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Tax Relief in a Bottle
By Michael Franz
Apr 12, 2011
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Although the economic climate has improved marginally during recent months, most of us remain far more cost-conscious than we were prior to the onset of the Great Recession.  And before this week is out, cost-consciousness may become almost universal, since Uncle Sam will hit many of us with a tax bill--even as spiking gas prices hit everyone else.  Nevertheless, being cost-conscious about wine is not such a bad thing these days, for the very good reason that wine is almost unique among retail products in becoming two things at once:  Better and more affordable.

Better and more affordable?  That is indeed my claim, and it is not just a claim, but rather the upshot of some pretty rigorous research.

The rigor to which I allude here consists largely of tasting a truly alarming amount of wine at low price points during the first quarter of the year, and doing this repeatedly for years on end.  Since the beginning of 2011, I’ve already tasted more than 2,000 wines with retail prices below $18, with most of the total being priced below $12.

This is my 12th straight year of tasting at this pace in this price category, with most of the wines being tasted along with Paul Lukacs, my friend and collaborator here on Wine Review Online.  The tastings are conducted annually to select wines for the “Clyde’s Core Wine Program” for the Washington, D.C.-based Clyde's Restaurant Group, for which Paul and I work as consultants.

The “Clyde’s Core” program (which we designed along with Bart Farrell and Tom Meyer from Clyde's) is devoted to finding the world's best values at affordable price levels.  The winning wines are poured at each of the 13 restaurants in the Clyde’s Group, which sells more than $10 million worth of wine each year.

The selection process has two phases.  First, Paul and I break those 1,400 wines into peer groups so that we taste all of the wines in peer groups (e.g., every Chardonnay is tasted against every other Chardonnay; all the sparkling wines are pitted against one another in a single sitting, etc.).  We choose finalists for each of the slots in the Core, looking very carefully for the best wines, scoring them individually, and re-tasting all of the top contenders.

The finalists are then tasted in a final round by a group of about 40 managers and wine-knowledgeable employees from the restaurant group.  These final round tastings are conducted over the course of two days, with all the wines tasted blind, so that preconceptions and prejudices are taken out of play.  They are also tasted with food, to better simulate the way the wines would perform in the restaurants.

I’ll list the winners from this year’s selection process below, but first I should say a word about how this year’s wines stacked up against those from past years in terms of quality and price.

Regarding quality, the best wines are better than ever before, and the worst wines, defined as the bottom 25% of the pool, are nowhere near as bad as they used to be. 

Taking this last point first, the bottom of the pool has improved markedly in the sense that most of the wines comprising it have shifted from being downright flawed to being merely boring.  By comparison to past years, far fewer wines priced in the teens or below show winemaking flaws, manifest poor fruit quality, or evidence of spoilage.  Moreover, fewer wines show what we might call overt stylistic flaws, such as egregious over-oaking or excessive acidification.  Of course, such wines can still be found.  But today they are out-numbered by wines that are diluted and flavorless, or grapey and obvious, or overly sweet and lacking in structure.

I understand that you can only be marginally encouraged by this.  Few readers will jump for joy upon learning that affordable wines are now less likely to be horrible than they used to be but more likely to be boring.  Since you have elected to click your way to a wine review website, odds are that you don’t merely wish to avoid bad wines but, rather, are intent upon finding excellent wines.  However, there are two important points to be found in the improvement of lesser wines even for readers like you:  First, if you care about wine you care about wine’s general acceptance in our culture, and the improvement of lesser wines chosen by novices is almost certain to enhance the likelihood that novices will keep trying rather than deciding that they dislike wine.  Second, when the bottom quarter or half of the wines available for sale get better, then wines in the top quarter or half need to get better as well in order to maintain their edge.

I can’t be sure that this is the key reason why the best wines priced at, say, $12 are now even better than they used to be, but I strongly suspect that this is part of a general intensification of competition that has indeed heightened quality at the top of the pyramid.  The competitive environment has intensified for several reasons, including the diffusion of technology and expertise around the world, as well as the expansion of wine industries in nations with relatively low land and labor costs.  These factors have translated directly into the improvement of the juice in your $12 bottle, and have indirectly forced many wine producers in established countries like France and Italy to accept lower profit margins to compete with $12 wines from countries like Chile and Argentina.

This analysis of the competitive environment is reinforced by empirical evidence, at least in the evidence as I regard it from my extensive tastings.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the best $12 wines are better than $12 were in 1999 or 2000, and that there are more indisputably delicious wines available at that price level.

