Coups de Coeur
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Most objective wine fanciers concede that in the last decade wine selection and pricing has dramatically improved in the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board monopoly stores, particularly the specialty stores. There is plenty of room to debate how improved it is, where it needs to go, and why it continues to exist—but that’s an involved rant for another day and another article.
One of the areas people often point to as evidence of improvement is the “Chairman’s Selection” wine close-outs. I have seen people literally bubbling with excitement over some of the steep discounts. For example, at the moment the LCB has a close-out deal on 2001 Lancaster Estate Bordeaux-blend (principally, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), for $19.99 in the specialty stores. LCB advertising claims that the Lancaster has a regular list price of $65, which makes $19.99 a rather stunning reduction.
This is what they should have been doing for us all along, right? This is how they should be using their power--to buy huge quantities of wine at steep discounts and pass the savings to us.
Although there are some legitimate bargains, everything is not as rosy as it might first appear. You do need to understand some facts of wine life and approach these “deals” with caution. First of all, keep in mind that the advertised “list” price is often meaningless in the wine world, just as with stereo equipment and cameras. For example, LCB advertising indicated that the list price for the 2001 Ridge “Home Ranch” was $66.49. This seems pretty impressive considering that the vintage is a good one, Ridge is a famed producer of Bordeaux-blends…and the LCB was willing to sell the wine to you for just $29.99.
In doing a quick search in the region, however, I found retailers who typically carried the wine in the upper $50s, around $6 to $10 under list price. Still, Pennsylvania beat the lowest price ($47) in the region by a hefty $18, and was about $5 less than the lowest price I could find advertised anywhere.
The more cynical among us might then wonder what the catch is. In truth, it has been my experience that there is usually a catch with the wines dumped at such steep discounts. Typically, the wines greatly underperformed in good vintages, or were from bad vintages that consumers avoided, or they got lukewarm reviews from famous critics, and so on. In other words, their original pricing was unrealistic in the first place, and they couldn’t be sold at those price levels. While this is not always true (the 01 Landmark Damaris Chardonnay was a fine wine at a good price, although the discount was very modest), it is all too often true that the bargain wines come with a red flag.
Take the 2000 Freemark Abbey “Bosché” Cabernet Sauvignon, which the LCB will give you for just $19.99, despite an advertised list price of $65. The reason for the steep discount is obvious: the 2000 vintage was one of the worst in a generation in California, and the wineries produced generally modest wines that were too thin and simple to justify their price tags. Consumers said “I pass,” and rather loudly.
Wines like the 2001 Flora Springs “Trilogy” take a little more investigation. The 2001 California Cabernet/Meritage vintage is a very fine year that got consumers excited. Flora Springs is a well known producer. “Trilogy,” their Bordeaux-blend (also known in some quarters as “Meritage”), is one of their signature wines. How does it go from $60 to $24.99 at the LCB? Simple—the wine was not necessarily that well received. One major critic, Robert Parker, gave it only 89 points, in February, 2005, which is a lukewarm recommendation for a $60 wine in a great vintage from a good producer. The LCB, by the way, in its big poster advertising lamentably quotes an early, outdated Parker review from 2003 of 90-91 points. That date probably means the wine was tasted pre-release, and the review was a “preview” review. Quoting an old review even though the newer one has been revised downward is a major no-no. It is simply sloppy and deceptive.
Let me hasten to add that this does not mean that all of the LCB deals are bad, or that you should not try them. I try them myself, and often find interesting things to acquire. The point, however, is that you are not necessarily going to get a $60 wine that performs like a $60 wine for $20. My tastings, set forth below, indicate that you should exercise caution before loading up on these “bargains.” Just remember one of the oldest of morals: when a deal seems to be too good to be true, it usually is.
2001 Proprietary Red Bordeaux Blend (Lancaster Estate) List price* $65, LCB: $19.99. The nose of this rustic Bordeaux-blend (88% Cabernet Sauvignon) opens with a bit of oak, that integrates over time, but the wine is disturbingly hollow and tart at first, in fact, for Day 1. I refrigerated and recorked half a bottle and tried it again the next day, and it was much better, showing more weight and flesh. It remains too high in acid, though, and the tannins began to assert themselves, too. This is a wine that screams that it has power, but there is not enough depth of fruit to justify all of the intense structural components. I thought it needed more air, still, but by Day 3, it was mostly tannins and acid. It badly needed some more flesh. It is sometimes interesting to drink, but not always pleasant due to the lack of balance between structure and fruit. The good news is that this was dumped into Pennsylvania, my area, for $19.99. Even at that price, I don't think I would buy it, and frankly I'm not sure I want to drink it even for free. It is just charmless. It took some work to make a wine this poor in 2001. David Ramey takes over in '04. 84 points. Nota bene: A second bottle of this I tried a month or two later was better, less acidic, and showing some fruit. It was, however, simple and a bit thin, and would likely have come to be dominated by its structural components with enough time and air, but it had better texture and more obvious fruit. I would have rated it 88 points. I tried a third bottle for experimental purposes not long after and it showed more like the first one. Twenty bucks would be an acceptable deal if it shows like the second bottle. Conclusion: not worth the $20 as Bottle #1 showed, although it will give you a big wine feel, and will go better with food. It took some work to make a wine that poor in 2001. An impossible sell at $65. I have no explanation for the variations--all of the bottles looked pristine and showed no obvious damage, or cooked flavors or odors.
