Groupon: $15 for $35 at Urban Grape

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Update: This deal sold out as of 10am today.  Follow me on Twitter (@RobertDwyer) for faster notification of deals like this.

Update 2: The Urban Grape and Groupon canceled this deal after discovering this sort of alcohol promotion was illegal in Massachusetts (more on their blog here).  No deal for you!

Group buying is hot lately.  Today's deal on Groupon looks like one of the best I've seen for Boston-area wine enthusiasts: $15 for a $35 voucher to The Urban Grape in Chestnut Hill (review).  I just bought 3.

Not a member of Groupon yet?  Take advantage of this deal and they'll kick $10 back to my Groupon account.  Check it out:


Value Alert: 2007 Picket Fence Pinot Noir

Monday, September 27, 2010

This past weekend we did our grocery shopping at Trader Joe's for the first time in a long time. I don't know why exactly but lately we've been going to Whole Foods more. Maybe it's because Trader Joe's feels more suited to young metropolitan singles and young couples than Whole Foods which feels like it's more targeted at families. They don't sell diapers at Trader Joe's and that says a lot about their target demographic. 

I'd forgotten how fun it is to shop for wine at Trader Joe's. As much as I've been trying to curb wine spending lately I couldn't resist tossing in a couple of lower-priced bottles. Over the years they've really bolstered their selection of wines just above their rock-bottom-priced/famous Charles Shaw wines. They've got other wines between $3 and $10 that are fun to try because they've got such cool personalities: Interesting labels, interesting grape varieties, and interesting regions. Their buyers really know what they're doing and it's evident in the smiles you see on customer's faces and in the average amount of wine in a shopping cart in the store.

I picked up a few really inexpensive wines and then this one caught my eye: the 2007 Picket Fence Pinot Noir. I've seen the wine around before and the attractive label caught my eye. Something about it feels well suited to sharing with friends - especially neighbors.

I was anxious to crack open a bottle of it because I don't think it's going to last long. Why? Because it's a $30 wine they're selling for $8.99. It wasn't mind-blowingly amazing but I thought it was an elegant representation of Pinot Noir from Sonoma's highly regarded Russian River Valley appelation. It's also from a highly regarded vintage (Wine Spectator called 2007 the best vintage ever for California Pinot Noir).

Here are my notes:

2007 Picket Fence Pinot Noir
14.5% Alcohol
500 Barrels produced (around 12,500 cases)
Retail Price: $30

Visually, this wine is quite thin. But then again maybe it's varietally correct and the rest of the overblown California Pinot Noir I've been drinking is overly dark. Typical Pinot Noir aromas of strawberries and tart cherries but I get some slightly-green/twangy/stemmy aromas as well that I could have done without. I get these notes quite frequently in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir so depending on whether these bother you, you may want to proceed with caution. Quite nice on the palate with satisfying weight and creamy light vanilla notes. Seemed like lowish acidity. Nice aftertaste. Medium length of finish. I would have gone 90 points on this wine if not for the ever-so-slightly-off aromas. Your mileage may vary - I'd encourage you to check it out if you can find it under $15.

88/100 WWP: Very Good

Where to Buy: $8.99 at Trader Joe's in Framingham, MA

Further Reading:
Update: After publishing this blog post my pal DW pointed me to this *awesome* unauthorized Trader Joes video. I think it's spot on!

Have you had this wine? If so, what did you think?


Wine Enthusiast: 40% Off Eurocave Shelves

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I've been unsubscribing myself from a lot of E-mail distributions of all kinds lately.  I found I wasn't acting on the offers in the E-mail yet I was spending more time than I should researching and considering the offer.  I think E-mail is an extremely effective way to keep in touch with customers.  Let us know you're still in business, let us know about significant deals, tell us a story.  But daily E-mails about "killer" deals that really aren't that compelling at all?  Unsubscribe.

Against this backdrop, I was pleased to receive a very targeted E-mail from Wine Enthusiast yesterday.  Since I bought a EuroCave a couple years ago they wanted to let me know that they were closing out the shelving that goes with the unit at 40% off.  The newer style shelves are made of beechwood (lighter) whereas the older are made of sapele (darker).  I called them right up at 800-377-3330 and they looked up the model I own to make sure the shelves were a good match.  They were and I ordered the shelves with a total of 5 minutes of interaction.  Well done!

I pass this along in case you own an older Eurocave and didn't get the E-mail for whatever reason.  Sounds like a good time to outfit your refrigerator with the perfect shelving.  Kudos to the folks at Wine Enthusiast for the useful targeted E-mail campaign.

