Wine: Pricey Pours are Rarely Worth It

Can you pay too much for a wine? And what’s a logical price?

So, here’s a really embarrassing moment: I’m at my own dining-room table, pouring a 1982 Bordeaux that I had fully expected would be a great experience for my friends, who’ve come to my house for an anniversary dinner I’m putting on for them.

Instead, out comes a rather dull, flat, overall disappointing wine.

It wasn’t a matter of bad storage, or chemical defect, or that the wine was too old. It had been properly stored, the cork was in good shape when it was pulled, and the wine was aired for two hours and then passed through a decanter. And it was a wine to which Robert Parker gave 100 points. So, it must be good, right? It wasn’t.

I have three bottles of this Bordeaux, which shall remain nameless. The wine sells for about $1,600 at retail, and $2,500 on restaurant wine lists. At this point, I should say that, no, I don’t buy those kinds of wines. I can’t afford them, for one thing. They happen to have been in a family estate; my sisters and I shared the remainders of a small wine cellar.

What I realize is that my great Bordeaux wine had a problem that a lot of high-priced wines suffer from: too much reputation and exceedingly high expectations. And when it came down to show-and-tell in the glass, the truth was, well, difficult to swallow.

I’ve seen this happen often enough to be convinced that it’s likely true of a large percentage of wines in the $100-and-up category. So, the question is: Can you pay too much for a wine? And what’s a logical price?

My own view — and I follow this — is that I rarely pay more than $30 for a red wine.

These days, the price of a wine is often related to its weightiness, and I am just not a fan of those massive, very dark thick wines, which is what a vast number of high-priced reds are today.

I recently had a telling counter-experience to this story. I took a wine of far lesser repute and expectation, or price — a 1972 Beaulieu Vineyard from Napa Valley from what was supposed to be a mediocre year — to a dinner for an old friend. At about $80 a bottle today, if you can find it, and 12.5-percent alcohol, it had great balance and acidity; the fruit was still holding. It’s what we would call today a lighter red, but even 38 years later, in marvelous condition, more so than the younger-by-a-decade 1982 Bordeaux of the same grape.

So, price and reputation are a slippery slope. Not always, but with a little care and analysis, you can find better wines under $50.

> 2007 B.R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast, Silver Label ($20): Great structure, balance, good acidity. Herbal aroma and black-cherry notes.
> 2007 Chateau St. Jean Merlot, Sonoma County ($25): Dominated by bright-red fruit notes, hints of green olive. Front to back, long and lingering without being overwhelming.
> 2007 Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon, Knight’s Valley, Jackson Hills ($40): Blackberry and ripe plum with a touch of clove. Great acidity and structure throughout.