Cheers! Wine Consultants

Wine is a matter of your taste, not some critic’s

By Dan & Krista Stockman


To really understand wine, it is helpful to know the language. Estate. Reserve. Select. Old Vine. Single Vineyard. Late Harvest.

The problem, however, is few of these words actually mean something specific that is consistent throughout wineries. Estate means the winery that made the wine also grew the wine. Reserve? Select? Those can mean anything. Old Vine? That means the vines are older, but there's no specific age at which a vine is old. Typically, however, it refers to wine that comes from vines that are at least 50 years old. What about Ancient Vine? Probably even older, but maybe not. Single Vineyard, well, that one is self-explanatory; the wine is produced from grapes from one vineyard – but how big is that vineyard? Depends on the winery. And Late Harvest, well, just like Old Vine, there's no specific time period at which a harvest is late, but you can usually deduce that the wine will be sweeter because the grapes were picked later. But not always.

If the designations don't mean anything, how can you tell which wines are premium? We had an opportunity to experiment with this when Hahn Family Wines sent us some samples – three Pinot Noirs and a Chardonnay. We'll just be talking about the Pinot Noirs here because the bottles the winery sent were all made from the same varietal – Pinot Noir, but were significantly different in both taste and price.

Hahn has three levels for its wines – Hahn, Hahn SLH and Lucienne. Even if you knew nothing about the wines and didn't look at the price tag, chances are you would figure out quickly from the labels which wine is the least expensive and which you'd save for a special occasion.

The label on the 2012 Hahn Winery Pinot Noir is clean and attractive, but not as sophisticated as its more expensive cousins. This Pinot is from California, not a specific valley or a specific vineyard. Its price? About $14. And at that price, it's a good deal. Pinot Noir can be a tough grape to master, but even with its introductory level wine, Hahn nails it. This is a lively Pinot Noir with cola and spice flavors blending with the dark fruit notes.

The 2011 Hahn SLH Estate Pinot Noir shows off its pedigree by including on the label the location where the grapes originated – Santa Lucia Highlands. At $35 a bottle, you should expect more from this wine, and it delivers. It is a more mature, heartier Pinot Noir with smoky flavors mixed with black cherries and strawberries and a long, smooth finish.

Lucienne is the winery's premium label. The 2011 Lucienne Pinot Noir we sampled came from the Lone Oak Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. If a label includes the name of a specific vineyard, the winery is telling you something: This wine is going to be special. And, the Lucienne Pinot Noir is special. At $50 a bottle, it should be. It is a jammy Pinot Noir with the best of the rustic funkiness often characteristic of the grape.

Does that mean the Lucienne is the best? Not necessarily. In fact, during our tasting, several of our tasters thought the $14 Hahn was the best. They thought the wines decreased in flavor as they got more expensive. We thought the flavors got more intricate and complex as the price went up.

That's the other problem with judging the quality of a wine: Taste is subjective. We know, for example, that our palates have evolved over the years. In addition, because we've had so many wines, what we often look for now is uniqueness. We're much more interested in a wine that is obscure or expresses where it came from than we are in a wine that meets the classic definitions. We'd rather have, say, a the Lucienne Pinot Noir that tastes exactly like no other wine than the $14 Hahn Pinot that tastes just like a good Pinot should.

Which gets us back to a point we've been making for years: You are the only real judge of whether a wine is good or not. So don't let wine experts or wine store clerks or anyone else tell you you shouldn't like what you do. Wine isn't about drinking the “right” wine – it's about drinking the wine you love.