I've been meaning to write up some thoughts on my Eurocave and on wine refrigerators in general.  I haven't gotten around to it, but if you have questions on the subject and would like to bounce some ideas off me I'm all ears: -or- @RobertDwyer on Twitter.

The same deal is available through and fulfilled by Wine Enthusiast - check it out:


Fine Dining Family Style at the Seaport Hotel

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I wasn't sure what to make of this event until I saw the photo below.  Looks like it's right up our alley!
What: Aura Restaurant at the Seaport Hotel makes it easy to take your children to a nice restaurant with this month’s Fine Dining ‘Family Style’!  Aura’s popular family evening out celebrates back to school with play time and story time.  The idea of Fine Dining, ‘Family Style’ is that kids and parents can enjoy great cuisine in a kid friendly, relaxed environment, and this month is no exception.  Chef Rachel Klein has created several special hot new Bento boxes for the kids!

Who: Adults, kids & babies too! 

Where: Aura Restaurant, Seaport Hotel, One Seaport Lane, Boston 

When: Friday, September 24, 2010 - Reservations begin at 5:30p

The cost for adults is $30 plus tax & service; for kids: Baby Selections $3, children’s Bento Box selections are $14 and sides are $3 plus tax & service.

Reservations can be made at 617.385.4300.

Click here for more information including a full menu. 

Can't make this Friday?  This event is scheduled to repeat once a month for the rest of the year.  Check 'em out!


Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar: Opening Nights

Fleming's prides themselves on pouring 100 wines by the glass at each of their locations.  They're unveiling an updated list of wines this month, and each Thursday in September you can try 20 of these wines along with light appetizers for $25.  Stay for dinner and they'll give you a dining credit of $25.  More details from the press release: 

WHAT: This unprecedented series features tastings of the entire Fleming’s 100, the award-winning list of 100 wines by the glass unveiled each September. It is a rare opportunity for all guests to sniff, swirl, sip and spit like an international wine buyer.

WHEN: Every Thursday in September 2010 (September 2, 9, 16, 23, 30) from 5:30pm – 7:00 pm

COST: $25 per guest
Guests attending an Opening Night event will also receive a $25 Dining Credit for the main dining room that evening.

WHERE: Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
217 Stuart Street, Boston, MA
(next to The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers)
617-292-0808 /

Click here for wines (20) served at each Opening Night.

Here's a list of wines being poured on September 23rd:

  • SCHRAMSBERG, Blanc de Blancs North Coast, 2006
White Wines of Interest
  • MÖNCHSHHOF, Riesling Spätlese Mosel Slate Germany, 2008/2009*
  • CANTINA TERLANO, Pinot Grigio Alto Adige Italy, 2008
  • MASO CANALI, Pinot Grigio Trentino Italy, 2008
  • CANYON ROAD, California, 2009
  • SONOMA-CUTRER, Sonoma Coast Russian River Ranches, 2008
  • DMZ, Western Cape South Africa, 2008
  • BENZIGER, Carneros Sangiacomo Vineyard, 2007
Pinot Noir
  • MARK WEST, California, 2008
  • RITUAL, Casablanca Valley Chile, 2008
  • CAMBRIA, Santa Maria Valley Julia's Vineyard, 2007
Syrah/Shiraz/Petite Sirah/Zinfandel
  • OTTIMINO, Zinfandel Sonoma County Zinfinity, 2006/2007*
  • ORIN SWIFT, The Prisoner Napa Valley, 2008
  • MARKHAM, Napa Valley, 2006
  • CAIN, Cuvée Napa Valley NV6/NV7
Cabernet / Cabernet Blend
  • FRANCIS COPPOLA DIAMOND COLL., Claret California Black Label, 2007/2008*
  • YALUMBA, Barossa Valley The Scribbler Australia, 2007/2008*
  • HESS, Napa Valley Allomi Vineyard, 2007
  • TREFETHEN, Double T Napa Valley, 2007
  • HALL, Napa Valley, 2006
On September 30th, the wines will be chosen by each local wine director/general manager.

I've enjoyed their by-the-glass selections in the past and I see some familiar favorites on this list.  The Maso Canali, Sonoma-Cutrer, Cambria, and Hall wines jump out at me, and others look appealing as well. I think they do a nice job with their wine program - this looks like a good opportunity.

Further Reading: 10 ways to get into wine without spending top dollar.


Review: The 2nd Best Movie Ever About Wine

Monday, September 20, 2010

I don't think we'll see a better movie about wine than Sideways anytime soon.  Wine plays such a substantial part in that movie, yet it stands as an incredible story on its own.  Some thought Bottle Shock would be the next wine movie to fascinate audiences in a similar way, but it fell flat.  Mondovino is an interesting film but fails because it assumes too much knowledge and fails to make its points crisply.