2001 Bordeaux blend “Home Ranch” (Ridge Vineyards) List: $66.49, LCB: $29.99. The LCB cites at least one good professional review, but this wine strikes me as a big underachiever. What can you say about how disappointing this is? One of America's most famed producers of Bordeaux blends presents the debut bottling of a new Bordeaux blend in the very fine 2001 California vintage. It is taken from the Monte Bello Ridge and priced in the mid-$60s as a list price. But the wine is poorly executed in almost every respect. The blend here is almost 50-50 Cabernet-Merlot. The nose is oak, and nothing but, and this unfortunately follows through onto the palate. Those who like the intense vanilla aromas and flavors from aggressive new oak may like this at times, but there is very little fruit here to soak up the oak, and the wine is unbalanced in that regard. In addition, contrary to Ridge's general practices, it shows little structure, and seems a bit simple, something to drink in the short term, in stark contrast to Ridge's reputation for making ageworthy wines. No wonder this was dumped into Pennsylvania at $29.99. 86 points. Conclusion: Too expensive at $29.99. Another tough sell at its $66.49 list price.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon “Bosché” (Freemark Abbey) List: $65, LCB: $19.99; 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon “Sycamore” (Freemark Abbey) List: $62, LCB $17.99 Both of these Freemark Abbey bottlings suffer from the 2000 vintage syndrome—overpriced wines without enough stuffing to justify their pricing. The Bosché is soft and elegant, with pleasing sweet fruit. Unlike the Nuns Canyon, below, this wine is a more typical 2000---pleasant and fruity, without much depth and a bit short on the finish. Still, the fruit tastes good, with some notes of cassis, and there is a lively feel to the wine that makes it very pleasing. It is graceful and charming. It faded the next day and showed a bit green, or unripe, but was nice enough while it lasted. (The Sycamore bottling can be softer still, but was not tasted.) 88 points. Conclusion: worth the $20. Way too simple and modest for its amusing list price.
2001 “Trilogy” (Flora Springs) List: $60, LCB: $24.99. A signature wine in a good vintage from a well known producer marked way down…? This had a lukewarm reception in some quarters, but the reviews weren’t bad, just lukewarm. I rather liked this, and although the discount isn’t quite as steep as with some wines here, this is probably the best of the lot. It has a lovely, fragrant nose, and seductive texture. The fruit flavor is there, and the finish is enlivened with acidity and ripe tannins. The wine is admittedly a bit too soft, and lacks depth, but it does improve with air, gaining some badly needed weight and drinking extremely well. There are no major defects here—it just lacks the distinction you would expect to see from a good producer’s signature wine in a great vintage, and it does not appear to have the structure and depth to permit it to age well. It drinks well today, though. 90 points. Conclusion: worth the $25, a nice purchase at that price. Another hard sell at its extravagant list price of $60 considering the lack of depth.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve "Nuns Canyon Reserve" (St. Francis) List price $45, LCB: $13.99. A respectable effort for the vintage, this shows good structure, a tannic backbone, and nice cherry-tinged fruit. The nose has some herbs and a slightly earthy nuance. It has modest depth of fruit, but is not hollow. The tannins are astringent here, however, even more so than on the Lancaster, but there is more flavorful fruit here, too. This is not ready to drink yet, but I think you're better off risking these on the early side because the balance between the tannins and fruit is questionable. The question is whether it is too intense, too astringent. Comes with synthetic cork. 86 points. Conclusion: worth the $14, despite its balance problems, although not so charming for drinking today. A doubtful purchase at $45.
NOT TASTED YET, BUT MIGHT BE INTERESTING:
2000 Cinq Cepages (Chateau St. Jean) A Bordeaux Blend. List: $75 , LCB: $40 This is one of California’s better known wines, but 2000 was a difficult year. Forty bucks is a lot of money for most of what came out of California in this vintage.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon (Marchese Di Villamarina—Sella & Mosca) List: $50, LCB: $19.99. This estate in Sardinia was founded in 1899. The wine received 3 bicchieri (3 glasses, their highest rating) from well known Italian wine magazine Gambero Rosso, but Sardinian cabernet may be a hard sell.
2003 Pinot Noir Reserve (Saintsbury) List: $50, LCB: $19.99. Saintsbury is one of the USA’s better known pinot producers, crafting generally elegant wines.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon “Bismark Mountain” (Hanna) List: $62, LCB: $19.99 Another deep discount for another hard to sell 2000.
2001/2000 Zinfandel “Mendocino Ridge” (Mariah) These are both quoted with $30 list prices, with the LCB selling the off vintage 2000 for $14.99, and the 2001 for $17.99. They quote good reviews from one professional reviewer. In the past, I have found some over-the-top wines from this producer, with very high alcohol levels, and heavy oak overlays that made me think “blueberry syrup.”
*List prices are recited based on LCB advertisements.
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