No one really knows what goes on around the Wine Spectator offices when they’re deciding on the Top 100 wines of the year. It’s a mysterious, subjective and political process. The Wine of the Year is not automatically the best wine made (or the world’s greatest wine, as assumed in this article). The wines are chosen, apparently, for other reasons than just quality. This year’s Wine of the Year is the 95-point Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Reserve 2005 — a $27, 95-point wine.
There is a saying that real power is the ability to confer power on others; Wine Spectator has real power. The magazine has been creeping up on Washington for years, noting the improving quality of its wines and repeatedly featuring the wineries and winemakers that are turning Washington into one of the world’s great wine regions. This year, as sealed-off from the rest of us as the College of Cardinals choosing a new Pope, Wine Spectator has chosen finally to beatify Washington — and, by extension, the entire Pacific Northwest.
But the Top 100 list as a whole seems to convey another message this year, as well. It’s a message that seems directed at the wine industry as a whole. It starts with the declaration that, in making this list, Wine Spectator is searching for value in tight times.
Since 2009 was a year of economic retrenchment, we focused even more on value as we made our choices; the average price per bottle is $40, down from the past two years. Quality remains high, with an average score of 93 points, matching the previous three years, and 13 countries are represented.
You’ve got to crawl down to #40 to find the first Bordeaux — Chataeau Haut-Bages Liberal 2006, a $39, 92-point Pauillac that is almost the perfect manifestation of Wine Spectator’s philosophy for this list. As Robert Parker writes in Bordeaux: A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines:
Still underestimated by consumers and the specialized press, they (Chataeau Haut-Bages Liberal) are never great but always worthy of interest — especially in the best vintages, in view of their reasonable pricing.
Ah, yes: reasonable pricing. We haven’t seen a lot of reasonable pricing out of Bordeaux the last couple of years. Between great vintages and social-climbing Chinese capitalists, the Bordelais have been absolutely shameless in setting their prices. The market allows that, of course, and I would never begrudge a craftsman making all the market will bear for his labors. But still: Petrus, the wine of choice for Chinese billionaires looking for something to add kick to their Diet Coke, is now $5,000 a bottle at release. At that price, it’s no longer a wine that anyone needs to consider in their drinking or collecting plans, any more than one needs to consider the weather on Neptune when one is planning a picnic.
There are rare Bordeaux wineries that have resisted the temptation to jack prices up into the mid-triple digits. One of those is Chataeau Haut-Bages Liberal, and another is Chateau Leoville-Barton, #64 on the list. It’s a 94-point wine and a chateau that has made a deliberate decision to ignore the bubble-fueled feeding frenzy of the last few years.
On the remainder of the list there’s exactly one other Bordeaux, Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou 2006, tucked in at #96. That’s it for the world’s greatest wine region: three wines.
Things are even worse among the Burgundies. There is only one, and it’s a white: Bonneau du Martay Corton-Charlemagne 2006. At 94 points and $150 it crept in at #98, a token if ever there were one. Can’t you just hear the conversation?
Editor #1: Crap. There are no Burgundies on the list.
Editor #2: Screw Burgundy. If we didn’t get our wine for free, even we’d never be able to afford it.
Editor #1: It’s one of the greatest wine regions in the world.
Editor #3: And if we shut them out completely, they might stop sending us free wine.
Editor #2: Okay, pick one. I don’t give a damn which.
There are certainly other reasons why Burgundy and Bordeaux are underrepresented. Bordeaux is coming down from the releases of the highly rated 2005 wines, and the 2006 vintage in Burgundy was also no prize. But still, the absence of even a single Premier Cru Bordeaux or red Burgundy leads me to believe that Wine Spectator is taking a slap at the greed and snobbishness that has driven all but the wealthiest wine consumers away from France’s greatest wine regions — and away from French wine in general, on the assumption that it’s all priced only for rich people.
Notable also is the absence of big-name, big-wallet Napa Cabs and Chardonnays. Phelps Insignia made Wine of the Year a few years ago. It was kind of Lifetime Achievement Award for Joe Phelps, who thanked the members of the Academy and all those wonderful people out there in the dark by jacking up his prices 50%. That was not out of line with what was going on with other high-status Napa wines at the time. Napa has become an economy focused on expensive wines produced in such small amounts that you can’t buy them even if you can afford them. Napa is the most overpriced wine region in the world, and while Wine Spectator has maintained admirable scorn for Napa’s hyper-expensive cult Cabs and has never given them a big role to play in the Top 100, the absence of even a single Napa wine over $100 is striking.
There are only three Napa wines present this year: Orin Swift The Prisoner 2007, Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 and Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Signature 2006. (There’s also Neyer’s Chardonnay Carneros 2007, which is kind of Napa but not really.) For those of you keeping score at home, that’s three wines at an average price of about $50. Compare that to, say, 2007 — you know, back when the sub-prime mortgage crisis was still only a gleam in Wall Street’s eye. Then, Wine Spectator elevated six Napa wines at an average price of $60. That’s a 50% drop in representation and a 15% drop in price. Probably just a coincidence.
As I said earlier, there’s no telling what goes on in Wine Spectator‘s offices leading up to the publication of the Top 100 list. It’s a mysterious, subjective and political process. But if you ask me, Marvin Shanken and his merry men have delivered a shot across the bow of those in the wine industry who take their customers for granted. The message is: there’s a whole world of great wine out there at prices people can afford, so stop dicking us around.
To which I say: Amen.
The Wine Spectator Top 100 list (pdf) can be downloaded here.