here are a good option. Australia has made an entire industry off of Shiraz. Yellow Tail is the most prominent. We used to drink a lot of this stuff. It seems like it’s tailed off (no pun intended) in quality over the years as production has risen, but still not a bad buy. My main complaint is it’s very peppery at the low end
- $20-30: You can start finding some decent regional domestic blends in this price range. More important is the reliability. It’s much more rare to find a bad $25 Syrah than a bad $25 Cab or Pinot or even Merlot.
- $30-60: Better quality and more single vineyard designates. I don’t think the single vineyard gives as much quality boost here as it does in Pinot though. However, a nicely decanted Gary’s Vineyard Syrah from Novy Winery will knock your socks off.
- $60+: High end Syrah. I don’t think Syrah’s ceiling is as high, so I don’t tend to spend super high amounts here, but it’s a very good value even at the high end.
Grenache: This is much like the Cabernet Franc from the Bordeaux region. It’s an acid booster that often tastes too strong on its own. But again, when tamed, it is very nice. It’s on the lighter side, so when it’s prominent in blends, expect that blend to be less heavy. It’s rare to find it under $20 or over $50 or $60, and it’s generally a good price point if you like the acidic wines. Pairs very well with food.
Mourvedre: It’s fairly rare to find this wine domestically. You sometimes see it in Spanish wines under the name Monastrell. It can be a very good wine on its own, but it’s usually a blending wine. Which brings us to Rhone Blends.
Rhone Blends are probably the best way to enjoy Rhone Wines. These are almost always a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. You’ll see them sold as Cotes to Rhone, Châteauneuf-du-Pape or domestically as GSM (for the varietal initials). Cotes to Rhone (pronounced coat due rone) is the lowest classification of Rhone blends, but I find makes and excellent value. Cotes to Rhone Villages is one step up. And then there are specific names appellations such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes Rotie. These work much like the “local is better” principle in California, but a little harder to understand if you ask me.
- <$10: Avoid
- $10-20: Good values can be found around $15 but still an occasional lemon
- $20-30: Cost has an excellent Kirkland Signature Châteauneuf-du-Pape from time to time at $20. You’ll really have an abundance of wines to choose from in this price point. Most of them will be quite drinkable.
- $30-50: Most stuff in this price range will be comparable to much more expensive wine in other varietals. A special occasion wine can be found for $40 easily here.
- $50-100: Starting to get into the high end blends from respected wineries
- $100+: Top wines from top producers. I’m sure somewhere in France they’re making obscenely expensive Rhone blends, but I’ve never needed to go there. I did buy a $110 Châteauneuf-du-Pape once and it was mind blowing though.
When Kat and I first started drinking wine regularly, this was our go to wine. We could get a nice Chianti or Sangiovese for $6 on sale and it was not only decent but surprisingly consistent and reliable. But I never thought of Italian wine as being refined the way French wine is. Wow was I wrong.
I first realized how good Italian wine could be at a Brunello tasting at a local wine shop. The wine tasted like a top Napa Cab and the prices matched as well ($100+). More recently, our friend and old world wine lover Michael has introduced us to several more, most notably Barolo, which is a lovely medium bodied wine that goes great with just about anyway and it a decent value. But the icing on the cake was when we were going to a special dinner with friends at an Italian restaurant, and we asked the wine shop owner what wine to get and he sold us the most incredible wine that I’ve had in the last year, and that’s saying quite a lot given the year we’ve had in wine. It was a $70 Barbaresco and just blew us away. Then that same owner tried to tell me that decanting wine was now out of fashion and not recommended anymore and I all but called him an idiot, but we’ll get more into that in the final installment of the series on getting the most enjoyment out of wine.
I’m still getting my bearings for the cost of Italian wine, but a general guideline would be:
- Cheap italian wine = drinkable table wine under $10 like Chianti and Sangiovese (these variatels can go much higher in cost and quality as well)
- Barolo: $20 gets you a love wine and $50 gets you a special occasion wine
- Barbaresco: $50 to $80 gets you a special occasion wine. Not sure below that.
You also see some producers mixing regions. Cab and Syrah or Cab and Sangiovese. My opinion is that these tend to taste a little off, but I love that winemakers refuse to be classified so easily.
I could write volumes more about red wine, but I think that covers the high points, and I’m running out of space. I’ll write one shorter post on choosing white wines and then I’ll finish up with tips for getting the most enjoyment out of wine.