The expectation with most wine buyers is that the more you spend on a bottle of wine, the better it will be. Is that intuition about price and quality well founded?
The assumption that more expensive wine tastes better is intuitive but an ad hoc scraping of consumer reviews shows that wines across a broad range of price points all appear to taste about the same. The word clouds below show the most commonly used descriptors of 3 readily available Napa Cabernet Sauvingons. We're going to make some generalizations further down the article and they'll all be through the lens of "Napa Cab." That seems justified as Cabernet accounts for 50% of the grapes produced in Napa1, it's a huge category.
A quick glance shows the word clouds could be swapped for any of the other wines and would still be a good fit. What aspect of these wines is not accounted for?
At a high level these descriptors are telling the same story but when tasting these wines side by side there is a clearly superior option: the Silver Oak. Maybe in the future we'll break down wine review descriptions with machine learning for a deep dive. It's interesting that the Silver Oak has a more concise list of descriptors versus the cheaper Louis Martini. What does that say about the consumers providing the reviews?
Explaining the Difference
To understand why the descriptions are so similar but the wines so different, I turned to Certified Sommelier and author of The Unfiltered Guide to Working in Wine, Hillary Zio. Hillary explains “describing quality is just really difficult. A wine may have similar tasting notes but the finish and quality will definitely vary.”
Even though "finish" is front and center on each wine bubble, it's not telling us much. It seems that finish and quality are experiential factors; you know it when you taste it. In the case of these 3 Napa Cabs, I find that the more expensive they are the better they taste.
How to Maximize Your Premium Wine Purchase
Hillary shares “I don’t recommend drinking a lot of $100+ wines in the first three years of bottling. In fact, many wineries wait to release their wines for 3 or even 5 years so that they are showing best to the consumer.”
Hillary is quick to add that taste in wines is personal, “I may enjoy a particular wine most after 10 years but a friend or family member may think it best after just 2 years. Tastes are very subjective.”
Putting a Cork In It
The cop out conclusion to wine content like this is to say “buy and drink wine that makes you happy.” That’s fine so long as expectations are in line with what you’re about to pour. In broad terms:
- Don’t drink expensive, high-tannin wines too young
- Don’t expect inexpensive, lower-tannin wines to age well or to come close to the quality and finish of a more expensive, aged wine
- Most importantly: find your sweet spot with regard to price, quality, and expectation.
As you become a more advanced wine buyer, you’ll notice yourself classifying wines into everyday drinkers, wines you want to rest and drink on a special occasion, wine for gifts, etc. Each of these categories will have their own sweet spot based on your tastes and budget. But the real secret to maximizing your wine spend is to be on the lookout for gems- wine that tastes much more expensive than it is- and buying as much of it as they have on the shelf.
Good luck on your search for high value wines and be sure to tell me what you find!
Special thank you to Hillary for her expertise.
Be sure to follow her on Instagram for insights on great wine, delicious food, and to live vicariously through her travels.
You can learn more about her and shop her book The Unfiltered Guide to Working in Wine using this link.