Extreme Value: $8 California Pinot Noir

Sunday, April 26, 2009

James Laube of Wine Spectator recently blogged about (subscription required) a wine that caught my attention. While conducting a blind tasting of 20 or 30 California Pinot Noirs, one stood out to him as being "very good"/"excellent". That in itself isn't extraordinary- he tastes great wines all the time. What was unusual about the wine was that it costs only $8 and they make a lot of it: 35,000 cases. You'll find the 2008 RedTree California Pinot Noir in the bargain bin at your local wine shop or grocery store.

Especially in the Pinot Noir category, where it is hard to find a good bottle under $20, this is a significant accomplishment. Only one domestic Pinot Noir producer achived 90 points according to Spectator for $20 or less in current vintages, and you need to get to $30 before 90 point ratings become commonplace.

We'll see where his final rating eventually falls. Judging from the words he chose, it sounds like it will be in the high 80s, which would make it a "Smart Buy" for sure. But if he rates the wine 90 points, it would set off all kinds of alarms as being quite possibly the most extreme QPR (quality price ratio) wine in recent memory.

Update: (5/5/2009) Wine Spectator revealed an 88 point rating ("Very Good") for this wine. It was in pretty good company, with wines cost between $26 and $55.

I stopped in at Cambridge Wine & Spirits the other day (next to Whole Foods Fresh Pond in Cambridge, MA). After combing through the Pinot Noir section, I was unable to find it. However, the reason I couldn't find it is that it was in the bargain bins with a big orange sticker on it: On sale for $7.99!

I cracked open the bottle and gave it a try the other night. I captured my initial impressions in this video:

If the video fails to embed, try here.

I had some more of the wine after shooting the video, and my impressions were that the wine had limited aromatics even after an hour or two. Some light fruit on the nose, but missing (for me) were the earthy and spice aromas that are typical of some of my favorite Pinot Noirs. On the palate, it was certainly smooth and enjoyable- not at all harsh. Fruity, with a nice slight pucker in the mouth that gave it an enjoyable finish.

The next day, after screwing the cap on overnight, the wine held up surprisingly well. It was slightly more aromatic, both with fruit and some oak that I didn't notice the night before.

Overall, I'm thinking that this wine would be a great, light, low alcohol (12.5% whereas 13-14% would be more typical of California Pinot Noir in my experience) summer party red wine. At $8 a bottle it is certainly one to consider. If I had to rate it, I'd probably go somewhere in the mid-80s. Probably 85.

Other perennial Pinot Noir values at a similar price point would be Mark West and Castle Rock, although they typically come in a little over $10 in the Massachusetts market.

Willing to spend a little more? Here are some of my favorite $20 Pinot Noirs.

Aside from considering whether it's worth a try of this wine to see if you'd like to perform the good old "bulk buy", I think Laube's piece raises some fascinating questions for us wine geeks:

  • Has production of Pinot Noir caught up with the demand created by Sideways? Are we going to be seeing more good Pinot south of $20? Or even $10?
  • I give Laube a lot of credit for being so open about his thoughts on this wine. I can imagine he was shocked when he took the brown paper bag off and saw the price on the bottle. Through his blog, we've been able to get a feel for what things are like inside Wine Spectator's tasting offices and I think that enabling this connection is smart business for the magazine (especially with so much controversy swirling around the wine trade these days).
  • I think this also makes it evident that Wine Spectator mixes up price points sufficiently in their blind tastings. I've heard some accusations that they excessively sort wines by their price prior to grouping a blind tasting, in order to avoid the possibility that they'd give an expensive wine a low rating and vice versa. See Wine Spectator's Executive Editor Thomas Matthews' response to this accusation at the end of the comments section of this blog entry. The results of this tasting are precisely why I subscribe to Wine Spectator and follow their ratings. Crazy things can happen when you taste blind, and I enjoy discovering the value surprises they offer up for consideration.
domaine547 also blogged their reaction to this. Check it out.

You might also be interested in this live tasting I did of the 2005 Paso Creek Merlot (which Wine Spectator panned but Gary Vaynerchuk loved).

If you live in the Boston area and would like to try this wine, I understand that it will be available for tasting this coming Saturday, May 2nd from 3-6PM (on sale for $7.99 a bottle):

Newton Highland Wine & Spirits (Map)
1194 Walnut St
Newton Highlands, MA 02461
(617) 527-3040

Other places to buy:
Further reading:
Do you like hearing discussion about hot wines like these? Consider a free subscription to the Wellesley Wine Press and you'll never miss a update.

Question of the Day: Have you tried this wine yet? What do you think of it? What do you think about Laube being so openly positive about his positive impressions of an affordable wine? What do you think about Wine Spectator's blind tasting policies in general?

I'd love to hear from you. Thanks for stopping in.


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