So it was with high hopes that I recently watched Blood Into Wine.  I'm pleased to report the movie was thoroughly enjoyable and I highly recommend you check it out -- depending on whether you're interested in the subject matter of the film.

If you're interesting in wine, the rock band Tool, or Arizona you'll probably like this movie.  If you like 2 of these subjects you may love this movie.  If you're into all three you may find yourself feeling as if this movie was a gift made for you.  I grew up in the Phoenix area and went to college listening to Tool's music in Northern Arizona.  I obviously care a lot about wine so I find myself in the "gift" bucket.  The movie delivered with stunning cinematography (it's unmistakably shot beautifully in Northern Arizona) and compelling story telling to provide a complete package I thoroughly enjoyed.

The story centers around Tool/A Perfect Circle/Puscifer front man Maynard James Keenan and his groundbreaking winemaking aspirations centered in Jerome, Arizona.  He's partnered with the experienced, passionate, and well-spoken Eric Glomski to deliver wine under the Caduceus (kuh-doo-see-us) label.  After overcoming challenges associated with being some of the first winemakers in the region, their wines have been rated between 86 and 91 points by Wine Spectator and have brought significant notoriety to winemaking efforts in Arizona.

Like a great wine, the movie delivers balance.  If you're more into wine than Maynard's music, or vice versa, I think you'll find the story never strays too far from your interests.  Eventually you'll likely find yourself focused on Keenan's story.  Which is summed up eloquently at the end of the film when he shares that he felt it took 7 years for people to "get" Tool, 7 years for people to "get" A Perfect Circle, and 7 years for people to "get" Puscifer -- he fully expects it will take 7 years for his foray into wine to fully come together.  His vision, passion, and persistence is inspiring.  Especially when viewed in the context of an endeavor like blogging where someone who's been at it for 3 years is considered a veteran.

In the end you may realize the movie is essentially a well-crafted 90 minute commercial for Maynard's wine making efforts.  And it may jump around with inadequate depth depending on your interests.  But you'll likely forgive these small transgressions because overall the underlying story is so compelling, and you'll be so interested in trying his wines. 

4.5/5 Stars WWP: Outstanding

Visit the official site and watch a trailer: HERE
Add it to your Netflix queue: HERE
Buy it from

Further Reading: I think a visit to Caduceus would pair brilliantly with a trip from Phoenix to Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon.  Along with two others, it's one of my favorite vacation destinations in the country.


Starts Tomorrow: Boston Wine Week 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Loosely modeled after the Restaurant Week concept, Boston Wine Week kicks off tomorrow.  It  promises to allow guests to enjoy higher end wines with their meals at a reasonable fixed price across area restaurants:

September 20th - 26th, 2010: 

The first annual Boston Wine Week kicks off a week-long celebration of handcrafted wines by winemakers and growers from around the world, served by the glass or bottle at some of Boston’s top restaurants. Proving that great wine doesn’t have to be a great expense, all wines (some of which retail up to $90/bottle) will be offered at $9/glass and $32/bottle.  Participating restaurants will offer a minimum of six wines, available at a substantial discount.

Here's a list of the participating restaurants.

Complaining about high restaurant wine prices is a bit like griping about high taxes -- it doesn't really improve the situation.  But efforts like this show a thoughtful attempt to soften the blow at least for a week so I appreciate the efforts of the organizers and participating restaurants.

How compelling is the offer?  It depends on the wines being offered and whether you want to eat at the participating restaurants in the first place.  Looking through the list of restaurants, I think you'll see some interesting options.  But at around 20 restaurants participating this year it's far from the levels seen for Restaurant Week.  And that's fine.  I understand it's the first year and you have to start somewhere.  It just doesn't automatically make it a good time to try your favorite restaurant because your favorite restaurant might not be participating.

Some of the restaurants don't have lists of wines they're offering on the site yet and that's a bit of a disappointment.  When I was trying to get my arms around whether this was truly going to be a deal I wanted to see the wines being offered across all the restaurants at a glance.

Of the wines listed, let's take the 2006 Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon being offered at Bin 26 Enoteca as an example.  $45 retail price and they normally sell it for $85.  Offer it for $32 as part of this offer -- yeah, that's a good deal if you like that wine.  Others, like wines normally selling for $40 in the restaurant and being offered for $32, aren't as compelling.

Guidance and Outlook:  Seek out the pioneering restaurants that are embracing the event enthusiastically and offer some special events as part of this promotion. I'll look forward to the list of participating restaurants increasing next year and seeing some healthy competition to see who will offer the best deals as part of this event. 

