I had a theory. Well actually a little more than a theory. And I decided to prove it.
Don Day’s Wife and I spent a month in Spain last year. And in Spain we drank Rioja, a lot of Rioja, an awful lot of Rioja. In Spain, Rioja is cheap, very cheap, which means that the so-called better Riojas, the Reservas and Gran Reservas, for the first time fell into our everyday budget guidelines and especially so if we used the “but we’re on our holidays” or the “we’re so old this could be our last trip to Europe” excuse (and yes, you can borrow either or both of those lines).
One night we savored one of the most acclaimed wines in history. The La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 scored a 96 and was named the Wine Enthusiast 2016 Wine Of The Year. There were tastes of vanilla, dried prunes and orange peel. I thought it was amazing. Until the next day at lunch.
The next day at lunch I chose another wine from the same winery, La Rioja Alta, the much younger and much less expensive Viña Alberdi. I thought of how well it went with each of the courses. I thought of how it lacked the nuances of the previous night’s wine but how there was much more freshness and fruitiness. I thought to myself, if I didn’t know this was less than one third the price, might I appreciate it just as much as the previous night’s Gran Reserva? I thought to myself could I actually be enjoying this wine more?
Over the next week in Spain and the next few months in Mexico, every time I opened a Rioja, I asked myself the same questions and, though I couldn’t completely distance the label and the price from how my brain reacted to the aroma and flavor, I came to the conclusion that I was definitely wasting my money spending any more than about 250 pesos on a bottle. But why, I thought, did it take me so long and was I actually a yokel who just didn’t have a palate for the finer things of life?
So I put my theory to the test. Don Day’s Wife and I invited four people to dinner who we believed loved wine like we loved wine and drank wine almost as much we drank wine to get their opinions.
I bought six wines, four from Rioja including a Reserva and a Gran Reserva and two others from other regions of Spain made from Rioja’s signature grape Tempranillo.
I did the somewhat scientific test that the aficionados call a “blind tasting”, wrapping all of the bottles in aluminum foil so no one, including me, would know what was inside. I served them all with food, because that’s almost always when we drink our wine. I poured the first three, then the second three, then took requests for additional tastes and further comparisons.
I asked everyone to score the wines from 85 to 100 which, though everyone seems to complain about it, has become the universal scoring system when it comes to wines.
I was nervous. I was very nervous. Was I about to make a total fool of myself with my theory? Was I about to be embarrassed beyond all belief? I was so very, very nervous.
I revealed the wines and totalled the scores (without the use of a calculator I might add). Only one person ranked the most expensive the best. Only one person ranked the second most expensive the best. One person ranked the least expensive the best. And one person ranked the second least expensive the best. The lowest average score was 88. The highest average score was 91. And yes, the most expensive wine had the highest average score and the least expensive had the lowest average score but is anyone in their right mind going to spend over three times as much for a wine that scores just three points higher? Well yes, they will. Including me in the bad old days.
So how did this all happen? Why and when and how did I start spending so much more for wines that deliver so little more?
I blame it on the experts. People with names like Robert Parker, Eric Asimov, Matt Kramer, James Suckling, Jancis Robinson. They’re the wine critics. The supreme court judges of liquids red and white. The people who convinced me to subscribe to Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Align, Wine Enthusiast and virtually any and all other publications beginning with the letter W. They’re the ones who made me believe that the more time in the barrel and the bottle, the better almost any Rioja red was.
Though they often waste way too much of my time extolling the virtues of $50 U.S. plus wines that I can’t imagine much more than one percent of frequent wine drinkers frequently buy, I have always listened and read and followed and bought what they recommended.
But never again. I will no longer totally waste my money buying expensive wine? At least not for Spanish Tempranillos. Hopefully.
With thanks to Bill Heublein, Marie-Claude de Billy, Andy Reddyhoff, Mark Tamiso and Don Day’s Wife for participating in my little experiment and, for those with a penchant for detail, here are the wines we drank and how they scored:
THE TEMPRANILLOS WE TASTED
Beronia Crianza 2013 Rioja
88% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, 2% Mazuelo
Aged 12 months in oak, 3 months in bottle
Scores: 89 90 85 90 88 92 Average 89
Cune Reserva 2011 Rioja
85% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo
Aged 18 months in oak, 24 months in bottle
Scores: 94 88 85 85 92 91 Average 89
Expert score: Robert Parker 90
Condado de Haza 2011 Ribera Del Duero
Scores: 93 88 88 87 90 88 Average 89
Expert score: Wine Spectator 93
Cune Gran Reserva 2010 Rioja
85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo
Aged 24 months in oak, 36 months in bottle
Scores: 92 90 89 95 90 90 Average 91
Expert scores: Robert Parker 92, Guía Peñin 90, Wine Spectator 94
Arco de la Vega 2014 Castilla y León
Scores: 92 90 85 88 86 90 Average 88
Cune Crianza 2012 Rioja
85% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha and Mazuelo
Aged 12 months in oak, 24 months in the bottle
Scores: 91 86 92 90 90 88 Average 90
Expert scores: Robert Parker 90, Guía Peñin 90
The wines were purchased at Costco or La Europea.