Are the World’s Greatest Wines Worth the Price?

Paul Blow

People often assume that as a wine writer I sit around drinking the finest, rarest, most expensive wines in the world. Nope. I do spend a lot of time tasting the bloated bulge of midpriced to low-end wines. So when someone invites me to a tasting featuring "some of the world's greatest wines," I'm as eager as you would be to attend and see what all the fuss is about.

So there we were, journalists and sommeliers seated in our Tolaini Valdisanti high-backed leather dining chairs at San Francisco's Quince restaurant, faced with eight tall Riedel Cabernet glasses partially filled with dark crimson wine. With no idea what the tasting was trying to prove—or even who had brought us here—we were asked to rate the wines and turn in our scores.

And so in relative silence we tasted, chewed, sloshed, and spat through all the wines for about 30 minutes. It was remarkable how similar in style they were, though I was sure they were from different countries.

As Quince's wine director, David Lynch (coauthor of the best book on Italian wine, Vino Italiano), said, "Whoever's throwing this has balls, that's for sure." That person turns out to have been Pier Luigi Tolaini, a trucking magnate who made his fortune in North America before returning to Tuscany to make Tolaini, his eponymous, high-end wine.

Upstart Tolaini was looking to gain traction among the heavy hitters, and he had put two of his wines up against six really big names—and big prices. The $130 Tolaini Picconero, primarily a blend—like most of the wines—of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, finished second in the group score (though toward the bottom of my ballot). And the $30 Tolaini Valdisanti—the most inexpensive wine in the group—finished a solid fourth (I had put it second).

Tolaini surely would have liked one of his wines to place first, but that honor went to the 2006 Antinori Solaia, a Super Tuscan. Third place went to the most expensive wine in the group, a 2006 Château Latour that costs about $625 a bottle. The other bottles in the running were Sassicaia ($230, and my number one choice); Tuscan Ornellaia ($160); Bordeaux's Château Pavie ($284); and the culty Colgin IX from California (about $250).

It was great to be reminded that more expensive is not always better. In fact, it rarely is. A friend recently confessed to me with a hint of embarrassment that he prefers Decoy, the more affordable and accessible line from Napa's Duckhorn vineyards, to Duckhorn's pricier flagship wines. I told him not to worry; I like Decoy, too. And many times the so-called best wine has to justify the high price its producers want it to fetch by going over the top in ways that don't necessarily make it a better drink—too much new oak, too much concentration, too much ripeness, too heavy a bottle, and so on.

The 2006 Valdisanti, $30 worth of giant-killing deliciousness, is a blend of Cabernet, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Franc (the same blend as Solaia, the winning wine). It has a graphitic mineral edge, fine tannins, and a stunning purity of fruit. One journalist even had this wine as his numero uno. I suggest resisting the urge to splurge on the "world's greatest wines." Instead find the Valdisantis of the world and drink like you're splurging for years.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.