What do you think?  Are you going to take advantage of Boston Wine Week this year?


Wines That Taste Like Cakebread (but cost less)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A few weeks ago I was drinking a 2007 Cakebread Chardonnay and tweeted something along the lines of it being one of the few white wines I look forward to tasting.  As much as I try to broaden my wine drinking horizons, red wine consumption continues to outpace white wine consumption in our house 4 to 1.  What can I say?  I like to think I'm going to drink white wines most of the summer but I end up running back to my comfort zone of domestic red wine.

Mike Reardon from the Wine Cellar of Stoneham (@WineCellarsMA on Twitter) mentioned that he thought Landmark Chardonnay might be a better play than Cakebread (he sells both) so I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to not only compare these two wines but to answer a question I know a lot of people ask:

"What are some wines that taste like Cakebread but cost less?"

It's well documented by now that Cakebread Cellars is one of my favorite wineries.  They were the wine that got me into wine,  I've enjoyed visiting their tasting room in Napa a number of times over the years, and it's consistently one of the most popular restaurant wine brands in the US.  It is a great wine brand.

It's debatable whether Cakebread is more known for their Chardonnay or their Cabernet.  Like Napa in general, perhaps it depends on your perspective and what you're looking for.  I love their Cabernet Sauvignon for its distinctive presence.  It's got this great combination of being delicious on the nose and elegant/reserved on the palate.

Their Chardonnay is similar in that it presents itself on the nose as this big caramel apple but again shows amazing refinement on the palate.  It's quite amazing actually and, for my preferences at least, seems to be a calling card across their entire lineup.

In thinking about which wines to consider viable substitutes for Cakebread, we'd be remiss if we didn't consider the whole package.  You know- the bottle, the label, the brand, the place.  The whole thing that goes into the enjoyment of a bottle of wine.

For a while, I've wondered whether I was under the spell of the label.  However, after tasting their wines in several blind tastings across a few grape varieties they consistently came out at or near the top.  I love their label -and- I love what's in the bottle.

With that said, here are a couple more affordable alternatives to Cakebread in case you can't find their wines -or- don't want to pony up the asking price.  One alternative for their Chardonnay and one alternative for their Cabernet...

2007 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay
18,000 cases produced
92 Wine Spectator
$29 release price/$19.99 if you shop around

Very similar to the Cakebread Chardonnay with its caramel nose and overall delicious first impression.  Shows restraint on the palate which lends itself well to enjoyable consumption.  Elegant yet friendly stuff.

89/100 WWP: Very Good
(Compare this to the 88 WS/$39 release/high-$30s street 2007 Cakebread Chardonnay)
Sample for review.
2006 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon
19,000 cases produced
88 Wine Spectator
$55 release price/$35-$40 if you shop around

Dense and chewy. Fruit forward and accompanied by savory herb aromas and flavors. High-ish alcohol but well integrated.  The label is similarly elegant like Cakebread's as well.  The flavor profile is more similar than not too.  Quite a reasonable substitute at a more approachable price point with wider availability. 

89/100 WWP: Very Good
(Compare this to the 88 WS/$64 release/$60 street 2005/2007 Cakebread Cabernet)  

Conclusion:  Brands are hugely important in wine selection and for my money Cakebread is one of the best.  If you enjoy the style of their wines and are interested in more wallet-friendly options these from Landmark and Groth are two I recommend.

Further Reading: A visit and in-depth look at what makes Cakebread special

Did I get it right? What wines would you recommend as value substitutes for Cakebread when unavailable or trying to keep costs down?


Ride, Wine & Dine Tastes of the World to benefit the Pan-Mass Challenge October 8th

Monday, September 13, 2010

Here's an opportunity to support a great cause while enjoying food and wine in a fun and elegant atmosphere... 

The Ride, Wine and Dine Gala is being hosted by PMC riding teams from the Boston Harbor Hotel and The Martignetti Companies to Benefit the Pan-Mass Challenge and The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

All event proceeds benefit the Pan-Mass Challenge. The Pan-Mass Challenge is the world's largest bicycle fundraiser which donated over 100% of all funds raised last year to The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.  The PMC has raised over $270 million for the Dana-Farber since it's inception in 1980. 

Date:  Friday, October 8th 2010 

Time:  6:30-Midnight (or whenever we stop dancing) 

Theme:  “Taste the Wines of the World” – walk the Wharf room of the Boston Harbor Hotel and enjoy the wines of Argentina, Italy, France, New Zealand and the USA with regional cuisine prepared by Chef Daniel Bruce. 

Entertainment:  An all-star cast of musicians. 

