Spectator Surprises (almost) Everyone with Shocking Pick

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wine Spectator revealed their 2012 Wine of the Year today and I don't think anyone saw this one coming. The winning wine was the 2008 Shafer Relentless -- 96 WS/$60/3,300 cases produced.

It certainly hits the metrics we've been looking for (95+ points, < $100, 1,000+ cases produced) so why was it surprising? Why didn't we see this coming? I think there are several reasons...

First, Wine Spectator has now chosen a wine from California the last 3 years. Last year was the Kosta Browne Pinot Noir (Sonoma) and the year before that was the Saxum James Berry (Paso). Taking it further, the prior winner was also domestic - the Columbia Crest Reserve Cab. Taking it even further the year before that was the Chilean Clos Apalta. This makes it 5 straight years of new world wines. I think a lot of us thought it was time for an old world wine to win, and with the great vintages from France rated this year the timing seemed right. Further, there's been some speculation that Spectator likes to spread the task of writing up the wine of the year around their senior editors. Poor James Laube had to do the write-up once again! Oh well, I guess he gets bragging rights that he's selected the Wine of the Year 3 years in a row.

Second, I think a lot of suspect that they're going to choose a wine from a region whose story they want to tell. For wines released this year, that story seemed almost certain to be from 2010 Rhone. Or 2009 Bordeaux. But what story is there to tell from 2008 in Napa for a somewhat quirky blend like the Relentless? Not much. It seems to be a play towards telling a story from a specific winery rather than a category.

Finally, Spectator just rang the bell a couple years ago for a California Syrah blend with the Saxum James Berry nod. That wine is a Grenache/Mourvedre/Syrah to the Relentless' Syrah/Petite Sirah but still -- it seems strange to have another wine so similar to the Saxum just 2 years later.

I admit: I was stunned by the California selection. Didn't see this one coming. The only time I had the slightest hunch there might be a California wine selected was when I was watching their Top 10 videos and James Laube (their editor for the wines of California) only made one appearance for wines 10 through 2 for the Beringer Reserve Cab selection. But I didn't expect California to take the top spot this year because there hasn't really been an extraordinary category from California rated this year.

So, it was a well-played suspenseful list from Spectator. And a well-played entry from Scott B!

There's a Wine Spectator connection with Scott B. No, he's not an editor or employee so don't get your hopes up for a scandal - the prize is his. But after noticing he was the winner I recalled he'd written a guest post for us earlier this year on Wine Spectator's Las Vegas Grand Tour. Looks like he deftly used the event to refine his selection. ;)

I do appreciate the actionable nature of this year's pick. I bought the bottle I tasted from Wine.com of all places - not exactly a boutique retailer! Availability at the time of the announcement of the 2008 Relentless was limited to begin with since the wine was released and rated early in this year's cycle. And even the 2009 vintage (which I'd bet is just as good if I had to guess without having tasted the 2009) is vaporizing quickly.

Here are my tasting notes from CellarTracker on the 2008 Shafer Relentless from back in June:

For my taste, this is a gorgeous bottle of wine. A powerful, inviting nose of dried blueberries and black currant with supporting savory notes which translate seamlessly to the palate and finish. 75% Syrah/25% Petite Sirah. 15.6% alcohol. $60 release price. I can totally see my way to the favorable rating Spectator bestowed upon this one. Spectacular.
Somehow I forgot to include a numerical rating. (?) What's up with that? I love scores!

My recommendation would be to remain calm if you're looking for the 2008 Relentless. It's going to be very difficult to find and it's not worth overpaying for. For my palate, it's a nice buy at $50. But north of $60 my enthusiasm tapers off. Best bet would probably be to try it at a restaurant (they tend to go through highly rated wines at a slower clip because point chasers ability to devour the wines is stymied by overall high markups and meal costs). Or perhaps at retailer who doesn't have an e-commerce site. May the best searchers win!

And if it's like the Columbia Crest Reserve - the next few vintages won't be too exorbitantly priced after a while. You can find subsequent vintages of the CC Reserve happily resting on warehouse club shelves with no buyers even in the mid to high $30s. Do you really think the 2005 vintage of that wine was magical and subsequent vintages haven't been as good?

A better strategy, if you're looking to buy wines that tend wind up on Spectator's Top 10 list ahead of time, is to find a retailer who offers them before Spectator recognizes them. My thanks to New York wine retailer Grapes the Wine Co for this sponsorship of the contest this year (a $200 Amazon.com gift card!). If you're on his mailing list you'll note that he offered a bunch of the Top 10 wines in the weeks and months preceding Spectator's list. Well, at least the ones he thinks are good. :)

The fun had to end some time. My thanks to everyone's enthusiastic participation this year. We'll do it again next year!

So that ends the fun for this year. Back to our regularly scheduled programming. I'd love it if you subscribed to the site - we've got a lot of fun things to talk about in the coming weeks. I might even motivate and crank out my own Top 25 this year.

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Question(s) of the Day: What do you think of Spectator's Shafer Relentless pick? Have you seen it around at retail? If so, let us know in the comments!

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