The Friday Fermentable: Mass-produced winners

Readers of this near-weekly feature have been the beneficiaries over the last few weeks of the wisdom from my scientific and wine colleague, Erleichda.

Now with the feature back in my hands, I am now realizing that one difficulty in keeping up is finding wines of value that are widely accessible to readers, geographically and financially.

For example, I would love to share with you a glass of what I am enjoying currently this Friday evening: an indulgent glass of 2003 Thorpe Reserve Shiraz from the McLaren Vale of South Australia. Crafted by expert winemaker, Linda Domas, the best way I can describe this wine to fellow scientists is that it is like a 2X or 3X stock solution. There is an intensity of color and cherry/cassis flavor in great wines of South Australia, remarkably without the attendant tannic bitterness, that I have rarely tasted in this price range. On the internet, this baby will run you $35 to $40. But we are blessed locally with a primary importer of Australian gems and I scored this one for $24.99. A great value, yes, but still quite steep for the average graduate student or postdoc, even on a splurge.

So, I was very pleased to see the major US consumer magazine convene a pair of wine experts to rate mass-produced wines available widely in North America and make the article available free without a subscription. The beauty is that each category of varietals had at least one offering in the $8 to $11 price range. The specific recommendations include some safe standards and a few surprises. Let's just say that I'll be using this issue as a guide for some wine purchases over the holidays when the bank account begins to run thinner than usual.

The evaluators, with a combined 60 years of wine evaluation experience, chose to shy away from a 100-point ranking and stay with the more qualititative rankings of excellent, very good, good, and fair. The valid point was made that there is little difference between a 89- and 90-wine, but being in the 90s allows producers to stick labels on the store shelves that often cause buyers to shy away from values in the lesser-scored offerings or, more importantly, waste money on artificially-inflated wines.

In the Cabernet Sauvignon category, it was no surprise to me that the top-rated ('very good') wine was the 2002 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cab Sauv. At an average of $11, it was rated above wines costing two and three times several others.

The Chardonnay category listed three wines as 'excellent' led by 2004 Edna Valley Paragon San Luis Obispo County ($14). Among the 'very good' category was the ubiquitous 2004 Stone Cellars by Beringer ($8), 2003 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Columbia Valley ($11), and an Argentinian wine I have not yet had, the 2004 Alamos: The Wine of Catena Mendoza ($10). I have had a number of tremendous Mendoza reds since my own postdoc, but I had not known of their facility with whites. The 2004 Alamos will top my must-buy list.

In the Zinfandel class (the original red, not the more prevalent, lightly-crushed white version), two wines rose to the top: the 2004 Seghesio Family Vineyards Sonoma Zin ($20) and the remarkable value, the 2004 Cellar No. 8 ($10). Again, for these two to be ranked side-by-side while differing two-fold in price is reason alone for me to run out, buy both, and try a blind tasting.

The lesson to me in looking through the lists was not so much the fact that many superb values exist among mass-produced wines. The real surprise was how many widely-advertised (and often expensive) wines did not fare so well in the expert tasting. That alone is worth the price of this issue of the leading US consumer rating magazine.

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