The Giant Killers?

$40 Cabernet should be great, but is it?


I recently participated in a small blind tasting in which two $40 Cabernets bested some much pricier rivals. I also have just finished sampling a case of $30 Chardonnay with an eye towards the upcoming holidays. Both experiences have confirmed a long held belief of mine. You don’t have to spend a fortune for great wine. Yeah I know, not revelatory.
Of course this may seem to be entirely obvious, as it should be. The distinction I’m making here is that you don’t have to spend a fortune for great California Cabernet or Chardonnay, even from prestigious appellations such as Napa Valley. It’s always been easy to recommend less expensive wines as a substitute for these wines. Chardonnay from Argentina or Cabernet from Chile for example, not to mention things like Loire Valley Cabernet Franc or generally disdainful “anything instead of Chardonnay, might I suggest Muscadet?” 
Making substitutions is an easy way of saving money but sometime you want the genuine article. It may not be to your tastes but you know that someone you care about likes the classic style of Sonoma Chardonnay or you’d feel more comfortable showing up for dinner with the boss with a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet in hand.  No need for justifications, these wines are valued and prized for a reason. Of course all that valuing and prizing drives up the prices, leaving us in a bit of a pickle. Lots of wine at the bottom end of the great wine price range, and little guidance.
There are some clues one can use to help guide you, but there are no secrets. The big brands know they have name recognition so while you might feel safe buying one of their wines, they feel equally safe charging more for it that their competitors; safe in the knowledge that hordes of people will be once again reaching for the familiar this year. I put together this small tasting to compare wines from labels great and small, appellations familiar and some less so.  All the wines are priced around $40, which should be some guarantee of quality, though previous experience tells us this is not necessarily true.  I’m tasting them against each other to see if we can’t discover some hidden values in Cabernet, a fiercely competitive market segment that somehow bends some of the fundamental laws of economics.
So let’s see what pans out. I do believe that at this price point you are able to get the same quality that many wines twice the price offer. There is simply not that much that a winemaker can do to justifiably jack up the price much further from here. Much of the rest is profit and publicity, neither necessary for your enjoyment. The flip side here is that this price point is no guarantee of greatness either. It’s a dangerous place to be shopping, filled with traps and infrequent rewards but when you hit on a wine like the 2010 Freemark Abbey or the 2010 Rockpile you remember why you’re here. Finding wines that deliver like this will give you the peace of mind you want when sharing them with friend, families, and above all those you must gift to this year. 

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Top 7 Cabernets Tasted 10/13

Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2010)
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Rockpile Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon (2010)
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Mount Veeder Winery Napa Valley Cabernet (2009)
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Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch the Mint (2008)
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Two Hands Cabernet Sauvignon Sexy Beast Mclaren Vale (2011)
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Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon (2011)
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Cabernet Riserva Mumelter DOC Kellerei Bozen (2010)
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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 8,904

    Wow, I consider this article to be an endorsement of my personal purchasing philosophy.

    The obvious surprise is the Italian wine. Whooda thunk it? Unfortunately. the chances of my finding it in a local retail store are pretty remote.

    Thank you, Greg. Another very interesting article.

    Nov 12, 2013 at 7:42 PM

  • Snooth User: qutiful
    1333123 43

    List prices please.

    Nov 13, 2013 at 4:28 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,006

    Look around and you can score the Mount Veeder for around $25 (Last Bottle has had it a few times, and you can even get it at Safeway with the six-pack discount once in a while--it's a pretty big outfit with corporate owners now); ditto the Flora Springs.
    I've got that Rockpile (of course, and picking up more next time I go up there!) but I haven't touched it yet--I'm thinking it will only get better. As much as I favor Mauritson's zins, my first purchase from them was a Cab.

    Now, to find out about that Titus Emark laid on me. So far I'm liking the press and community notes.

    Nov 13, 2013 at 5:46 PM

  • Snooth User: qutiful
    1333123 43

    Richard Foxall,

    Thank you for price info. What do you know about 2009 Groth, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon?



    Nov 13, 2013 at 8:11 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,006

    If you are in California or your Trader Joe's carries wine (they don't in NY, among other places), you can get the Groth (assuming you can find the vintage you want) pretty easily-again, you can use your Safeway club discount on it when they have sales, and they often do. I haven't priced it, because it's another big company label and, unlike Mt. Veeder, I'm not getting push emails for it. But I would guess that you can get it for at least 15% suggested retail, so under $35.
    BTW, the Mauritson is on sale now, too, if you are a K&L insider advantage subscriber. Sounds like a pretty good Xmas gift for your wine loving friends.

    Nov 14, 2013 at 12:03 PM

  • Snooth User: DM94523
    77883 116

    At that same price point, I would definitely recommend the Raymond Vineyards 2010 Napa Reserve Cabernet ($40 retail). Wine club members get 20% off, and there's an extra 10% discount for case purchases.

    Nov 15, 2013 at 10:33 PM

  • Snooth User: hturley
    101422 1

    Bv tapestry 09, excellent bottle, drinking nicely now and can be had at $30 if distributor is blowing them out.

    Nov 23, 2013 at 10:34 AM

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