Benefit:  The Pan Mass Challenge – Dana Farber Hospital (Jimmy Fund) – tons of great silent auction lots including wine, trips, lodging and more! 

Cost:  $150

The hotel is offering discounted room rates of $195 for the evening. 

Visit the event site here for more information and to reserve tickets.


Top 10 Most Frequently Confused Domestic Wine Brands

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Coming up with a name for a wine brand has got to be tough.  At this point it must seem like every good name is taken, and even if you go with your family name it too might be taken.  Or confusingly similar to another wine brand.

Most of the time when I confuse two or more wine brands it happens when I hear the name spoken -or- in writing without a logo.  It's a temporary bit of confusion as I try to think "is that the wine so and so said to try?".

In more extreme cases I wonder whether the similarity was an intentional way to get consumers to associate a new brand with a more prestigious existing label.

The domestic brands listed below are one I've confused myself from time to time for one reason or another.  Here's my Top 10 Most Frequently Confused Wine Brands:


Landmark and Larkmead- the words are nearly an anagram and they sound alike too.

Landmark Vineyards produces highly-rated Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Larkmead Vineyards is also well-regarded Napa producer of Cab, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. David Ramey produces wines from the Larkmead vineyard.


Honig and Hogue- the first time you hear them the names are just too similar not to confuse.

Honig is a Napa winery focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Hogue Cellars is a Washington state producer of a wide variety of red and white wines at a variety of price points.

Something about the two-word combination of these Sonoma wineries always trips me up.

Ferrari-Carano has a very popular tasting room in Dry Creek Valley and is known for their Fume Blanc.  They produce a wide range of other wines as well.
Sonoma-Cutrer is one of the most popular restaurant wine brands in the country known primarily for their Chardonnay.  Until just recently they didn't have a tasting room.

Another case where I think the names are just too similar to not be confused.

All of the wines from Benziger Family Winery are certified sustainable, organic or Biodynamic.  They have a tasting room in Glenn Ellen, CA (Sonoma County).  While they're not a small production winery, they're not quite as ubiquitous as Beringer.
Beringer Vineyards covers a wide range of price points.  From their $7/bottle California Collection wines including a White Zinfandel through their Knight's Valley wines (a well-regarded Sonoma Cab that can be had for less than $20 retail if you look around) to their over-$100 Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay.  Beringer's tasting room is right along Highway 29 in Napa Valley- just north of St. Helena.
Shafer/Joseph Phelps

The inclusion of this one on the list might be surprising.  I mention it here because I've gotten their upper-end bottlings confused from time to time.  Both produce entry-level wines that can be had in the $40s, and both produce highly sought elite Napa Cabs.

Shafer Vineyards offers a $48 release price Merlot.  Their One Point Five Cabernet competes with the Caymuses, Cakebreads, and Silver Oaks of the world (see this steakhouse cab blind tasting we did a while back).  Their Hillside Select Cabernet takes it to another level at $215 and is a definitive Napa Cab.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards' entry-level Cab is $54.  Their well-known Insignia brand lists for $200 and has been prominently featured in Sub-Zero wine refrigerator ads.  A pricey wine considering more than 16,000 cases are produced annually.  I saw the 2006 vintage on sale at Total Wine in Georgia for $125.  They also offer a $250 Backus Vineyard Cab.

Hall/Whitehall Lane/Robert Hall/Patz & Hall

Here's a case where the confusion results in meaningful noise when trying to perform a search.  Here's a link to a search for "hall" wines from the "2006" vintage.  Look at all of the different wines listed!

Hall Wines made the QPR-bending 2006 Hall Cabernet that received 94 points from Wine Spectator and costs just over $30 retail in Massachusetts.  They also make some higher end wines that were especially well received in 2006.  They're a Napa producer of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, but they also produce other red and white wines as well.
Whitehall Lane is a well-regarded Napa Cab producer.  Robert Hall is located in Paso Robles.  Patz & Hall makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from a variety of locations in Napa, Sonoma and beyond.

Robert Foley/Foley Family Wines

Every time I've heard that Foley Wines has acquired a new label I immediately think of Robert Foley.  But then I recall there's another Foley in the wine business: William P. Foley II.  In addition to their namesake Foley Estates wines out of Santa Barbara County they also own brands like Lincourt, Merus, Firestone and Sebastiani.
Robert Foley's eponymous label is known for big Napa reds- especially their Claret which is usually actually usually a 100% Cabernet although they're now making a small production wine labeled as a Cabernet as well.  The wines aren't ashamed of being big, rich, and super-ripe.  Robert Foley has also been involved with Pride Mountain, Switchback Ridge, and Hourglass.
 Cakebread/Layer Cake/Cupcake

Okay, I'd never mistake Cakebread for another wine.  It's one of my favorite brands.  But a lot of other wines with the name "cake" in the name have come to market over the past decade and I can imagine there's some confusion when someone goes into a wine shop seeking "that wine with the cake on the label". 