And the news gets even better, because that last sentence reveals something about value as well as quality if you think about it carefully.  Since we started the Clyde’s Core Wine Program 12 years ago, we’ve resisted temptations to raise the price ceilings.  When you consider the fact that inflation has been running at about 3% or 4% annually over this period, you can see that a wine with an $8 wholesale price tag costs less in dollars adjusted for inflation than a comparable bottle in 1999.  Stated differently, since most consumers have seen their salaries rise by 3 or 4% per year over this period, their incomes have risen relative to the wines sold by these restaurants.  The wines have gotten better and more affordable over the years, as I suggested at the top of this column.

Here are the winners from 2011, along with brief tasting notes, broken down into “progressive” categories as they appear on restaurant wine lists (which progress from lighter to fuller-bodied wines).  If you need still more encouragement to try them, I’d recall that all of them were tasted at least twice and were highly regarded both by me and by Paul Lukacs, and were then picked as the best of the best in a blind tasting by 40 other tasters.  Prices will differ a little across North America, but I'll provide my best guess on the rough retail price you're likely to find, and will also include the names of importers (at least for the importers in the mid-Atlantic region):

Cava, De Pró, Penedes, Spain, NV ($12, Imported by J. W. Sieg):  A bright, lively sparkler with crisp citrus flavors and a luxurious effervescence
Pinot Grigio “Prendo,” Wilhelm Walch, Vigneti delle Dolomiti, Italy, 2009 ($12, The Country Vintner):  Fresh fruit notes of lemon and green apple in a zesty and exceptionally refreshing wine
Verdejo, Palos, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, Spain, 2009 ($12, Well Oiled Wine Co.; The Country Vintner):  Expressive aromas of dried herbs and freshly cut grass followed by crisp citrus flavors
Sauvignon Blanc, Brancott Estate, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2010 ($12, Pernod-Ricard USA):  Aromas and flavors of ripe grapefruit come to the fore, with grassy undertones and a persistent finish
Soave, Pieropan, Veneto, Italy, 2009 ($18, Empson USA):  An intricate wine featuring subtle notes of honeydew melon and fresh lemon with a light mineral finish
Dry Riesling, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Valley, WA, 2009 ($10):  Crisp and dry, with echoes of baked apples tinged with fresh notes of tangerine and lemon
Torrontés, La Yunta, Famatina Valley, La Rioja, Argentina, 2010 ($10):  Flamboyantly floral aromas give way to fresh flavors and a harmonious,  dry finish
Sauvignon Blanc, Goldwater, Wairau Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2010 ($16, Pasternak):  Light but intensely aromatic and full of persistent flavors recalling grapefruit, pineapple and lime
Vinho Branco Regional Alentejano, Loios, Portugal, 2009 ($10, Winebow):  Intriguing aromas and flavors reminiscent of white melon, dried herbs and toasted nuts
Chenin Blanc, Indaba, Western Cape, South Africa, 2010 ($9, Cape Classics):  Soft and subtle but still generously flavorful, with notes of pears, golden apples and honey
White Bordeaux Blend, Chateau Bonnet, Entre-Deux-Mers, France, 2009 ($12, W. J. Deutsch):  A classic white Bordeaux recalling melons and figs brightened by a hint of lime in the finish
Grüner Veltliner, Josef Bauer, Wagram, Austria, 2009 ($12, Siema):  Subtle aromas of wildflowers, fresh melons and white pepper in a nuanced and enticing wine
Albariño, Burgans, Rias Baixas, Galicia, Spain, 2009 ($14, European Cellars):  Scents of spring flowers and flavors of peaches and pears in a fresh but substantial wine
Chardonnay, Oxford Landing Estates, South Australia, 2010 ($10, Negotiants USA):  Ripe tropical and summer fruit flavors accented by subtle spice notes
Mâcon-Solutré, Domaine Trouillet, Burgundy, France, 2008 ($18, J. W. Sieg):  Lively but layered and long-lasting, with apple fruit accented with spice and mineral notes
Chardonnay, Domaine Antugnac, Haute Vallée de l’Aude, France, 2009 ($12, Vintage ’59 Imports):  A restrained, stylish Chardonnay with exceptional purity and balance
Côtes-du-Rhône, Frédéric Reverdy, Rhône Valley, France, 2009 ($12, J. W. Sieg):  Enticing notes of fresh herbs, toasted nuts, white melon and lemon zest
Pinot Gris, Kenwood, Sonoma County, CA, 2009 ($12):  Juicy peach and poached pear flavors, energized by a hint of citrus in the finish
Viognier, Cline, North Coast, CA, 2010 ($12):  Expressive aromas of honeysuckle and apricots accented with slightly sweet spice notes in the finish
Chardonnay, St. Kilda, South Eastern Australia, 2009 ($9, The Country Vintner):  Full but focused, featuring ripe notes of mango and pineapple with a zesty, focused finish
Viognier, Horton, Orange County, VA, 2009 ($16):  Lightly floral aromas lead into rich, satisfying flavors of peaches and pears
Chardonnay “Special Selection,” Annabella, Napa Valley, CA, 2009 ($15):  Rich and rewarding, with scents of vanilla and woodsmoke layered over flavors of ripe peach and pineapple

