Is the pricier wine always better?

Our grape-addled critic sips to find answers
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 23, 2008

With the possible exception of some quarters of the modern art industry, nowhere is there a wider gap between actual perceptions and well-practiced pretensions than with wine. One person can rhapso-dize about a whole symphony of flavor notes while across the table his or her date can take a sip and remark on no more than that it’s quite drinkable.

I was looking forward to attending a wine dinner recently at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar because of one specific feature: for three of the courses, two similar wines would be paired in a blind tasting, one high-priced and the other about half its cost, so that we could judge the differences for ourselves. It was a terrific idea.

The time is overdue for a greater awareness that we taste the wine, not the label, and especially not the price sticker.

The matter should have been settled once and for all back in 1976, at the traumatizing wine competition that came to be known as the Judgment of Paris. In a British-sponsored blind tasting of Char-donnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, French judges gave first place to California wines rather than their Gallic competition. Zut bloody alor!

At the Providence dinner, before the comparisons, I was pleased that a Sauvignon Blanc was served with the appetizers, since that is my fall-back white when I’m not familiar with other whites and when food isn’t a factor.

I can depend on a citrusy, even grapefruity, brightness at the least, just as I can depend on some interesting spice in a hot-clime Shiraz. Fleming’s wine manager, Chris Watson, pointed out how the crisp flavor cut through the richness and bite of the wasabi crab fritters we were served and the fruitiness complemented the bacon-wrapped chorizo-stuffed dates. The little dance of wine with food flavors came up frequently that evening. As chef Michael Civali pointed out, different wines bring out different tastes in dishes.

The first low/high wine comparison was between two Chardonnays, served with celery root and spring onion soup. Both were from the Russian River Valley and oakey, rather than buttery.

The one placed to our left was quite a little party in a glass, its flavors ranging from honey on the bright side to the complexity of passion fruit on the deeper end. My dining companion found it “brasher” and even “aggressive” compared to the second one, which he found “more quiet” and possessed by a mellow butterscotch that I couldn’t find. Yours truly found it relatively bland (read that as “subtle,” if you like) and assumed that the other was more expensive, which it was: Patz & Hall, which was matched with a Chalk Hill. (Online, the first was in the mid $30s, the other under $20.)

The next two comparisons were reds, the first of them Pinot Noirs. Nice. Served with lamb carpaccio accented with mint and raspberry vinaigrette, both wines were mellow enough to cut through that fruity acid, but again the contrast between them was stark. What turned out to be the less-expensive MacMurray Ranch from cooler coastal Sonoma was much lighter, with more acid and less fruit, while the Estancia 2005, a year older, was far deeper in velvety flavor, as though its top layer of black cherries had been allowed to ripen longer. Even its fuller bouquet set it apart before the first sip. Neverthe-less, by itself the other one was quite refreshing.

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