Cakebread Cellars is a Napa producer of premium Cabernet and Chardonnay.  It's the wine that got me into wine.  Cakebread Cellars was founded by Jack Cakebread over 30 years ago.
Layer Cake and Cupcake have something else in common besides a similar name: Although they employ slightly different models they both make wines from different regions all over the world.  Layer Cake makes wines in Australia, Argentina, Italy, and Napa.  Cupcake makes their wines in Monterrey, California though they produce a wide variety of wines from other regions.
Orin Swift/Owen Row

Here's a more obscure one.  Orin Swift Cellars makes The Prisoner- a hearty, highly rated red blend from Napa available for $29.99 retail.   Owen Roe Winery makes wines from Oregon and Washington.  Neither Orin Swift nor Owen Roe are real people who work at the respective wineries.


Lewelling is a Napa grower and winemaker of premium Cabernet Sauvignon.  Here's a review I wrote of an excellent visit to their propertyLeeuwin Estate is a well-regarded producer of a wide range of wines from Australia.
I asked on Twitter and got some more great ones.  Follow these people if you're on Twitter:

What do you think?  Did I get the big ones?  What are some other domestic wine brands that trip you up until you see the logos?


Cabernet Showdown: Washington vs. California

Friday, September 3, 2010

Yesterday was Cabernet Day, an online wine tasting event celebrating the noble grape.  These events are pretty cool because they bring together wineries, retailers, and enthusiasts to celebrate a specific grape variety.  You might remember my previous post about Pinot Noir Day where I tasted a wine from California's Santa Lucia Highlands AVA and compared it to Pinot Noir from Oregon's famed Willamette Valley.
California pulled an upset in that one so I thought it would be fun to again compare California to another wine region known to make excellent Cabernet Sauvignon: Washington.

It was just a weeknight so I didn't want to get too crazy price-wise.  I wanted to choose wines that were textbook representations of their respective categories.  Comparing wines from Robert Mondavi to Columbia Crest provided a great way to compare stylistic differences between California and Washington at similar price points.

The Robert Mondavi Winery makes Cabernet Sauvignon at a variety of price points.  Aside from Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi and the Robert Mondavi Private Selection label, the Robert Mondavi Winery brand produces wines at these four levels:
  • Napa Valley (available at just under $20 retail)
  • District (like the Oakville in this comparison at $45)
  • Reserve (over $100, like this classic 2006)
  • Spotlight (even rarer and more expensive, available only at the winery)
Columbia Crest is my go-to wine when someone asks for a $10 supermarket wine that's sure to please.  Their offerings are strong across many varietals and for my palate they delivery value at every price point.  Their four levels:
  • Two Vines (around $5.99 in grocery stores)
  • Grand Estates (just under $10/btl if you shop around, highly recommended)
  • H3 (just under $15/btl, worth the step up but not as easy to find)
  • Reserve (around $30- the wine in this comparison)
When Wine Spectator dropped a 95 point rating on the 2005 Columbia Crest last year and it started showing up on retailer shelves for $19.99 there was quite a frenzy in the value-hunter contingent.  Check the comments in this piece- Costco locations sold out within 4 hours of the wine arriving. Things got even crazier when Wine Spectator named it their 2009 Wine of the Year (here is a link to a pdf of the full list).  The wine virtually disappeared from retailer shelves if offered anywhere near retail price.  If you can find it, the wine now sells for over $100.

The 2005 Robert Mondavi Oakville is far less heralded.  I think of Mondavi Oakville as being a textbook example of Napa Cabernet, and such a solid brand.  Everyone knows the Robert Mondavi label so I often recommend their less-than-$20 Napa Valley Cabernet as a nice/safe bottle of wine to share with friends that's readily available.  Strangely, although the wine is usually rated by Wine Spectator (and fares well, 93 points for the '04 vintage and 90 points for the '06) neither Wine Spectator nor Wine Advocate rated the wine.  As a result, I was able to pick up the wine in the mid-$20s last year.

I poured a glass of each of the wines and asked my wife to mix them up while I stepped out of the room so I could get a sense for whether each wine aligned with my preconceived notions of Napa and Washington.  And they did.  The Mondavi presented itself in a rounder, softer, sunnier light with sweeter tannins.  More black fruit than the laser-beam of red fruits present in the Columbia Crest Reserve.  Where the Columbia Crest excelled was with its intensity and length.  By length I mean the its confident presence from when it enters your mouth until long after you've consumed it.