Pinot Noir, Gilles Benoit, Vin de Pays d’Oc, France, 2008 ($10, J. W. Sieg):  Fresh, focused black cherry fruit with undertones of toast and Asian spices
Chianti, Coltibuono “Cetamura,” Tuscany, Italy, 2009 ($11, Dalla Terra):  Subtle hints of tobacco and leather add intrigue to red berry aromas and flavors
Pinot Noir “Special Selection,” Annabella, Carneros, CA, 2009 ($17):  Rich, ripe flavors of red and black cherries framed by notes of smoky, spicy oak
Rioja, Gran Familia, Spain, 2008 ($12, Well Oiled Wine Co.):  Light in body but satisfying in flavor, with notes of red and black cherries edged by oak
Pinot Noir, Jargon, California, 2009 ($11):  Juicy and generous, with soft but substantial fruit recalling ripe strawberries and rich red cherries
Valpolocella Classico, Lavarini, Veneto, Italy, 2009 ($11, J. W. Sieg):  Vivid notes of tart cherries and red berries, backed by light, polished tannins
Morgon, Château de Pizay, Beaujolais, France, 2009 ($18, USA Wine Imports):  Fresh and delicate but full of enticing flavors of wild strawberries
Merlot “Reserve,” Angeline, Sonoma County, CA, 2009 ($12):  Black plum and dark berry fruit with a soft, smooth finish
Barbera d’Alba “Ruvei,” Marchesi di Barolo, Piedmont, Italy, 2007 ($18, Wine Wave):  Ripe red and black cherry flavors, finishing with soft tannins and a snap of spice
Syrah, Alcesti, Sicily, Italy, 2007 ($12, Siema):  Pleasantly earthy aromas lead to soft, persistent ripe berry flavors
Red Blend “Ludovicus,” Celler Piñol, Terra Alta, Catalonia, Spain, 2009 ($11, Ole Imports):  Dark and deeply flavored, with cassis and blackberry fruit notes
Malbec, Terrazas de los Andes, Mendoza, Argentina, 2009 ($12, Möet-Hennessey USA):  Rich and deeply flavored, with dark fruit accented with anise and spices
Ribera del Duero, Finca Resalso, Castilla y León, Spain, 2009 ($16, Jorge Ordoñez):  Scents of woodsmoke and spices accent concentrated flavors recalling black cherries
Cabernet Sauvignon – Syrah, Val de l’Ours, Languedoc, France, 2009 ($11, Pasternak):  Intense flavors of blackberry and black raspberry with a soft, rounded, finish
Tempranillo, Venta Morales, La Mancha, Spain, 2009 ($9, Jorge Ordoñez):  Ripe, succulent flavors of red and black berry fruit with a very smooth texture
Shiraz/ Grenache, Razor’s Edge, McLaren Vale, South Australia, 2008 ($12, American Wine Distributors):  The Shiraz component lends dark fruit flavors that are lifted by the Grenache’s playful red cherry notes
Shiraz, Rosemount, South Eastern Australia, 2008 ($11, Foster’s):  Rich and deeply satisfying, with fruit recalling both red and black berries
Red Blend “Maquis Lien,” Los Maquis, Colchagua Valley, Chile, 2007 ($18, Global Vineyard Importers):  Complex aromas of woodsmoke and spice enhance dark berry notes and a mineral-tinged finish
Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserva,” Santa Rita, Maipo Valley, Chile, 2008 ($12, Palm Bay):  Subtle aromas of toast and cedar lead to focused flavors of black currant and blackberry
Claret, Newton, Napa County, CA, 2007 ($18):  Bordeaux grapes and California sun combine to provide deep flavors that are structured but soft
Carmenère “Reserva,” Apaltagua, Apalta Valley, Colchagua, Chile, 2009 ($11, Global Vineyard Importers):  Exotic aromas of dried herbs, licorice and spices enhance the intense blackberry fruit

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Questions or comments?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com