Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why We Serve Champagne Year-Round: Reviewing "The Wine Trials 2010"

Several years ago one of my sisters-in-law introduced me to Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut. It tasted delicious but, amazingly, cost only about $7.00 at that time. I began stocking it regularly since I'm a firm believer that champagne goes with everything and that everyone likes champagne. Plus it is so very festive and makes people feel extra special. This is a win-win. Gradually the price has risen to about $9 (less on sale) but there is no denying that it remains a fantastic deal and a delicious bottle of sparkling wine.

Hence, you can understand my glee and the necessity of reading Tom the first three paragraphs of the latest review book I received, The Wine Trials 2010: The World's Bestselling Guide to Inexpensive Wines, with the 150 Winning Wines Under $15 from the Latest Vintages. (Yes, a long title, but you are never left in doubt as to what the book offers.)
Dom Perignon, a $150 Champagne from France, and Domaine St. Michelle Cuvee Brut, a $12 sparkling wine from Washington State, are both made in the traditional Champagne method. Both wines are widely available at wine stores, liquor stores, and restaurants. Both are dry, with high acidity. The two bottle are more or less the same size and shape. So why are consumers willing to pay more than 12 times more for one than for the other?

The most obvious explanation would be that, to most wine drinkers. the liquid inside the bottle of Dom Perignon tastes better than the liquid inside the bottle of Domaine St. Michelle -- if not 12 times better, then at least somewhat better. However, that doesn't seem to be the case. Between fall 2007 and spring 2008, we conducted an experiment serving these two sparkling wines head-to-head in five different blind tastings, with the bottles hidden inside brown paper bags. And 41 of 62 tasters -- about two thirds -- preferred the Domaine St. Michelle.

In October 2009, we replicated the experiment on a smaller scale with newer releases of the two sparkling wines. This time, we served them to a group of professional chefs, certified sommeliers, and food writers, of which more than 70% preferred the humble $12 bottle to the famous $150 one. this time, we also threw in Veuve Clicquot, a popular $40 Champagne from the same luxury products group -- LVMH -- that makes Dom Perignon. More than 85% of the tasters preferred the Domaine Ste. Michelle to the Veuve.
Of course, I feel even more justified than before. Add in the fact that I feel I am splurging if I spend $15 on a bottle of wine and you can see that The Wine Trials is clearly a book to which I was receptive.

The first few chapters talk about wine critics, marketing, actual cost versus perceived values and such things. I was much more interested in the last part of the book which contains the 150 wines under $15 that beat bottles costing over $50 in brown-bag blind testings. Each has its own page, complete with a photo of the bottle, which discusses:
  • cost
  • type (Old World or New World, white or red, heavy or light)
  • country
  • vintage tasted
  • grapes
  • drink with (what foods it accompanies best)
  • website for the producer
  • commentary: this is sometimes about the type of wine or grapes, sometimes about the winery, and then always segues into the wine itself
  • nose (always in understandable terms)
  • mouth (again always in understandable terms) 
  • design: a critique of the label and/or bottle. This is the iffy part to me, especially when you consider that sometimes a vineyard that has several bottles featured in the book will receive scathing remarks in one review for something which is completely glossed over or even called "cute" in the very next review. I think that a simple comment when the label is goofy is enough and they were pretty picky about labels. That is coming from someone who is pretty picky herself about graphic design ... so lighten up gang.
I definitely got a good feel from reading the reviews as to which wines I was interested in looking for and which would probably not appeal to my taste. This is an excellent resource and I recommend it to anyone who is more interested in good wine value and taste rather than impressing others by conspicuous consumption based solely on how much is spent on a bottle of wine.

Note: as I mentioned this is a review book. I'd recommend it even if I bought it myself.

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