More on each of these wines, each of which I'd tried previously:
    2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
    $27 Release Price
    $115 Current Best Retail Price (check
    5,000 Cases Produced
    95 Points Wine Spectator: #1 Wine of the Year 2009

    Saturday, April 11, 2009 - A little closed on the nose even after being open for an hour prior to drinking. Very nice on the palate- flavorful and enjoyable. Wonderful finish. I thought this was an outstanding wine, and at just over $20 (street price) it is a very good value. Back up the truck.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 - Opened up aromatically within just a few minutes after opening this time.  If you like wine on the younger side I think this wine is ready to drink, but I think it'll peak in another two years or so.  I say that because after a few hours in the glass it developed softer characteristics not present on initial opening.

    93/100 WWP: Outstanding

    2005 Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon
    $45 Release Price
    $28.99 Current Best Retail Price (check
    More than 10,000 Cases Produced
    Not rated by Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate

    Monday, February 22, 2010 - Textbook Napa Cab at a relatively affordable price. Big dark fruit on the nose backed up with moderate menthol aspects that would normally turn me off but in moderation were enjoyable. Dense on the palate with firm but enjoyable tannins. Considerable oak influence but I liked it. Consistent from bottle to bottle. Outstanding.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 - The wine is even more approachable right after opening than I remember it.  Big, generous, voluptuous and enjoyable and I didn't detect the menthol I noted in previous bottles.  A fair amount of acidity and still-frim tannins provide nice structure around which to enjoy this otherwise "yumma gumma" wine.

    91/100 WWP: Outstanding

    Discussion and Conclusion

    Each of these wines nicely represent the regions they come from.  Both purchased in the mid-$20s a couple years ago, they compare favorably with wines costing up to $100.  Outstanding value, classic American brands, and delicious high quality wine- what more can we ask for?

    The fact that the Columbia Crest is selling for $100 puzzles me.  Why?  Because Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year program considers value (among other things) when determining its list.  This is not the case with Wine Spectator's numerical ratings in which price isn't a consideration.  That being the case, they're not saying it was the best wine they tasted.  That would be easy and boring to determine- just look at the highest numerical rating.  They're saying it was the most "exciting" wine that came to market that year.  The American economy was terrible in 2009, Columbia Crest produced an outstanding high-volume wine, and Wine Spectator, I think, wanted to acknowledge the current mood of the wine market.  I think it was a good pick, but why are people thinking paying over $100 a bottle for this wine?  I don't know.

    The 2007 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet is just coming to market if you'd like to try it.  I've gotten a couple tips from friends that it's available for $32 at the Waltham, MA Costco.

    There are quite a few nice value plays in 2007 Napa Cab like this one, and even some 2006s that are still available in the market like the 94WS Hall Cabernet for around $30.  I'll be talking about these value plays more in coming weeks.  Subscribe to the site and you'll get updates sent to you via E-mail when there's new content here on the site.

    Question of the Day:  What do you think? Napa or Washington for value in Cabernet right now?  Who are some of your favorite producers?


    Who Tosses Around the 90 Point Ratings More Casually: Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate?

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    I remember the first time I went wine tasting in Napa and noticed a banner hanging in the tasting room mentioning a 90 point rating.  My first impression was wow: Some independent publication thinks pretty highly of their wines.  Cool.

    But then I went to another tasting room and they had more of these banners.  And the next tasting room had even more.  I started paying attention to which publications were behind each of the 90 point ratings and noticed that some wineries leveraged publications I’d never heard of whereas others stuck to familiar names like Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate.  After paying attention to wine ratings for about 15 years now I feel like I’ve got a handle on the relative prestige of each of the big publications that rate wines, and I think I can safely say that for most wine enthusiasts that pay attention to ratings the two most influential publications are Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate.  There are other publications, and some interesting highly specialized ones.  But for the most part these are the two big ones that people pay most attention to in the US.

    Over time, I started to notice that Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate seemed to toss around the 90 point ratings a little more casually than Wine Spectator- especially for Napa Cabernet.  When I recently had a look at early ratings emerging for the highly regarded 2007 Napa vintage I noticed some big differences in this area.  Specifically: Wine Advocate seems to rate wines higher in general than Wine Spectator.  Consider that Wine Spectator’s James Laube has never rated a wine he’s tasted as part of Wine Spectator’s blind tasting program 100 points.  For the 2007 Napa Cab vintage alone Robert Parker has already rated five wines 100 points.  And he’s not even done rating wines from the vintage.

