How often have you gazed upon really pricey wines on a wine list or at a retailer and thought, "It can't be that good." Well, it can. Sometimes it's worth every penny. Of course, the old saying "you get what you pay for" does not apply in the world of wine. There are innumerable wines in the $10 and less category that are very good. However, to get that wow factor, quite often you have to lay down some serious cash.
To start, let's talk about a wine I believe is not worth the money. Opus One is a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe Rothschild. It's a California wine made in true Bordeaux fashion. I've tried several vintages of this overrated, overpriced juice and have never once been impressed. Especially now that Robert Mondavi himself is no longer overseeing the winemaking process (and is, in fact, no longer even a part of the winery), I would highly advise against investing in it. (The 2002 vintage is ringing in at around $150.)
For the most part, Zinfandels are not expensive, usually priced under $20. One producer that makes a Zin with a higher price tag is Biale, ranging from $25-$50. The lower-end Biale wines are lovely, easy-drinking wines with plenty of backbone and not much tannin. The big boys, however, pack quite a punch. "Black Chicken" and "Monte Rosso" are both amazing, with exotic and zesty spice, over-the-top jammy fruit and enough tannin to handle hearty dishes.
Here's another California producer worthy of digging down deep into the wallet: Pahlmeyer. This winery is known for its silky smooth Chardonnays and Bordeaux-inspired reds. The Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red, about $115, is a blend of all five red varietals of Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. An incredible array of toasty, woody, and chocolaty nuances surround ripe blackberry and cassis fruit flavors, almost making you forget how much you paid for it.
I'm not usually too excited about Merlot, but Pahlmeyer offers up a doozy. It'll set you back about $95, but the warm, roasted coffee aromas so prominent in Bordeaux, with mostly Merlot and black cherry and blueberry fruit, make it all superb.
Pinot Noir is still riding a big popularity wave, and there are hundreds of great ones to try. However, none is more exciting to me than the new-to-the-scene Loring Wine Company (about $50). Jim Clendenin of Au Bon Climat, who is one of the foremost producers of California Pinot Noir, has referred to Brian Loring as one of the best up-and-coming winemakers in California. Loring produces only Pinot Noir, and all of the wines are sealed with Stelvin closures (aka screwcaps). The fun thing about these wines—-other than the crazy stenciled labels with images of pets, tractors and such in the background—is that they aren't very earthy and musty like Pinots can be. These wines are gush with extra ripe fruit, a touch of smokiness and richness (often referred to as a "bacon fat" quality), and are absolutely delicious.
Another winery to check out is Lewis Cellars. Their Cabernet Sauvignon (around $70) is among the best I've ever tasted. Made from 100 percent Cabernet, this wine does not rely on other softer varietals to make it approachable. It is incredibly rich and luscious on its own, with notes of tobacco and chocolate, currant and cherry flavors, and firm, yet silky tannins. It's one of those memorable wines that's great to age or drink now. Oh, and be sure to try their Syrah; it's unbelievable, too.