Auditing Wine Spectator's Top Values

Perhaps it's due to declining sales in key demographics, or the fact that Wine Enthusiast has been releasing their own Top Values list for several years now. Nevertheless, it was somewhat surprising (and hopeful) to see that the 800 pound gorilla in the wine publication universe has released their own top 10 values of 2021. Surprising? Well, kinda, yeah. 

Before anyone gets too excited, though, consider the qualifications for this list. According to the announcement, "All of the wines on this list rated 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, cost $40 or less and are made in large-enough quantities to be widely available."

Inflation is indeed rampant, but who knew the ceiling price of a value wine was way up there at $40? 
Photo courtesy

Still, this is good news. So, I decided a fun experiment would be to randomly sample some of the wines - all reds - in the top 10 list and see how well they measure up.

Luckily, and by pure coincidence, I have had most of these in the top 10 list in years past, but recently purchased numbers 2, 3, and 5 to update my opinions. How did it go? Before offering any thoughts on what awaits drinkers beneath these corks (or screw tops,) and so that it does not get buried in a deeper paragraph, a very, very important factor to consider is that each of these wines was procured at a local grocery store. As stated in the criteria above, the wines need to be "...made in large-enough quantities to be widely available." That's more than something. Availability matters. 

Critics are famous for discovering tiny production bottlings that are precious - and next to impossible to find. What good is that? (Plenty, but that's a point for another time.) The fact that these are widely available means that they are also accessible to pretty much anyone reading this and not just those of use fortunate to live within a nine iron of an amazing retailer trading in lost arts.

OK, let's get into it. 

In the number two spot is the 2019 Banfi Chianti Classico ($17) which was awarded 91 points. This Chianti is varietally correct, tastes like it's from Chianti, and is about as textbook an example of Chianti Classico as you could ask for. But that's where its distinguishable attributes end. There's no personality or soul here, just precision. And $17 is kind of brave for something that comes off as slightly engineered. Still, hell, it came off a grocery store shelf. All things considered, this gets 88 points in my book.

The number three spot is enjoyed by the 2018 J Vineyards & Winery Pinot Noir Monterey-Sonoma-Santa Barbara Counties Winemaker’s Selection ($25) which also got 91 points from the Spectator. This is a California pinot noir bottling sourced from multiple counties in California, each of which has the capability to turn out some pretty extraordinary fruit. This bottling is emblematic of what West Coast pinot noir has become; cherry cola, but with a little extra acidity and spice character. I'd like to offer a more detailed commentary on this one, but I've already forgotten what it tastes like. What does that tell you? I don't regret that I have a second bottle, nor could I tell you of a special occasion I'd save it for. Same as above, Imbiber's Journal gives it 88 points.

Finally, the first zinfandel I have purchased in eons in the number five wine, the 2019 Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County ($26) out-pointed the others with 92. This one has been a perennial favorite of the Spectator's for many years running, and while it lacks the balls of the zinfandel that made me fall in love with wine in the 90s, it is well made, and something akin to catnip for adults. Midweight, flavorful, and with a sense of place, I applaud not only the effort, but the result. If it were seven dollars cheaper, I would buy it again. Yes, like its brethren, this earns 88 points.

Bottom line? I won't repeat buy any of these. The combo of well-made and widely-available also coincides with overpriced. Like many things in life, you can have two out of three. Those with guidance that matches their preferences (and some patience) can still get the right two.