    I wanted to gain a little more clarity on the situation so I looked more closely at Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate ratings for 2007 Napa Cabernet Sauvignons.  Based on past vintages, I’d estimate Spectator is about half-way through their tastings of this vintage but some telling trends emerge already.  In the histogram below I've plotted the number of wines receiving each rating both for Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate.  Wine Spectator ratings run from 79-97 points, and Wine Advocate ratings go from 85-100 points.

    Notice how there seem to be more high ratings from Wine Advocate (in red) than Wine Spectator (blue).  Especially 93 points and above:

    Note: Wine Advocate chooses to publish ratings only if they’re higher than 85 points.  I presume this is because they don’t want to fry wineries who sent them wine as samples, but I think we can see from this histogram that hardly any wines are rated even close to 85 points by Wine Advocate.  Almost all of the wines are rated 90 points or higher!  In fact, Wine Advocate rated 90.2% of the 2007 Nabs they rated 90 points or better.  My point: If you buy a 2007 Napa Cab rated "only" 90 points by Wine Advocate you’re actually buying a wine that’s significantly below average compared to other wines they've rated. 

    Wine Spectator only rated 54% of the wines they rated 90 points or better, so if you’re looking at a Wine Spectator rating of 90 points or better you’re at least selecting a wine that’s above average compared to other wines they rated. 

    Fans of Robert Parker might suggest that the reason he rates wines higher is because he drinks better wines.  To get a true comparison of how casually each publication tosses around the 90 pointers, we’d need to look at what each publication thought of the wines they both published ratings for.  Okay, that’s a bit tedious but because I’m dedicated to ridiculous number crunching as it relates to wine appreciation I’ve done the work.

    Below is a chart showing the histogram for the 63 wines both publications released ratings for.  See how Wine Advocate is still top heavy, especially at 98 and above.  For this common set of wines, Wine Advocate is 1.57 points higher on average.  That might not seem like a lot but considering how compressed the portion of the 100 point scale that’s actually used it’s a pretty big difference.  For example- see how Spectator peaks around 92-93 whereas Advocate peaks  around 93-95:

    One might argue that if Spectator had the same policy of truncating ratings less than 85 points that the 82 point rating in the set of common wines wouldn’t have been included as a comparison point.  Fair enough- Advocate would still be 1.46 points higher on average with this data point excluded.

    One might argue further than Parker simply thought more highly of the vintage in general than Laube.  I don’t think that’s true.  If you look at the overall vintage ratings for 2007 and in general they’re fairly well aligned.  For 2007 specifically Parker rated the vintage as a whole 96 whereas Spectator has given it a provisional 94-97.


    This is enough data for me to affirm what I suspected: That Robert Parker tosses around the big scores more casually than James Laube.  Would the same be true for Bordeaux where until recently James Suckling was responsible for the numbers?  I haven’t run the numbers yet but I don’t think so.  I think Parker and Suckling distribute numbers on a more similar curve, but that’s just my gut instinct.

    My point in doing this analysis and sharing it for discussion is to point out that numerical ratings from Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate aren’t distributed equally, so they shouldn't be treated equally.  Knock a couple points off the next Wine Advocate rating you see, and I think you’ll have something more in line with what Wine Spectator would rate a Napa Cab.

    1.57 points might not seem like a lot but if we refer back to the wwpQPR Calculator I suggested that for me personally I consider a 3 point increase north of 90 to be a doubling in quality.  So 1.57 points is “half again as good”.  In other words I react quite differently to a 94 point rating from Wine Spectator than a 92 point rating.  And that’s not because I believe the numbers are that precise- it’s because of the point in the bell curve each number represents.  A 94+ point 2007 Napa Cab from Spectator is pretty special whereas a 92 pointer is fairly common and relatively easy to come by.

    A logical reaction to this, I think, is to seek out those wines that are highly rated by both publications.  And it would only be sensible to find the most affordable wines that attained a rating higher than a certain amount, and then further seek out the wines with high availability.  If this sort of buying strategy sounds sensible to you, consider The Wine Blue Book.  On a monthly basis they publish average ratings for top publications sorted by score, category, and their value relative to their peer group along with a current realistic cost and availability.

    What You Should Do Next

    Subscribe to this site.  Why?  Because crawling through these numbers gave me a chance to look closely at 2007 Napa Cabs and there are some interesting stories that fall out of these ratings.  I’ll be writing about solid value plays at a variety of price points triangulated with my experience tasting some of these wines.  I’d also like to take a closer look at the wines the publications disagreed most heartily on- as usual there are some doozies and it’ll be interesting to see who we think is right.  I’ll look forward to continuing the conversation. 

    What do you think of this comparison? When you see a rating from Wine Advocate do you react to it differently than when you see a rating from Wine Spectator?



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